Historically Speaking: The Pleasures and Pains of Retirement
Since the Roman Empire, people have debated whether it’s a good idea to stop working in old age
The Wall Street Journal, June 7, 2019
The new film “All Is True,” directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, imagines how William Shakespeare might have lived after he stopped writing plays. Alas for poor Shakespeare, in this version of his life retirement is hell. By day he potters in his garden, waging a feeble battle against Mother Nature; by night he is equally ineffectual against the verbal onslaughts of his resentful family.
In real life, people have been arguing the case for and against retirement since antiquity. The Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero was thoroughly against the idea. In his essay “Cato the Elder on Aging,” Cicero argued that the best antidote to old age was a purposeful life. “I am in my eighty-fourth year,” he wrote, “yet, as you see, old age has not quite unnerved or shattered me. The senate and the popular assembly never find my vigor wanting.” Cicero lived by the pen—he was the greatest speechwriter in history—but he died by the sword, murdered on the orders of Mark Antony for his support of the waning Roman Republic.
Knowing when to exit from public life is a difficult art. The Roman Emperor Diocletian (ca. 245-316) retired to his palace in Split, in modern Croatia, after ruling for 21 years. According to Edward Gibbon, Diocletian was so content for the last six of years of his life that when emissaries from Rome tried to persuade him to return, he replied that he couldn’t possibly leave his cabbages.
For most of history, of course, the average person had no choice but to carry on working until they died. But in the 18th century, longer lifespans created a dilemma: The old were outliving their usefulness. Not realizing that he had two more productive decades left, the 60-year-old Voltaire told his friend Madame du Deffand: “I advise you to go on living solely to enrage those who are paying your annuities…. It is the only pleasure I have left.”
By the end of the 19th century, it had become possible for at least some ordinary people to spend their last years in retirement. In 1883, the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck bowed to popular opinion and announced that all retirees over 65 would receive pensions. With that, 65 became the official age of retirement.
But some critics argued that this was the thin end of the wedge. If people could be forced out of careers and jobs on the basis of an arbitrary age limit, what else could be done to them? Troubled by what he regarded as ageism, the novelist Anthony Trollope published “The Fixed Period,” a dystopian novel about a society where anyone over the age is 67 is euthanized for his or her own good. The naysayers against any form of government retirement plan held sway in the U.S. until President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, by which time half of America’s elderly were living in poverty.
Today, the era of leisurely retirements may be passing into history. Whether driven by financial need or personal preference, for many people retirement simply means changing their occupation. According to the AARP, the number of adults working past age 65 has doubled since 1985.
Even the rich and famous aren’t retiring: President George W. Bush is a painter; the Oscar-nominated actor Gene Hackman is a novelist; and Microsoft founder Bill Gates is saving the planet. In this day and age, flush from his success on Broadway, a retired Shakespeare might start his own podcast.