Retirement is a rather recent phenomenon in terms of history. Upton Sinclair’s, “The Jungle,” published just after the turn of the 20th century, paints a vivid picture of the immigrant industrial workers at that time. Workers received a subsistence level of pay at poverty levels beyond our comprehension. The life expectancy of men was 49 years. When workers became maimed, sick or too old to be productive, they were dismissed and their fate left to their families. Many died for lack of adequate food, clothing and shelter.
The elderly in agricultural societies fared a little better. Extended families took care of the older workers who could no longer do heavy farm work. The old assumed lighter tasks, like feeding the chickens, while the young and strong did the heavy manual labor.
Following the Great Depression in 1935, our Social Security system was born. It was designed as a supplement to the income of older retired Americans and provided a safety net to prevent dire poverty. The benefits were expanded in the 1950s to include groups like farmers, the disabled, surviving spouses and dependents.
For the next several decades, an increasing number of companies began to implement pension and healthcare plans for their retired employees. This trend began to reverse a few decades ago. At present, fewer companies have pension and healthcare plans for retirees and still more are eliminating them. Company pension plans are being replaced with 401(k), individual IRA’s or other type retirement investments. Still, fewer than half of our population has a retirement program beyond Social Security.
In the era of downsizing, primarily in the 1980s, companies offered early retirement incentives and masses found themselves retired in their 50s. Early retirements, combined with the increasing life span, have contributed to a new class of “the working retired.” The stock market decline in 2000 has also contributed to this new class of workers.
I started thinking about this group of people because I am one of them. I find that I do not know how to respond to questions about my retirement. “Yes, I am retired, but I still work” is an oxymoron. We need another word to describe the working retired.
I retired from my role as a public school principal after 30-1/4 years in the Public Employees Retirement System. I retired from working with troubled adolescents after only 18 months. I retired from Levi as a counselor/consultant after 11 years. I have retired from numerous short and lengthy contracts with small businesses, and I have retired from counseling with private pay clients. I still work 20 to 30 hours a week in addition to pro bono counseling. I debated with myself about renewing my LPC because I never plan to do any more work requiring that I be a licensed professional counselor, but I felt compelled to renew. Who knows why?
People continue to work after retirement for one or more of the following reasons: additional income is needed; they find difficulty in filling up their newly acquired time with enjoyable activities; or they have an innate need to be productive and continue to make a contribution.
I find it difficult to completely retire. According to those Social Security printouts we receive showing our earnings history, I have worked almost 48 consecutive years since age 15. We live a modest lifestyle and I have a short list of personal wants: to put a little money into each of the grandchildren’s educational fund, replace the aging, high-mileage family sedan sometime in the future, enjoy some travel and maybe another motorcycle. That’s about it. There are also some unknowns that cannot be overlooked. The threat of inflation, future medical and health-related costs and the uncertainty of the stock market.
I have no difficulty in filling up my time. I enjoy every day from my 5 a.m. coffee and newspaper until my evening bourbon. I sometimes resent the fact that I do not have more time for personal interests, leisure, friends and family. Working to fill a void of time does not meet a need that I have.
My speculation is that most of the working retired work for psychological reasons. Man has an innate need to work, to continue carrying his weight and to contribute to society. Maybe it is as simple as that.
Archie King, LPC, is a human resources consultant who lives in Madison. His column appears from time to time in the Mississippi Business Journal. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.