Retirement: In the Beginning

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By Bill Koch, editor

Part 1 in an ongoing series

By Bill Koch


Methuselah supposedly lived to 969. More than five millennia later, Jeanne Calment was just a toddler by comparison. The Frenchwoman spent only 122 years on Earth. She died in 1997. Scholars put Methuselah’s birth at 3317 BC.

Calment, who reportedly met Vincent van Gogh, spent her latter days in the Maison du Lac nursing home in Arles. France. Methuselah spent his golden years in the desert as his grandson, also an elderly fellow, was building a big boat. Two very different retirement communities.

The Methuselahs and the Noahs of ancient days may have been stout, hardy and grizzled, as they spent their latter days mostly in the same surroundings as those 500- and 600-year-old whippersnappers of the day. Retirement communities – in the modern sense of the word – just weren’t available.

In fact, in the early days of human history, retirement simply didn’t exist, let alone retirement communities. Once you reached retirement age, whenever that was in the various epochs of early human development, you reached the end of your story. Unlike today’s nearly 20 years of projected retirement life expectancy, retirement in the stone age may have lasted minutes or, if you were especially robust, days.

Retirement for early man was a hole in the ground – if the retiree was fortunate.

The Stone Age economy boasted full employment – once you learned how to walk. By 20, retirement may have been available, if you were still living, which you probably weren’t. If you did make it into your 30s, you were very highly esteemed to the point of worship or cannibalism.

As civilization progressed, the “elderly” – the 30-year-old fogeys – began living longer, healthier lives. According to the National Academy of Sciences, life spans in ancient Greece and Rome were 20-35 years; although many historians say data may not be entirely reliable or misleading.

Life expectancy rose to 30-40 years between the 1500s and the 1800s mostly due to better health care, clean water, better nutrition and improved sanitization.

However, despite the depressing news about retirement prospects for our “elderly” ancestors, fluctuations in longevity have only been relatively slight in the last 4,000 years. Extremely high infant mortality pushed life-expectancy averages down, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infant mortality in 1907 was nearly 10 percent. Today it’s around .7 percent.

The National Center for Health Statistics estimates average life expectancy for early 20th century retirees at just short of 46. That figure rose to around 80 today mostly due to the elimination or reduction of a variety of common killers: heart disease, murder, influenza, scarlet fever, typhoid.

Retirement and the idea of age-restricted communities may have originated with 17th century Puritan minister Cotton Mather, who urged older folks to “be so wise as to disappear of your own accord, as soon and as far as you lawfully may. Be glad of a dismissal from any post, that would have called for your activities.”

Germany, however, was the first nation to institute social insurance for the elderly to help aid them in their retirement pursuits (or survival), according to the Social Security Administration. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the idea in 1881 at the request of Emperor William the First.

In a letter to parliament, William wrote: “Those who are disabled from work by age or invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state.”

While aimed at promoting better care of older workers and improving the German economy, Bismarck’s declaration had political underpinnings. The chancellor wanted to squash the rise of radical socialism, which ironically led to his being labeled a socialist. “Call it socialism or whatever you like,” he said in an 1881 debate. “It is the same to me.”

Some historians have incorrectly asserted that Germany set the retirement age at 65, Bismarck’s age at the time. Following those accounts, the United States adopted 65 as its retirement age. However, German officials had initially set the age at 70, and Bismarck was 74 at the time. Germany lowered the age to 65 in 1916.

The idea of retirement really didn’t start clicking until the late 19th century and early 20th century. Workers through this era were just expected to work – until they dropped, literally.

As the industrial revolution began churning forward with increasing velocity, industry leaders began looking at older workers as liabilities. Renowned physician William Osler even stirred quite a bit of controversy following a 1905 comment that men over 60 were “useless” and should be chloroformed. He was joking, but his comment provoked heated backlash from the press and destroyed his reputation.

For some time, governments in some countries had been giving pensions to combat soldiers, who despite more creaky joints still had to keep working. The U.S. began giving pensions to some government workers – firefighters, police, teachers – in big cities in the mid-1800s. American Express began offering private pensions to employees in 1875.

In the 1920s, other industries began offering pensions to workers for their later years. The Great Depression put fire to the idea as younger workers faced scare opportunities for jobs held by older people.

Next week’s article explores the creation of Social Security and other “old-age” social programs.