I have long wondered about the worthiness of the concept of retirement. Scripture knows nothing of it. Oh, yes, there is one place where it is suggested that elder priests might give the heavy lifting to those with younger backs, especially when setting up the Tent of Meeting and the Tabernacle. But that does not mean what we mean today by the words retirement.
Retirement is a thoroughly modern idea, created by the prosperity that would allow a man not to work and to enjoy his leisure -- something nobles were able to do in generations past but not so much anyone else. Life was work and is work. You will note that this is directed to men. Women generally get no such retirement. Laundry, cooking, cleaning and other essential duties of the household tend to be the duties of the woman whether she works outside the home or not and no matter her age. Women already know that life was and is work. It is men who have become enamored with the idea of retirement.
For most, it means a time when you are free from responsibility and freed from financial need to be able to give into self and desire and do whatever you please. Indeed, we are learned quickly the idea that to work is to be a slave to a paycheck and the goal of this life is to work until you can be free from one slavery to become a servant of your desires. We all want to kick back and enjoy the good life of our imagination but I am not at all sure it is a healthy thing.
My heart remains wounded for a dear friend and pastor who served faithfully and ably, who retired and then within six months lay dead. It is not an unusual story. The dreams of leisure and travel and whim and fancy were entirely lost to him. He died in his bed at what I (and most) would consider a rather young age. His death has haunted me for many reasons but also because it has made me think about who I am and what I will do when the day comes that somebody will decide I must retire (even if I am not ready for it).
What is it that we should retire from? From a life of worship and prayer? From the vocation of the baptized? From the duty of love as husband to wife and wife to husband? From the responsibilities to family (probably more than simply children at this point)? From the call to love our neighbor as Christ has loved us? From the calling to do good to all and to live as best one may with clear conscience? From the privilege of tithes and offerings, of time in service, and of talent employed for the benefit of God and others? From being productive to being a leech, taking instead of giving? It occurs to me that retirement can be a time of trouble for faith and values. With time and money on our hands, we are free to be foolish even more than we are equipped to be profound.
Where did retirement come from? Probably from military pensions -- the oldest form of guaranteed income for the time when work ceased. From ancient Rome we learn that it is the duty of government to care for aged soldiers (though how many soldiers survived war and service to retire?). It was the German Chancellor Otto Van Bismarck who added public officials unable to work to the pensions of the government in the 1800s. To retire in the military meant to retreat. He set the age at 65 for this retreat from labor. Of course, the average life span of the retired then and now are vastly different.
I had a parishioner once whose husband fought in World War I, was a New York City cop for 30 years, worked for a lumber yard for another 20 or so years, and then retired in full to sit in the car while she shopped and had her hair done (which was, oddly enough, where he died). She complained that the pension from the police was so small but they did not image this fellow and his surviving wife would live so long (she died at 97).
The industrial revolution enticed the rural workers to urban factories with the promise of a retirement of sorts and a modest pension. By the turn of the 20th century only 12 companies offered pensions in the US. The U.S. government offered pensions mostly to Union soldiers. Then the Great Depression created the impetus to invent Social Security (a supplement meant to help but not replace income from work). Even then, most adult males did not live long enough to cash those government checks. Now pensions have been replaced with 401Ks and self-financed dreams of leisure (perhaps with a little help from the employer and the hope that the stock market would increase the contributions enough).
I fear that the biggest dream financing our retirement is the hope of being a child again -- without responsibility except to self and with the only work being play. If that is the case, it is no wonder that folks do not respect their elders. Who is worthy of respect when their goal in life is to give up duty for the sake of self-indulgence? Or maybe it is envy that causes this disrespect? For we have institutionalized the idea that the best life you live is the life you live for yourself and no one else. It shows up in our broken and wounded families and our solitary lives so filled with loneliness.
It seems the tide is changing. More folks over 70 wish to continue working that give it up. Look around you in the marketplace and look at the ages of those serving you fast food or working at Wal-Mart or bagging your groceries at Kroger. They are not all kids.
So I am not sure about retirement. A life without work is a life lived without the sanction of the God who created us not for leisure but for labor. Our rebellion in Eden was as much against this purpose as it was God Himself. If a man would not work, neither should he eat, says St. Paul to the Thessalonians. St. Paul was not a man who entertained dreams of leisure or retirement from anything. In the end, we will end. Death cannot be put off -- not even by a rich and long retirement. Perhaps we make our peace with death by asking it to hold off long enough for us to pursue our dreams until we are too sickly and frail to do anything else but die. That is not Christian.
Jesus puts it as plainly as it can be put: “Do not lay up treasure for yourselves on earth…lay up treasure for yourselves in heaven…Where your treasure is, there your heart is too.” Let us make sure, whether we continue in our old jobs in old age or find new work amenable to our abilities, we do not live for a treasure which is fading but for one that endures. Jesus continues His redeeming work -- not by continuing to suffer but by working to spread the blessing of His suffering to as many as will believe, by interceding for us constantly with His blood before the Father, and by leading the Church, His body, as its head, guiding us toward heaven. Where, by the way, there is no leisure, either. The work of worship will continue unhindered by the ordinary needs of this common life.
Just a few thoughts that ought to stir up folks. At least think about what I have said before you reject everything.