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Thirty Years

Your Humble Blogger happened to spot the Flowing Data chart Who spends the most years in retirement? If you don’t bother clicking through for the pretty-pretty, Nathan Yau has just subtracted average retirement age from average life expectancy for thirty-odd developed countries. It turns out that, for instance, Italian women can expect to retire before sixty and live into their mid eighties; Mr. Yau calls it 26 years of retirement. On the other hand, in Iceland men work until 65 and don’t live much longer than their mid seventies; 10 years of retirement by Mr. Yau’s chart. This is not a very good way of actually predicting retirement years, of course—life expectancy doesn’t actually work like that, and taking averages from averages is always a disaster—but I think it does get to a cultural sense of what the silver years might be like.

It struck me because over the last few years I had often said that we seemed to be moving toward a cultural norm that people would spend a third of their life in retirement. I think that’s not actually true, but then I was always overstating it. Still: if you work until sixty and live until ninety, that’s a third of your life in retirement. In you work until 65 and live until 98, that’s a third of your life. Do I really expect to live until 98? Personally? I have no idea—but when HR does retirement planning seminars they sure as hell aren’t telling people to plan for ten years of retirement. Now, of course, that’s (a) an entirely proper risk-averse strategy that emphasizes the drastic problem of being elderly and having no assets or income at all, and (2) because the entire thing is pretty much a scam, so the more money they can suck out of me the better for them, right? But I think they are building a sort of cultural expectation of thirty years of retirement. Or perhaps that’s entirely a white-collar thing, as anywhere I have worked long enough to get that talk has been a white-collar establishment.

If the reality is the ten years that shows up on Mr. Yau’s chart, I think that’s probably closer to the expectation that I think (I think) was more common before the Boomers started aging. I mean, the sort of cultural expectation that if you are lucky, you won’t die with your boots on but spend a few years tending the garden and pestering your wife (because I’m going back to a cultural expectation that work and retirement is about men), playing golf and writing that book, maybe getting a little extra money being the neighborhood handyman or selling newspapers, all for a few golden years before grabbing your chest and keeling over. That was retirement. Now, well, I think it’s a different set of ideas, at least for the white-collar folk. I think there are a lot of people who expect, in some sense, thirty years of retirement, whether they are looking forward to it or fear it.

I don’t mean this in any rational expectations way, you know. I don’t mean that we have gauged the probabilities, or even that this cultural idea exists independently of other contradictory ideas. When I was a teenager, you know, I definitely had a sense that the world would be destroyed by nuclear war before I had a chance to grow up and get married and have children. But if you asked me if I would die young, I’m pretty sure I would have said no. The first scenario would really have required me to die you, but that part of it didn’t occur to me. I think that a lot of people probably have a sense that the world will be destroyed by climate change, financial meltdown, oil peak, sharia law, the Rapture, or any of another million things—I really do think that there is a post-millennial sense of impermanency in this country, based on popular movies and television shows—but also think that they will be retired from sixty-seven to ninety. Those are incompatible, but so what? I hold lots of incompatible cultural ideas.

It does worry me, though, at least a little, that this particular belief, the one about thirty years of retirement, is sitting behind some of our current political craziness, and is doing some serious harm to it. I think that if (as I surmise) the current generational boom grow up with a sense that thirty years of retirement is normal, they will naturally have a sense that a ten year retirement is a rip-off, and they will shape their political and professional expectations—and disappointments—to match.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.