During Spring Break each school year Jill visited her grandparents in Florida. From her descriptions it sounded like a magical, sunshine-filled place to classmates who were still wearing winter coats in April. Beaches and hammocks; Disney and old people… that’s what the Midwest kids learned about that seemingly continents-away location. Every one of them dreamed to one day grow up, shed responsibilities and spend endless hours lounging on the beach. Retirement couldn’t come soon enough to an eight-year-old learning multiplication tables.
Bonnie loved teaching multiplication, or any subject for that matter. As a woman in her fifties it broke her heart to discover her school district’s retirement incentives seemed to push her out the door. She took the package offered, had a big party and looked with uncertainty at the rest of her life. For some time she took a part-time position teaching GED classes to adults. However, when she realized her Social Security benefits were penalized by the work she was doing she had to quit. It was necessary for her to avoid work because she was too skilled to receive the low wages Social Security required. More than anything Bonnie wants to continue helping people and use her skills for God’s glory.
For generations in our American culture the assumption has been older folks should desire and make a plan to leave the workplace. An extended season of relative prosperity and a move away from an agrarian society in America has made that retirement concept viable. Adults could count on their own savings accounts, a company pension, plus Social Security and knew they would be relatively secure for the remainder of their days. They could also plan on family members to live close by and help out when necessary or they could move to a warm climate for comfort. Changes in the financial landscape are causing Americans to rethink what their later years can and should look like. As believers in Christ, revisiting this issue from a Biblical viewpoint is also necessary.
Working for Rest
Many work for decades in hopes of a healthy 10-15 years of travel and relaxation. The idea of older years being reserved for pleasure is not a Biblical concept. The one group of folks who actually retired from their regular jobs at an appointed age was the Levites. In Numbers 4, the Levite males are numbered for service in the tabernacle from ages 25-50 years old, and after age 50, they were to retire from regular service. They could continue to “assist their brothers” but could not continue to work (Numbers 8:24-26). There is no other mention of such a concept in the Bible. The idea of living simply for pleasure seems antithetical to a Christian worldview. Paul says that the widow who lives for pleasure is dead while she yet lives (1 Timothy 5:6). In addition, the assumption of healthy senior years to enjoy is certainly not a given. Katherine Dean, national director of wealth planning for Wells Fargo Private Bank says, “I’ve seen people pay as much as $5,000-15,000 a month for their medical care in retirement.” With statistics such as these it appears as though even those who once looked at spending their senior years checking off items on a bucket list, will more likely be working from necessity.
Life expectancies continue to rise. In the early 1900s an American born male could assume to live to near age 50. As of 2013 the average American man’s life expectancy was 78.6 years. With the rise of life expectancy (and the looming insolvency of Social Security) the age of retirement continues to rise. Most adults currently not of retirement age talk sarcastically (and often bitterly) about Social Security. They realize they are having money removed from their paychecks to pay for benefits they will never see. Most companies have moved from a pension plan to a simple 401K retirement plan which requires employees to contribute their own money.
We are seeing seniors now working longer, and this can be a good thing if we embrace them in the work environment. Companies are currently experiencing a brain drain. Many highly intelligent and eager employees are being let go because of situations similar to Bonnie’s which I shared earlier. Businesses are trying to cut costs and are hiring young employees who require smaller salaries. Such choices can hurt both corporations and seniors.
Let’s face it, a government that discourages work is broken.
If people like Bonnie who have great gifting want to teach GED classes or tutor they should be paid fairly and not concern themselves with losing Social Security benefits from a system they paid into. At the same time some seniors feel ill equipped for the current job market and often face age discrimination. Part of the discrimination simply comes from the value Americans place on technology-focused desk jobs over any other type of vocation. Work output by those who not as tech savvy is different but there needs to be a greater effort to make the work environment more inclusive. Perhaps in a roundabout sort of way the need for seniors to work into their later years is a good thing for our society. And, perhaps, our society needs seniors to lend their wisdom and experience to make society the most fruitful it can be.