Retired and Useful
Retired and Useful
October 9, 2008
The concept of retirement baffles me. I certainly see why people want to retire if they have unpleasant jobs, fun hobbies, and interesting grandkids. But why is it okay with the rest of society that individuals can simply stop contributing to the greater good?
Retirement is a fairly recent concept in historical terms. When the average life expectancy was 40, it wasn’t much of an issue. I think the concept of retirement really took off when people were healthy and productive until about 65, on average, then started the rapid descent towards a dirt nap at about age 75. No one begrudged a few years of relaxation to someone who had put in 50 solid years of productive toil.
Now we have people retiring at 60 and living to 100. Do you still feel good about that? Even if the retiree has saved money for retirement, society is still picking up a big part of the tab. You have the Social Security payments that usually exceed the amount paid into the system, and all the roads, police, firemen, and other services that are being funded by other people’s taxes. The list goes on.
I think about this when I hear about young families struggling with childcare expenses at the same time a bazillion retirees watch Jeopardy and wish they had something better to do. Is there really no way to solve those two problems at the same time?
If human life expectancy had suddenly jumped from 40 to 80, instead of gradually increasing, it would have been socially unacceptable to retire before your health failed. But because life expectancy inched up, we drifted into a situation where older people aren’t expected to be part of the solution. I think most of them would prefer to contribute more than they are.
People who know me well don’t ask when I plan to retire. I’m sure I will stop drawing comics at some point, but I can’t imagine a life where I’m not adding something back to the system. I don’t think I’m that different from most people.
When we think of how to patch up the ailing economy, we reflexively think about youth. We think about education, and innovation, and getting healthcare for young working people. I think we’re leaving some low hanging fruit on the trees with the older generation.
For example, imagine the government coming up with some sort of carbon trading-like plan for healthcare. Under this plan, anyone who uses less than the average amount of healthcare for his or her age, during a given year, wins some extra government funding for their local school system, and that amount would be tracked and publicly reported. You’d feel like a stud to be on the top of the healthy seniors list.
The idea is that retirees would be incented to exercise and eat right, thus cutting their average medical bills. Old people are the biggest users of medical care, so the impact could be huge. And since any savings would not go directly to the retirees, they wouldn’t be incented to skimp on medical visits just to make a few bucks for themselves.
I’m making an assumption here that keeping older people healthy saves society money, but I could be wrong if it boosts life expectancy. That tradeoff would have to be studied, but you get the idea that maybe there are some missed opportunities here.
Certainly retired people could be helping with childcare, tutoring, crime watch, and other functions that directly benefit society, at least a few hours per week. Can you think of any other ways to harness senior power to juice the economy?