Are the Golden Years history?March 23rd, 2010 by Tommaso De Benetti
There is a garden in the countryside not far from Venice, where it is said the finest tomatoes in the world are found. The rumor goes that the pasta sauce made from these tomatoes is so good, that once you have tasted it your taste buds will never recover.
These are clearly very bold and totally subjective claims, and even though the only person who actually ever makes them is my father – who also happens to grow the tomatoes – I personally tend to agree (partly because he says it so often).
Living the dream
Since retiring with a pension in 2008, my father has had a considerable amount of time to devote to his garden. When he is not gardening or reading a lifetime of accumulated books, he spends his time taking long ambling walks in the countryside with my mother and his friends. While nothing is ever perfect, I think it is fair to say that my father is living the kind of retirement that most of us dream about.
My parents were both teachers, my father the class of 1950 and my mother a few years later. Unlike my father, my mother is still teaching. As much as she likes elementary school children, she’s progressively growing tired of the job itself.
Moving the finish line
Up until a few months ago, my mother was almost eligible to retire with a pension, just like my father did. But just as she was nearing the finish line, the retirement age for women was raised to the same age it is for men. It might seem a totally obvious measure, but it has caused uproar throughout the country. Behind the justifiable claim that it is bringing gender equality, this measure is in practice forcing millions of women – mostly public employees – to stay at work for years longer than they expected because the state cannot afford the cost of their pensions.
An aging population is a problem that governments all over the world are faced with. In 1935, when the United States first introduced the pension, the life expectancy was 67 years. When Social Security was implemented, there were 16 workers for every Social Security recipient; today there are 3.3 workers, and it is estimated that by 2030 there will be only two.
And this is just the beginning: According to Cambridge researcher Aubrey de Gray, with surprisingly few scientific breakthroughs people already alive may even live to be 1,000 years old. (De Gray himself, with his Moses-like five foot beard, lends considerable credit to his controversial ideas). The result would be a world (possibly resembling Florida) full of retirees, with no one to support them.
When it comes to an aging population, Italy is an even worse position than the US and most other countries. After Japan, it is the “oldest” country in the world. Even today the country is struggling to balance its books. Because of a declining birth-rate, in the near future – regardless of whether life expectancy sky-rockets – a declining number of tax payers will be increasingly unable to support the numbers of retirees drawing a pension, at least not without enduring an enormous tax hike.
With people living a much longer and having fewer children, the most obvious and effective solution to this problem is to increase the age of retirement. The more you work, the less time you have left to spend money without producing economic value in exchange. For those who have worked hard all their lives, knowing that when they reach a certain age they can retire, it’s a brutal solution – especially when the changes are made abruptly.
Technical achievements and digital marketplaces, though, could soon offer a solution to ease the transition between working 10 hours per day and spending all your time in the garden perfecting tomatoes. Let’s take my mother as an example. She understands her job well, and is very good at it. After many years of experience, the majority of her responsibilities (such as the production of support material for the children) are a breeze.
But even so, at her age, physical exhaustion caused by standing long hours, chasing up administrative issues, and even talking with parents (who for her now often seem like they are from another planet) is a problem. Based on such difficulties, I wonder if she would be happier – and perhaps even more useful – working these last five years of service from behind the scenes.
With the support of the right platform and some very basic training she could easily grade compositions, review registers and help improve teaching material. And this kind of support could be useful not just for her colleagues at the local school, but for teachers in schools spread all over the country.
Until now, finding a happy medium has been difficult. Even if you can reduce hours or responsibilities, often in practice this means working the same job but for less pay. It’s early days yet, but increasing connectivity and the development of ideas based on it – including crowdsourcing – look set to change the way we think about work and retirement.
Use it or lose it
And the benefits of such a transition extend far beyond simple economics. While my father is happy growing the world’s best tomatoes and wandering the hills bragging about them, many retirees struggle for a sense of relevance in a world that no longer seems to need them. Statistically, people who retire younger tend to die younger too. Although many factors are at play here (unwell people are more likely to retire), multiple studies show that both mental and physical condition deteriorates when not challenged and when one ceases to have a clear purpose for living.
For governments all over the world, finding a way to keep their citizens productive for longer is not just desirable, but essential. Because necessity is still the mother of invention, I suspect that such solutions will be found faster than is expected. While a change in mindset is also required, I believe it is such changes that will keep the golden years from slipping into the red.