Blogs > Steve Hochstadt > What Does Retirement Mean?

May 24, 2016

What Does Retirement Mean?

tags: retirement,Social Security,Pension

I have given my last course and graded my last paper. I’ve been teaching history for 40 years and now I’m no longer employed. I’m retired. What does that mean?


It doesn’t mean lying on the couch watching the soaps. All the retired people I talk with say they seem busier than they expected. Retirement for me won’t be the end of work or a life of pure leisure, but a different kind of working life. I look forward to more reading about life on Earth, past and present. I hope to keep writing about Jacksonville and America.


My date book is nearly empty. Instead of daily appointments for classes and meetings, whole weeks are blank. I never liked schedules, and retirement offers me their absence. Retirement means getting up in the morning without a day full of activities that must be done today. I’ll have much more spontaneous control over what I do.


But many jobs don’t disappear because we get old. Dinners still have to be cooked, dishes washed, clothes cleaned, and houses maintained. The grass keeps growing, and so do the weeds for those of us who keep gardens. If one person in a household, say the wife, has been responsible for the housework, there is no such thing as retirement. Advice columns are filled with the complaints of housewives whose newly retired husbands are suddenly around all day, getting in the way.


When those of us who now are retiring were first setting up our households, those tasks were assumed to be attached to gender: men mowed the lawn, women made the meals, and so on. Those assumptions are gone. Retirement means the opportunity to reallocate all the tasks required by the modern household: shopping, paying bills, fixing leaky faucets don’t have to be determined by gender.


I should thank Uncle Sam for some of that freedom to choose how to spend each retirement day. If I want to go out for breakfast, get a cup of coffee, or buy a book to read, I’ll have enough money. Without money, there can be no retirement.


We may take the Social Security system for granted, but it is only 80 years old. Before 1935 there was no system of old age pensions for Americans. Either you saved for retirement out of your paychecks, or you had to keep working until you died.


Our most eloquent revolutionary, Thomas Paine, was a “forerunner of modern social insurance”, as the Social Security Administration calls him. In 1796, he advocated a 10% tax on the inheritance of property to create a fund which would pay a yearly pension to everyone over 50, “to enable them to live in Old Age without Wretchedness, and go decently out of the World.”


Nothing happened for decades. America’s military veterans were the first to get a pension system. Disabled veterans of the Civil War, war widows and orphans were granted a pension in 1862.


Confederate veterans were not included, partly as retribution for trying to secede, but mainly because well-off Southerners and Southern politicians, who did not need the money themselves, thought a welfare program was a dishonor to the Lost Cause.


As Americans moved off the farm and began to live longer, elderly poverty became a crisis. Those who couldn’t work starved. When the Depression struck in 1929, a national Social Security program was already standard among European nations. Americans were ready to take public responsibility to support the elderly. Part of FDR’s New Deal was a Social Security program in 1935 based on social insurance rather than “welfare”. Workers would provide for their own financial security by contributing at work and the federal government would use this revenue for the social good, in this case to support Americans who retired. Even before the federal government acted, a majority of states had enacted their own old age pension programs, but they were based on the welfare model and were inadequate. The most generous paid about $1 a day.


Many kinds of workers were excluded from the original Social Security system: agricultural laborers, domestic servants, intermittent workers. That meant that less than half of women and only one-third of African Americans were covered. Our national protection for elderly Americans has really only been fully operational for about 50 years.


The Social Security Administration has kept much better records than I have of what I have earned over my lifetime. I love seeing the table that they send me every year, showing that I earned $1126 in 1966 in my first real summer job after I graduated from high school. My earnings keep going up, but I made more than $50,000 in only one year. Over my lifetime, I and my employers paid about $55,000 each into the Social Security system. Now that I am retired, I can draw about$21,000 a year for the rest of my life, not a bad return on that investment. That puts me in the middle of the national income range, meaning it will pay for an average standard of living.


Not enough for luxury, but more than enough to avoid Wretchedness. So off I go into a new world, with Uncle Sam at my back and unknown adventure ahead of me.


Steve Hochstadt

Jacksonville IL

Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 24, 2016

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