8 Facts and Insights About the History of Retirement

The practice of retiring at 65 is all too often taken for granted. The notion of ending one’s working life has not been with us for all that long. The history of retirement is complex, and very closely related to the history of labour. For most people in a pre-modern world, human life expectancy was just near 30 years all over the world. Around this time, workers generally worked until the end of life.

Life expectancy only began to improve after the 18th century and the arrival of the Enlightenment. At the same time, the Industrial Revolution fundamentally changed the nature of work, bringing more and more people into urban or semi-urban environments to work in large factories. As ideas about work changed, so too did ideas about when work should end. This list will survey some of the milestones of the history of retirement.

1. Military pensions in Ancient Rome

An important precedent for the modern idea of retirement was the aerarium militare in Ancient Rome. Beginning with the first emperor Augustus, the aerarium militare was founded as a military treasury to administer pensions (called praemia) for veterans who had served in the Imperial Roman army.

The pension was viewed as a compensation for service to the empire. Modern ideas of retirement and pensions continue to view retirement as a form of compensation for service to the “empire” of the modern economy.

2. Retirement and the Industrial Revolution

As mentioned, the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work. Work had been confined to farm labour, craftsmen, trades, and other small scale work that could adapt with age. The Industrial Revolution brought many labourers into contact with machines and demanding conditions with specific physical requirements.

Furthermore, assembly lines made one person part of a larger system. The notion of retirement was adopted as a response to the idea that aging factory workers could have a negative impact on productivity. Having too many older workers in a given factory could make it difficult for local young people to find jobs.

3. Retirement and German Marxism

The practice of retiring and planning for our advanced years only began in earnest in the 19th century. All across the industrializing world of the 18th century, the rise of industrial labour and the often conditions of that work fueled concern about the rights of workers. Labour strikes and the rise of Marxist movements sought to address these concerns.

Threatened by the popular appeal of Marxist political revivals, by 1883, German chancellor, Otto Von Bismarck decided to introduce the first plan to provide for pensions and retirement for any person over 70. With this program, Von Bismarck was trying to outdo the Marxists, and even though he faced criticism, he succeeded as Germany became the first country to offer a universal pension and retirement.

4. Pensions

Pension programs are critical to providing for the care of retired persons and make retirement possible on a wide scale. Late in the 19th century, military, public service and some private companies began offering pensions to care for certain workers in old age. Just before the Great Depression, many American financial organizations, banks, and other companies had followed suit with private pension programs, most often paid for out of contributions collected from workers wages.

5. Dr. William Osler’s scandalous remark

To this day, Canadian physician William Osler (1849-1919) is widely respected as a revolutionary figure in the history of medicine, famous for advocating for bedside training for physicians. Today, Osler is honoured at Montreal’s McGill University as the namesake for their world renowned Osler Library of the History of Medicine.

Osler was one of the four founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital. During a valedictory address to graduate in 1905, Osler argued that people completed their best work before 40 and should be retired after 60. 55 at the time of the speech, Osler did not mince words, calling people over 60 “useless.”

Much to the delight of his audience, in his remarks, Osler made a joking allusion to a science fiction novel of the time in which senior citizens were euthanized. Osler’s comment sparked a flurry of headlines around the English speaking world, prompting criticism of the doctor and debate about old age. The idea that men over 60 were in way diminished in their abilities proved to be incredibly controversial at the time.

6. Retirement communities

The history of retirement communities began to develop in sunny Florida as early as the 1910s. New commercial culture and notions of leisure from the period helped transform attitudes towards retirement. By 1955, the phrase “senior citizen” had entered the popular lexicon.

7. AARP 

The American Association of Retired Persons was founded in the United States in 1958. The organization promotes a notion of productive aging, advocating for the rights of seniors, and increasingly, for the seniors lifestyle. Importantly, the AARP had evolved out of the National Retired Teachers Association (NRTA), an organization formed in 1947 that advocated for health insurance for retired educators.

8. National pension programs

Many nations followed Germany’s lead in establishing national old age pension programs. Because private pensions only account for a small portion of the population, there were many calls for national pension programs in many counties in the early 20th century.

The Old-Age Pensions Act passed in the United Kingdom in 1908. The Act provided a total of 5 Shillings per week for citizens over the age of 70 who made less than £31.50 a year. It may not sound like much today, but the Act ushered in other Liberal reforms for the care of the elderly and Canada would not pass a similar reform until McKenzie King’s Liberals passed the Old Age Pensions Act in 1927.

It was only in the wake of the effects of the Great Depression that President Franklin D. Roosevelt was able to pass the Social Security Act of 1935. The Great Depression accelerated existing problems in caring for the elderly population in society. Coming years would expand pension benefits and create the basis of social welfare programs.



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