The Benefits of Work

Retirement used to be thought of as an ideal goal, almost a right. After 30 or 40 years of productive work, people expected to be able to take it easy. But that idea has now become obsolete - and maybe it is undesirable as well.

Partly, the shift is the result of necessity. As The New York Times put it recently: "Retirement seems out of the question for increasing numbers of Americans who are saddled with debt and whose savings evaporated during the recent bust." (See, "Goodbye, Golden Years.")

But economists are also coming to think of retirement as a drag on the economy. Older workers who keep working continue to buy more goods and pay more taxes. Moreover, they depend less on the earnings of others. As the baby boomers reach retirement age, can society afford the "entitlements" we have come to take for granted?

Finally, on a personal level, those who keep working also often feel more useful and relevant. Unless retirees find stimulating and socially valuable activities, they undergo a kind of marginalization that makes it more difficult to maintain self-esteem and overcome depression. They more easily withdraw from engagement with others.

Conventional wisdom in the past held that the threat of unemployment hastened workers' decision to retire. But The Times noted, "recent increases in unemployment haven't encouraged many older Americans into retirement." One reason is that workers now keep their social security benefits when they continue to work. Another is that, as our economy is less focused on heavy industry and manufacturing, work for most people has become less physically strenuous.

It is a big issue, and it is getting bigger. As The Times put it: "Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16 percent; the number of under-65's in the labor force shrank." These trends are likely to continue.

Declining health and age, on the other hand, often require substantial cutbacks in activity, and it can be cruel to force people to work when their jobs are stressful. Moreover, not all jobs are good jobs, offering decent pay and emotional rewards. But it is probably a good thing to dismantle rigid expectations about retirement. Even better would be the creation of a range of part-time jobs allowing people to supplement their income while continuing to engage with others and feel productive.

The Old Testament taught us to view work as a curse, mankind's punishment for sin. And for centuries work has often been painful and harsh. Since the Reformation, however, we have tended to view work as a source of human dignity. Today, it has become the most important thing we do, providing us with our identities, the esteem that comes from competence, and allowing us to take our place in the world.

Work has eclipsed virtually all of our other meaningful activities. As a result, we need to shift our expectations about retirement. But we also need jobs, and the opportunities to find the work that suits us as we complete the life cycle.

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