[Marxism] The end of retirement

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 29 11:13:43 MDT 2014


That's the title of an eye-opening article from the August Harper's. 
Contact me privately if you'd like a copy. Here's an excerpt:

The very idea of retirement is a relatively new invention. For most of 
human history, people worked until they died or were too infirm to lift 
a finger (at which point they died pretty fast anyway). It was the 
German statesman Otto von Bismarck who first floated the concept, in 
1883, when he proposed that his unemployed countrymen over the age of 
sixty-five be given a pension. This move was designed to fend off 
Marxist agitation—and to do so on the cheap, since few Germans survived 
to that ripe old age.

William Osler, a celebrated physician who helped to found the Johns 
Hopkins School of Medicine, was instrumental in bringing the idea to the 
English-speaking world. His rationale was physiological and, to a 
certain extent, economic. Workers peaked at forty, he argued, then went 
downhill until they hit their sixties—at which point, Osler prankishly 
suggested, they might as well be chloroformed (an idea Osler borrowed 
from Anthony Trollope’s The Fixed Period). The pension advocate Lee 
Welling Squier expressed a similar idea in 1912, in considerably less 
comic terms:

	After the age of sixty has been reached, the transition from 
nondependence to dependence is an easy stage—property gone, friends 
passed away or removed, relatives become few, ambition collapsed, only a 
few short years left to live, with death a final and welcome end to it 
all—such conclusions inevitably sweep the wage-earner from hopeful 
independent citizen into that of the helpless poor.

In this country, it was the Great Depression that made retirement into a 
reality. There were too many workers, too few jobs, and a consequent 
sense that the elderly needed to be nudged out of the labor pool. 
Francis Townsend, a California physician who had also farmed hay and 
managed a failing dry-ice factory, began lobbying for what came to be 
known as the Townsend Plan: if a worker retired at sixty, the federal 
government would reward him with a monthly pension of up to $200. It was 
partly in response to this populist initiative that FDR and a Democratic 
Congress passed the Social Security Act of 1935—which, unlike the 
Townsend Plan, required future retirees to chip in to a common fund 
throughout their working lives.

After the New Deal, economists began referring to America’s retirement 
finance model as a “three-legged stool.” This sturdy tripod was composed 
of Social Security, private pensions, and combined investments and 
savings. In recent years, of course, two of these legs have been kicked 
out. Many Americans saw their assets destroyed by the Great Recession; 
even before the economic collapse, many had been saving less and less. 
And since the 1980s, employers have been replacing defined-benefit 
pensions with 401(k) plans, which were originally marketed as 
instruments of financial liberation that would allow workers to make 
their own investment choices. (The upshot: Employers saved money. 
Workers got shafted.)

All of which is to say that Social Security is now the largest single 
source of income for most Americans sixty-five or older. But economists 
agree that it’s woefully inadequate. Nearly half of middle-class workers 
may be forced to live on a food budget of as little as five dollars a 
day when they retire, according to Teresa Ghilarducci, an economist and 
professor at the New School in New York City. “I call it the end of 
retirement,” she told me. Many retirees simply can’t survive without 
some sort of paycheck. Meanwhile, Ghilarducci noted, jobs for older 
Americans are paying less and becoming ever more physically taxing. She 
worries we’re returning to the world that Lee Welling Squier described 
more than a century ago. And any serious discussion of the problem, she 
added, is complicated by a cultural stigma. “I never talk about this 
issue in terms of ‘retirement,’” Ghilarducci said. Americans 
traditionally abhor the idea “that A you are mooching or you’re not 
productive.”



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