The dream to “retire” in our golden years has been around forever. However, it very rarely became a reality for our ancestors. Most of them simply couldn’t save the kind of money needed to support themselves for the rest of their lives. There are instances in history where a few fortunate ones could retire. For example, Roman Legionnaires could retire with a pension after 20 years of service. Of course, they needed to survive 20 years of service!
Over the centuries, some rulers granted civil servants a form of pension, but it very much depended on the generosity of the King, Queen, Emperor, etc. Throughout history, and in many countries yet today, people worked until they could no longer physically work. If they were lucky when their bodies failed, they had family or friends who could take them in and make their final years reasonably comfortable. There were many unfortunate people who ended up at poorhouses or similar institutions run by churches or benevolent organizations.
By the turn of the 20th century, the concept of government aid for the elderly was gaining momentum. In the midst of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt proposed the government create a Social Security system. Working people would be taxed and the funds distributed to older people in order to spare them from poverty in their senior years. The concept of the government collecting taxes from healthy, working people and redistributing the funds to others wasn’t a new one. The U.S. government had already been doing it for decades. Civil War veterans and their widows had been granted pensions to help support themselves and their families as compensation for their service and sacrifices. Extending the concept to the elderly who had been good citizens throughout their lives, supported the growing Nation, and paid their fair share of taxes wasn’t too much of a stretch. Also, by the early 20th century, a few large corporations began granting pensions to employees over the age of sixty-five. The gesture, however, wasn’t entirely altruistic. Employers wanted to move older, less productive employees out in order to bring in younger, stronger labor. Rather than simply kicking elderly people to the curb, the pension system was a kinder way of bringing in fresh workers who, after all, needed the money to care for their own growing families. Conventional wisdom at the time settled on 65 years old as the threshold for retirement benefits. Interestingly, the median life expectancy at the time was 58 years!
Retirement is a common reality for most older Americans these days. However,
depending on your age, it’s very likely your grandparents or great-grandparents were the first members of your family to even contemplate the luxury of retirement.
Floyd N. Turner II, President of the Berks History Center