Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Philosophy of Retirement

In the United States, most of our culturally-bound "philosophy of retirement" is highly dispersed and mostly invisible. From an early age, we are taught to base our “personal identity” on "how we make a living.” As young children we are not expected to work…but we are legally required to spend the first 17 years of our lives attending primary and secondary educational institutions, which (at least in theory) prepare us to ultimately decide “what to do when we grow up.” Many high school students, both, attend school and work at least part-time; allegedly, to teach them the values associated with work: that is; show up on time, do what your boss tells you, dress appropriately etc. After primary and secondary school, many of us attend college and graduate school, and amass enormous long-term debt, allegedly, so we can “land a better job.” Sometimes those students even “graduate!” If you look closely, you’ll see that colleges and universities have gradually become servants to an ever-narrowing philosophy of work that emphasizes “work training” over “life training.” Not surprisingly, our schools (primary, middle, high, and college) devalue “life-training” subjects such as: art, literature, music, and philosophy in favor of “work training.” This philosophy of work has become so deeply ingrained that many of us choose work over family, friends, hobbies, vacation or retirement.  

The foundation for our prevailing “philosophy of retirement” is the cultural belief that, there is a "one-size-fits-all" point in time when we all “ought" to stop working. Three main questions arise: When should I retire?” Who ought to decide when I retire?  And, on what basis should that decision be made? 

So, when should I retire and who should decide?  In the United States, the legal minimum age for Social Security retirement is 65 years of age. Other private retirement savings programs follow that precedent. Thus, almost all retirement programs punish you with fees and/or taxation for retiring too early. Thus that “one-size-fits-all” retirement age really shapes our decision of when to retire. As we approach that magic retirement age, we most often must decide, exactly, when to retire. Rationally, that decision ought to involve weighing both other-regarding and self-regarding reasons. Typical other-regarding reasons include “for the sake of:” our family, our employer, and/or, currently unemployed.  Self-regarding reasons include retiring in order to have more time for: family, friends, hobbies, and/or travel. However, ultimately, our decision of whether and/or when to retire is shaped, primarily, by whether or not you saved enough for that retirement. 
I have been saving for retirement for over 30 years. I lost one-third of it in the "mortgage meltdown," but I've recently recovered it. Assuming that I have saved a sufficiently amount, I might reasonably conclude that, if financially feasible, I ought to retire sooner rather than later…while I'm still healthy enough to enjoy that retirement. However, given that most middle class Americans (like myself) live longer, public policymakers are now contemplating raising the minimum age for collecting Social Security to age 70; and by implication affecting other private retirement programs such as TIAA CREF. In short, government believes that it for the "greater good" that I retire later rather than sooner 

Now here's my libertarian rant. To what degree should government be empowered to influence when I choose to retire? On what basis should it be able to manipulate the "choice architecture" (legal incentives and disincentives) that shape my retirement decision?  And, what "public good" is served by keeping oldsters like myself at work until we're 70?  Right now, the Social Security Administration will pay me substantially much more on a monthly basis if I wait until I'm 70 to retire. If the stock market continues to rise, my TIAA-CREF account might be able to provide me and my wife with a decent retirement income at age 70. However, if I choose to retire before that I may run out of money and/or get driven into bankruptcy and dependency by our predatory health care system. Thus, our philosophy of retirement is wrought with unanticipated consequences. That's because that decision is framed by a complex, tax-based a legal architecture that assumes that we all "ought" to retire between the ages of 65 and 70; and that it's for the "greater good" that we all wait until we're 70. Unfortunately, both of my parents died in their early 60s, so if "the apple does not fall far from the tree," I’m probably not going to enjoy much (if any) “retirement. But my wife will...which is obviously a good thing; but I'd rather help her spend that largess. 
In sum, assuming that the "bad apple" does not fall before that, I'll probably work until I'm 70. As long as I can continue to do a decent job teaching students philosophy, that's OK. However, given the rapidly devolving culture of higher education, it's now consuming more and more of my time, energy, and resources to teach students about Truth and Goodness. Thus, over the next 6 1/2 years, not only will I miss out on retirement but I'll also have less time for my family, friends, and my guitar. Thank God...that our "philosophy of retirement" serves the "greater good," because it certainly does not serve mine!    


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