Thursday, January 16, 2014

Rethinking retirement - part 2


The concept of retirement is completely absent from the Bible, which is unsurprising because the most recent portion of the Bible dates back almost two millennia. The Bible does emphasize that (1) people should be productive and not idle, (2) laborers deserve adequate compensation, and (3) the elderly merit respect. Those three principles have implications for the idea of retirement.

First, the prospect of an extended period of leisure – a decade or even several decades – is widely unpopular. Most people do not savor the idea of a life spent playing golf, cards, or endlessly pursuing another hobby or sport. This approach to retirement is deservedly as unpopular as is the prospect of a heaven in which people spend eternity singing hymns or playing a harp.

Eighteenth century Scottish philosopher David Hume believed that the good life required passion: "Now if life, without passion, must be altogether insipid and tiresome; let a man suppose that he has full power of modelling his own disposition, and let him deliberate what appetite or desire he would choose for the foundation of his happiness and enjoyment." (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, p. 66)

Hume was certainly not a Christian. Yet his insight into the importance of passion for the well-lived life applies to both time spent in the workforce and in retirement. Rethinking retirement, for those able to afford it, entails conceptualizing life as a series of chapters. Some of those chapters may involve paid labor in the workforce; some of those chapters may involve volunteering to support non-profits (including religious organizations!) committed to making the world a better, more peaceful place.

Second, compensation for one's labor may be financial or psychic. However, labor always deserves fair compensation. One measure of fairness is whether full-time employment at that level of compensation allows a person to earn a living wage, i.e., an income that exceeds the poverty level, for him/herself and one or two others (e.g., children or a dependent parent – expecting all humans to earn their own way is unrealistic and immoral).

Persistently high levels of unemployment, large numbers of part-time jobs that prevent employees from qualifying for benefits, jobs that do not pay a living wage (for more on this, cf. Ethical Musings Taxpayers subsidize low wages and high profits), and growing economic inequality (cf. Ethical Musings Seeking economic wisdom and Economic inequality: Ideal vs. Actual) all indicate a broken economic system. The economic system needs structural changes to increase employment opportunities, to set wages at or above the level of a living wage, and to provide reasonable benefits for employees. Those changes may entail limiting retirement to the truly aged (e.g., those older than 75), redefining full-time employment as thirty or even twenty hours per week while limiting hourly and salaried workers to that number of hours, and raising prices to permit companies to pay adequate compensation. For example, instead of one physician or lawyer paid $500,000 why not employ seven who each earn $70,000? A $1 menu item at MacDonald's is no bargain when the employees supplement their wages with government assistance, experience the hopelessness of being stuck in a dead-end job, etc.

Third, respect for the elderly connotes no elderly person having to live in involuntary poverty. The broad trend away from corporate and government pensions means that we need to strengthen Social Security, in terms of both benefits paid and its financial underpinnings, a change easily affordable if the U.S. removed the current limit on earned income subject to the Social Security tax (cf. Ethical Musings Expand Social Security?).

I find this passage of Hume's particularly evocative: "A [person's] time, when well husbanded, is like a cultivated field, of which a few acres produce more of what is useful to life, than extensive provinces, even of the richest soil, when over-run with weeds and brambles." (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1777, p. 40)

If your life is like a cultivated stage, are you preparing the ground for sowing? Planting seeds? Tending and watering a growing crop? Ready for harvesting? What field(s) are producing the best (how would you define best?) crop?

Given that no metaphor is perfect, are different fields in your life at different stages? Which offers the greatest promise?

A retirement that consists of admiring the harvested crops offers little joy or promise of future increase. What then will you cultivate in however many years you may have after leaving paid employment?

1 comment:

George Clifford said...

A reader sent me this comments:

Some of us are using our "retirement years" very productively . In fact many of these pursuits enhance the lives of others.

Further thoughts:

By getting out of the way we make room for younger folks to have jobs.

Our spending contributes to the working folks.

We pay taxes on retirement income.