Rethinking Retirement

Caleb Frankart

April 16, 2021

My grandmother just turned 80 in the fall. She worked hard on the family farm, raised 6 kids, and sold real estate for many years. Somehow, she has managed to become even busier in retirement. She volunteers daily at area food banks and thrift stores. She mows neighbors’ lawns. She takes groceries to shut ins. She cooks breakfast lunch and dinner for the four grown men that work on the family farm. She never worked with “retirement” as the goal. At least not in the conventional sense. She worked so she could serve her family, neighbors and friends, and that’s exactly what she is doing. Of course, she always has, but now it’s her full-time job.

The industry I work in is built around the concept of retirement. But I fear that we place too much emphasis on the idea. Retirement as we know it is a relatively new construct. It is argued that modern day retirement was “invented” in the 1880s by the Otto von Bismarck, the famous German chancellor. It was a radical idea at the time. The thesis was simply this: at a certain age, one becomes unable to work, and the state had an obligation to provide a “pension” to those who could no longer generate income. Our own government funded retirement system is based on similar principals.

The Industrial Revolution in the U.S. pushed forward the notion of retirement as a ragged and aging workforce became less productive. Put bluntly, workers over the age of 60 were deemed useless. Eventually the FDR administration brought forth the Social Security Act of 1935 and other legislation that laid groundwork for modern day retirement. This is not to say that pensions didn’t exist, but they were not the norm. Fast forward to 2021. No one would say that workers over the age of 60 are useless and unproductive. Instead, we see people continuing to work well into their “golden years”. One reason is that workplace has changed drastically since the Industrial Revolution. The United States has moved from a manufacturing economy to a service economy. In general, we don’t work under the same physical demands that our grandparents or great grandparents did. We probably have more left in the tank when we reach retirement age. Another reason is simply that we are living longer.

I think the way we approach retirement needs to change. And I do think that it’s starting to change slowly. When I started in this business, retirement age clients planned to quit work, collect a pension (or social security), and go golfing. Or fishing. Anything but work. Full disclosure, I do plan on retiring someday, and I like golfing and fishing. I’m not disparaging the idea as a whole. I will want to spend more of my time enjoying hobbies and family. But I don’t plan on not working anymore.

Today many retirees would rather not do the same thing that they’ve done for 35 years. That’s understandable. They are happy to call it a career, but they aren’t shutting it down completely. Instead of doing nothing, they may want to consult or work part-time. Or they may want to try new things and challenge themselves. Some want to start their own business, be their own boss. Some take on a job where they can make a real difference and the money is incidental. Frankly, they go to work because they want to, not because they have to. They find the second act to be more rewarding than the first.

Humans were made to work and be productive. We are wired to work. Unfortunately, many of us treat work as if it is a burden. However we forget that work was ordained in the garden before the fall. We need to stop treating work as if it were a curse or a negative consequence. That is not to say that it’s always fun, or it won’t be a struggle. But it is a fulfillment of a purpose that we were created for. We were not created to punch a time clock for thirty years, take our gold watch on the way out the door, and sit in a chair for the next twenty-five years.

My point is this: There is nothing wrong with working and saving for retirement. We should work to achieve financial independence. We should work to ensure that we aren’t a financial burden to our loved ones. Those are admirable things, and they are worth pursuing. But to what end? What I’m challenging is our vision of what retirement should look like. Retirement shouldn’t be selfish. Retirement shouldn’t be idle. If you are able, you should remain productive. You should seek to enrich others’ lives with your newfound freedom. You owe it to your family, friends and neighbors to be a blessing where you can be a blessing. So maybe the work looks different in retirement. Maybe it doesn’t feel like work, and just maybe that’s what retirement should be.

We are given eighty some years on this earth if we’re lucky. Some more, some less. But our work is never done. If you are lucky enough to draw breath into your lungs, there is work ordained for you. In the grand scheme of eternity it’s a blink of an eye. You have forever to be retired.