What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul? –Mark 8:26 (paraphrase)
Over the past several decades, I believe society has convinced itself of an insidious lie: that the goal of life is to work and save and build wealth and assets until such time as one believes one can retire and “enjoy life.” This lie came into its own in the 1960s with the advent of modern Social Security. At that moment, Americans institutionalized the idea that it was a right to stop producing at some point and live off the fat of the land.
Yet the irony in that institution is that many, if not most, people define themselves by what they do. They are their work, whether they love that work or not, and when they have no more work to do, their lives tend to become vacuous and boring. It’s no wonder that part of the dramatic increase in recent years of the prescription of powerful antidepressants has happened in the over 65 age demographic.
Further, most Americans never anticipated the consequences of this institution. While in the 1960s, the median lifespan in the mid 60s, by 2010, it had reached 78, and for the generations who will retire during the 21st century, the median age may well reach over 100. This means that the period defined by retirement, 10 years in the 1960s, will quickly stretch into 30 to 40 years before the end of this century. The amount of resources it is necessary for someone to possess to do nothing for that long is staggering to consider.
What has happened to allow this lie to take hold, I believe, is the demise of the idea that life should transition from one kind of thing to another. Our society no longer has rites of passage defined by taking on new, different, and defined responsibilities as one’s capacities and age dictate.
I blame this failing on the demise of once time-honored traditions like the cohesive extended family, the family business as the primary employer, the community as the center of everyday life, and the trend to average everyone at the national level. As these ideas and institutions have failed us, the rite of passage they naturally created have faded and died.
The circumstances of the 21st century, I believe, will demand we tackle this problem head on. Our society simply does not have the resources available to support a rapidly aging population that could foreseeably spend a third of its life not producing and, therefore, not supporting itself. This problem will be exacerbated by the incredible upheavals that resource scarcity will inevitably bring and by the fact that, at least in the US, the so-called working age population is and will continue to shrink.
And the solutions are relatively simple, actually, as long as people are willing to accept their necessity. Individuals will have to work longer, likely in a variety of jobs. They will have to change how they spend and save over the course of their lifetimes. As a society, we will have to stop focusing on accumulating stuff and start focusing on taking care of ourselves. We will have to build or rebuild social structures that allow us to share the burden of the cost of living among larger groups of people. We will have to redefine what we expect of ourselves as we inevitably pass from one age and capacity to the next.
Unfortunately, I do not believe these solutions will happen because people suddenly think they are a great idea. Instead, I believe they will come as the inevitable result of the scarcity and want the future promises to hold. But, for those who care to pay attention, their is the benefit of being able to prepare now, before things become desperate.
What must happen, though, is that we must start preparing now. These changes will be hard. They will be dramatic. They well may be controversial. But they are also necessary and will save us in the long run.
UPDATE: Edited “rights of passage” to “rites of passage”. See the discussion below.