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What will we do with the extra years?

As I See It

In 1900, Americans could expect to live about 47 years. With improvements in public health, particularly sanitation, hygiene, clean water and better living conditions generally, our life expectancy has increased to 77 years.

Accordingly, we have 30 more years of living than our ancestors did. What will we do with all that extra time?

In days of old, children gradually took over responsibility for operating the farm or small business and oldsters became senior advisors. Their years of experience were considered a valuable resource. This situation continued until the parents’ health failed and they became bedridden and eventually died. In this way, having a big family provided oldsters with a degree of security before the 1930s gave birth to the federal Social Security system we now enjoy and depend on.

Retirement is a fairly new concept. In times past, people worked until they couldn’t “get around” and then sat on the front porch until they died. There was no idea of finishing one’s career and spending some period of time in idle retirement. In fact, the designation of age 65 as the retirement age by the Social Security Act was a political cop-out. In the 1930s, most people didn’t live to age 65, and thus the government expected to get lots of political mileage out of establishing a program that, ultimately, wouldn’t cost very much.

Guess we fooled them, didn’t we.

Even with the increasingly unrealistic assumption that most of us will be financially able to retire at age 65, statistically we will have around 12 or so years to sit on the front porch. That’s a long time to wait patiently for the grim reaper to come around. It’s encouraging that many Americans are breaking with that stereotype and pursuing a meaningful second career in their retirement years. Rather than becoming a dependent, they are retaining, or even increasing, their productive contribution to our society. This is a better choice and deserves our blessings.

This is a new era and it calls for a new strategy for spending our sunset years. Increasingly, people are departing from the old pattern and living their retirement years in exciting ways unimaginable even a few short years ago. Some pursue hobbies to a level that was impracticable during their working years. Some start new work careers as consultants in their former field of endeavor or embark into new, totally unrelated fields. Some concentrate on preserving a financial inheritance for their children while some seem committed to spending it all and leaving the wee ones nothing but memories.

As a society, we need to change our view about the potential contributions from our senior citizens. In ancient societies, the oldest tribal members were revered for their wisdom and experience. Over the last few generations, we have shifted our collective attitudes to believe that oldsters have nothing to offer and need to be warehoused somewhere out of the way. This attitude converts a valuable resource into a liability. Any accountant will confirm that converting an asset into a liability is poor business strategy.

Acknowledging the contribution that can be made by hiring and retaining older employees is a good start for business and government. Removing the barriers to continued work, such as mandatory retirement at a fixed age, is the right choice. Perhaps modifications to pension plan terms that make older employees so expensive to retain should be made.

From a fiscal standpoint, scrapping the assumption that our careers automatically end at age 65 will give some relief to our certain-to-be-tortured Social Security system. From a business standpoint, we can preserve talent and experience within our companies by encouraging older employees to remain active beyond 65. From a humanitarian standpoint, we can help older Americans keep meaningfully engaged as long as their health allows rather than being relegated to the scrap heap. It appears to me that there is much to gain and nothing to lose in this shift of attitude toward the senior members of our society.

Thought for the Moment — Just as iron rusts from disuse, even so does inaction spoil the intellect. — Leonardo de Vinci

About Joe D. Jones

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