I think it’s apparent to most that retirement has been redefined, and is continuing to be redefined every generation. Depending on who is doing the redefining – the worker or their boss – you will see two vastly different pictures of what retirement means.
If you poke around the web, especially the blogs of Gen X and Gen Y, you will see an interesting dichotomy – people who say they want to work forever, but not at a traditional job. They want to work a high-wage job for 10 years and save up enough to “semi-retire” and work on projects, both income-generating and philanthropic.
This is a form of redefining retirement. Unlike the traditional definition that comes to most of our minds, an early retiree today would likely continue to exchange some of their time in “retirement” for income. This may be because they need to, because they have a passion for using their skills and talents to earn, or they want to leave a lump sum to their heirs.
How are the “job creators” redefining retirement?
They are using grandfatherly old men like Sam Watterston to reinforce the message that “things are different” these days. Retirement may not be an option at all, said the retirement expert I recently lamented who said that retirement is too risky.
Once you understand both sides of the effort to redefine retirement, you can easily see why. Because our economy is deep within the throes of financialization, the money managers and central bankers have already peaked, wringing the most growth in the shortest period of time, using the ability to print money and manipulate international trade.
Much like the fall of medieval Venice, an economic superpower that had invented sophisticated financial accounting tricks and leveraging strategies in the 1300s that don't look too different than what we are seeing today, our financial sector must continue to cannibalize the productive sector.
As Matt Taibbi so eloquently put it in a recent Rolling Stone column, the private equity sector, like drunken necropheliacs, must continue to violate dying companies and sectors to wring out any profits, real or imaginary, and cannibalize growth.
Back in the 1930s, the Kellogg cereal company began experimenting with six hour workdays. In exchange for slightly smaller paychecks, the company was able to create more jobs at time when they were badly needed. These jobs were more fulfilling, and the city of Battle Creek, Michigan began to thrive socially, as more people had time to spend with their families and to invest in civic endeavors aimed at improving their city.
Many of us today would love a six-hour workday, and would probably settle for a return to the 8 hour workday.
Retirement means letting go of materialism
Regardless of how you feel about work and society, it's becoming clear that people are becoming more antisocial and indulgent in consumerism and spending as the decades go by. They require more hours at the job to finance their lifestyle of consumption.
While it may not be bad at the family level (though it often is), this movement is bad for our country. We can no longer sustain the debts and spending we've engaged in over the last forty years.
For some, retirement means acknowledging the lifestyle they want to have. For some lucky folks that will involve material pleasures, but most of us are going to have to get used to the idea that we need to dial things back in retirement.
We need to redefine a lot of things, retirement being just one of them, if we are going to retake our lives and build a society where we can enjoy our families and communities without the fear of going broke due to a medical catastrophe or because we didn't save enough; we are going to have to give up some of the “luxuries” we’ve grown accustomed to, and redefine some new ones, like free time with our families and not dying from stress at age 60.