Give Us This Day Our Retirement Bread: The Retirement Paradigm Needs to Shift

There was a child who was watching the mother prepare a pot roast for their traditional Sunday family dinner.  The mother cut off the tips of the roast and put it into the pan.  The child asked, ‘Why did you cut off the tips of the roast?’ The mother replied, ‘That’s how my mother prepared it.  She’s in the other room–why don’t you go and ask her?’ The child then asked the grandmother, ‘How come when you prepare a roast you cut off the tips of the roast before you put it into the pan?’ The grandmother replied, ‘Well, that’s how my mother did it.  Why don’t you go ask her?’  So,  the child went to her great-grandmother and said, ‘I asked Mom and Grandma why they cut off the tips of the roast before they put it into the pan and they each told me to ask you.’  ‘Well,’ the great-grandmother said, ‘I don’t know why they are doing it…but I did it because the roast we bought was always a little too big to fit in the roasting pan I had.’

Conventional wisdom says that we should work at jobs until we arrive at some arbitrary age that was set at some irrelevant point in recent history and then stop working suddenly in order to spend the rest of our days taking water aerobics classes or chasing balls on golf courses.

This paradigm is about as relevant as the truncated pot roast in the story above.  I’ve recently been thinking about how every day I ask the Lord for my daily bread–not for the bread that I might need in 2025.   This raised a contradiction in my mind–in the most foundational prayer Christians pray, we simply ask for what we need today–not tomorrow.   But as a member of this Western culture, we have been raised with the belief that we are as foolish as the fabled grasshopper if we only live for today without stocking up big time for our Golden Years, perhaps at the expense of our happiness today.

So, I started investigating where the idea of “retirement” came from.  And as you might expect, I found that the concept and practice of “retirement” as a very recent phenomenon created for the convenience of employers during the Industrial Revolution.   We, as a species, have gone millions of years without needing a pension or a 401k–but whoa!  All of a sudden comes the 20th century and now hoarding for the future so that we can drop out of society at late mid-life is part of our mental DNA.

Does it make sense?

Not necessarily, but the culture has over the course of four or five generations adapted to the concept.  I found this entertaining, short history of retirement in the New York Times archives and there learned that it was not the retiree fighting for the right to drop out of the workforce back at the turn of the century:  it was drummed up by politicians, factory management, and even religious leaders (Cotton Mather for instance).  The retiree in many cases would have preferred to continue working.

I also found this website, The Next Hill, that was created for the sole purpose of debunking the retirement paradigm.  An interesting read.

So, I found I wasn’t alone in questioning the value of the practice of saving, saving, saving, hoarding, hoarding, hoarding in order to get to a point where you only hope you won’t outlive your money, because ten, twenty, thirty years of your life are going to be spent in leisure.

As with the pot roast story, usually changes in practices start out with good reason.  Back when modern day retirement began and became entrenched in our psyche a couple of things were going on.   We weren’t living much longer than the current retirement age, and there were economic dynamics at play such as the Great Depression and World War II which forced economic adaptation.    But as time has gone on, the consumer culture has raised the cost of living, and better healthcare has extended life, and now we are in a situation where our financial advisors are telling us we’re going to need at list a million dollars in our coffers if we want a decent quality of life.

But I propose that all that is smoke and mirrors.  Perhaps the more natural evolution into our golden years is to be productive as long as we can be, earning our daily bread as we go.

A lot of people are going to say, “Hey, retirement is my right!  I can’t wait to get out of this lousy job.   I want to retire as soon as I can. Are you proposing taking that right away from me?”

No, not at all.  But which is better:  to spend your life energy focused on a moment in time decades away, just to save up money so you no longer have to do precisely what you’re doing now?   Or would it be better to relax about the future, which will free up your life energy to focus on ways that you can live more fully now?

In my mind, the answer is obvious.

TLC has a series called “The Hoarders” which is quite sensationalistic in terms of showing people who have become obsessed and sick with the inability to let go of things.  Their possessions, both useful and useless, overtake their lives.  Do you suppose that if you think about those horrible images of hoarding (which we are so quick to judge.) and imagine that all that stuff–the garbage, the clothes, the clutter–is turned into dollar bills saved and hoarded for the future–do you get that same feeling of sadness for the one who is buried beneath?  Are we buried beneath our obsession with hoarding dollars for tomorrow at the expense of a free and uncluttered today?

In the next post, I’ll explore a few of the “yeah buts” as well a proposition from shifting our personal paradigms about retirement.

The illustration above was taken from The Next Hill, and the one at the left was taken from the blog Not Buying Anything.

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