April 11, 2012A couple of weeks ago, U.S. News & World Report published a column that may be a portent. It started out unremarkably for an opinion piece in a Republican-leaning magazine:
Social Security is going bust, and we've saved too little, and we're living too long. Retirement is endangered. Then came the stunner: but that's OK, because we don't want to retire anyway. We want to work till we drop.
At first I dismissed "6 Reasons Why You Should Never Retire" as temporary insanity. It happens to columnists sometimes. You have to come up with an opinion, the deadline is looming, and you write something crazy. But then I remembered a conversation with a friend, a shrewd and rather cynical woman of about my age.
Had I ever wondered, she asked, why feminism, after so long a struggle, became widely acceptable in the 1970s — just as middle-class wages began to stagnate, making it necessary for a family to have two incomes if they were to keep the wheels of the consumer economy turning? Long-established middle-class beliefs had to be overturned: that a man ought to make enough to support his family, and that motherhood was an honorable job in itself. But the revolution happened and my friend ruefully recalled that she was on the barricades, demanding a woman's right to pursue a meaningful, exciting career.
"Now where are we?" she went on. "Sure, the feminist movement turned out fine for Danica Patrick and Sonia Sotomayor. But the majority of women, like the majority of men, have spent their lives working at meaningless, dull jobs. I have to cram in around the edges the things that give my life meaning, like motherhood. So who's benefited? As usual, the rich. The One Percent. They get more and more of the money, while we work harder for less and less."
As I said, she's a tad cynical. But there's something to what she says. Of course, the One Percent has the power to place certain ideas in the media, or to favor some ideas over others. All it takes is money. And of course they try, with varying success, to shift attitudes in ways that suit them by, for instance, keeping the middle class trudging to the cube farm. There was a move in the '70s to denigrate the stay-at-home wife and mother. And I suspect we may now see a move to denigrate the old person who thinks he has a right to Social Security and Medicare.
It will take some doing. The belief is well-established that a few years of freedom and ease before decrepitude sets in is our deserved reward for a life of toil. Advertising agencies working for investment firms have given brilliant visual expression to our yearning for retirement. We see the commercials during sports events: middle-aged people following "the green line" or toting their "number," and of course the culmination, happy old folks biking to the beach to see the breaching whale.
Instead, the ads will have to show oldsters hobbling directly from their office retirement party to the extended care facility. Making that look enticing is going to be a stiff challenge to the ad agencies. A better setting for the early salvos against retirement is a hard-headed, number-crunching newsmagazine like U.S. News & World Report. Even there, though, the article "6 Reasons" is an eyebrow-raiser.
Early on, it says, "retirement is, quite frankly, often a default choice that we've been brainwashed into accepting." Of course, we don't really want to sleep late, play with our grandchildren, take a cruise. We've only been brainwashed to think we want these things. Really, we'd much rather be watching the boss's Power Point presentation.
Several of the six reasons have to do with how much our employers value us oldsters. Forget all you've read about outsourcing, computerization, the permanent disappearance of countless middle-management jobs. "Labor shortages" are coming, promises the article, which, by U.S. News standards, is rather light on facts and figures. Employers will be begging for workers, and not just any workers, but us. You can forget about age discrimination, too. We're no longer old codgers, we're silver-haired sages.
If, with the boss on his knees, begging us to stay, we still want to retire, the column has one last trick to play. It tries to shame us out of retirement.
"Successful people have seldom selected retirement when they turn 65. Warren Buffet may be the poster child for lifetime employment, but he is hardly unique."
If you're not Warren Buffet, you have only yourself to blame. Winners have well-paid, fascinating careers that they can't bear to quit. Retirement is for losers.
And this column is for the gullible. A familiar phrase is conspicuous by its absence from the piece: The Golden Years. They've been promised to us. Don't be bamboozled out of them.