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Why we can’t retire

We recently witnessed some ancient senators who had trouble functioning at their jobs. But the cry “Why don’t they just retire already?” doesn’t only apply to politics. There was a time when someone of my age was supposed to start stocking up on fishing equipment and working on my golf game. Now, I’m lucky if I can retire at 70.

You can thank efforts to whittle back on Social Security and being told, “You don’t need a pension. Just get a 401(k) and play the stock market!” Never mind that I’ve been through five economic crises during my working life. Then why not sell your house, move to Leisure World, and live off the equity? Nice try, but we’re also providing a home for our adult son and his daughter because rent is ridiculously high. And even retirement communities have expensive houses and fees. And don’t even talk about reverse mortgages. When a celebrity tells you in an ad, “I wouldn’t promote such a product if I didn’t think it’s honest,” it probably isn’t.

But more than the financial aspects, we can’t retire because not working would make us feel devalued.

Throughout our lives, we derived value from our work. We started young, mowing lawns and babysitting and taking pride in the money we earned ourselves. Our goal in school was to get a good job. Our parents warned us, “If you don’t get good grades, you’ll wind up being a garbage collector!” (Never mind that garbage collectors play a vital role in the community, and they are often paid better than teachers.)  And throughout life, our career is an important part of our identity. “What do you do?” is the second question we’re asked after “What’s your name?” Even things we do for fun had to be tied to generating income. You can’t even go to baseball games without wondering how much the bobblehead you’re getting at the gate will be worth on eBay in a few months.

In fact, we are often warned about retirement. A common story I heard when I was young was, “John had a heart attack a week after he retired. He couldn’t handle not going to the office.” Now, the refrain is, “People live so long these days, they can run out of money before they die!”

So, we don’t retire.

This is bad news for everyone. It’s bad news for young people who can’t move up in their careers because of the elders at the top. If young people can’t move ahead and make more money, they can’t afford to buy homes, start families, and pay into the Social Security system that is supposed to support older people. It’s bad news for older people who must continue producing at the same or higher level as they did when younger, but they’re dealing with diminishing faculties. It’s bad news for corporations who must pay the higher insurance rates and salaries of older employees. But if they were to let these older employees go, they would lose the experience and insight that a decades-long career provides.

There isn’t a good solution because the problem is deeply engrained in our society. We put so much value into labor, career, and earning money. If you are unable or unwilling to work, society feels you have no value and aren’t entitled to food, shelter, or even humane treatment. Now, we’ve backed ourselves into a corner. We have an aging population that can’t stop working, a young population that can’t afford to pay for basic needs, and AI threatening to eliminate entire professions. (I guess as long as billionaires can still make their billions, that’s OK, right?) What do we do?

I suppose I have to keep working until I keel over at my desk. I wish there was a better way.