For much of the last two centuries, many have treated their lives as consisting of three stages: the play and education of youth, a long “middle age” of work and the raising of family, and retirement, which means a long period of leisure and play. But is there something both unpatriotic and, dare I say, unchristian about the idea that we can have a retirement from work altogether?
You can call it Gen-X cynicism, but when the Social Security administration used to send out those letters indicating the amount of our monthly earnings given how much we had paid into the system, my wife and I would treat them as wonderful fairy tales. Most current estimates say that if nothing is fixed, retirees will only be able to get about 75% of their predicted benefits after 2034. Predictions of this sort tend to rely on the well-there-will-always-be-workers-to-pay-into-the-system perky cheerfulness of those who can’t imagine that trends will ever get worse. Hearing these things I always think of the difference between the pessimist and the optimist. The pessimist says, “Things can’t get any worse than this!” The optimist replies, “Yes, they can!” Given the declining birthrates in the U.S., rising suicide rates among the young, and other societal dysfunctions, it’s quite possible that the “optimists” are more correct than the perky cheerleaders of the administrative state.
In any case, whether we get a government check or not in our golden years, I’ve always had other plans. When one of the offspring once asked me whether I thought I’d retire, I told him I wouldn’t if I could help it. I’m a teacher, a speaker, and a writer. This kind of work isn’t like the long days on the factory floor that my father put in for 35 years. Apart from the grading of papers and tests and some bureaucratic necessities, I’ve never thought of my life as toil in the same way as many people think of their jobs. Why would I want to stop? And why would I stop when the accumulation of knowledge, experience, and (grant it, o Lord) wisdom means that I could actually have something important to say by the time I’m 75 or 80. And unlike dad on the industrial concrete, I am less likely to require foot surgery brought on by difficult physical labor.
But this division of kinds of work brings up a question I was recently asked by an acquaintance.
Can a Christian truly ever “retire”? I lead a study group of Catholic financial planners and this is a future area of focus for us. Personally, I wonder if there is a moral peril of promoting the system of leaving the service of others by “retiring.” Retiring when our government tells us to at that.
I take it that this question doesn’t mean that it was wrong for my father to get off the factory floor, nor does it require me, despite my plans—those things that make God laugh—to grade papers and write articles until the mortal coil has lost its spring and my only friend is the yawning grave. What I think it does mean is that we perhaps ought to rethink how we conceive of our lives.
For much of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, many people have treated their lives as consisting of three stages: 1) the play and education of youth, followed by 2) a long “middle age” of work and the raising of family, and 3) retirement, which means a long period of leisure and play, often in Florida. It’s a kind of 25-year spring break with saggier skin and an inversion of the odd hours of the spring breaks of youth—instead of partying till dawn, everybody’s eating dinner at 4 P.M.
As it so happens, a friend of mine who is nearing “retirement age” once wrote to me with his own objection to this schema. It tracks quite nicely with the problem raised above, namely the spring break aspect of retirement being a retirement from service. He thinks this pattern of life tracks with the development of all those societal ills that have contributed to the likely busting of the Social Security funding.
I think the biggest cause of our negative societal state (church and every other societal relationship) is because our elderly excise themselves when they retire. The wisest, wealthiest, most experienced, and influential people (along with their money) abandon their families, churches, businesses, and communities when they retire. After being gone for six months they come home and wonder what the hell happened to everything. The reasons they leave are not entirely their doing. But they leave just the same. This has been going on for 60-70 years. All of the wealth of every community has gone South, literally and figuratively.
The reasons not of their doing that make people leave include the economic and tax disincentives found in many Midwestern and Northeastern states, weather that becomes more difficult to deal with as one gets older, and the very legitimate desire to relocate in places where children have settled.
But these are not always present and shouldn’t necessarily be decisive in many cases. And in the case of the first one, if there is a chance of helping shift the political and economic climate of states with fiercer winters, this is a reason for people to stay and help convince others of wisdom that has been gained over many decades. Many people who still have administrative or political skill would do well to help out the communities they’ve dwelt in for years.
The key, however, is in thinking about what one’s life is about. No doubt those who have toiled for many decades do deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labors and a little rest from paid work. But whether people move south or not, is there something both unpatriotic and, dare I say, unchristian about the idea that we can have a retirement from work altogether? We are meant for work, but that doesn’t mean simply employment. It means service.
In many cases, it means teaching and mentoring the next generation, whether at church or in civic organizations or wherever. In the words of my father-in-law, it means becoming a “tribal elder” who hands on a good financial inheritance but also a social, civic, and spiritual inheritance to the next generation. And in this technology-obsessed world, it also means handing on skills and activities that don’t involve iphones. That “handing on” is precisely what we mean by “tradition.” Chesterton said that tradition is “the democracy of the dead.” It only works when those who knew the dead pass on their wisdom. Even those who are bedridden can do that when they can’t work with their hands or run committees.
May I retire? Well, sure, from a specific job. As a teacher and speaker I will probably be asked to stop lecturing at some point. And my articles may no longer be sought out or even accepted at some stage. But my goal, as I hope yours is, is to die with my boots on, so to speak. If I’m in Florida, I think sandals will be ok, too.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Pierre” by Alfred Jacob Miller (1810-1874), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.