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Stephen Mihm

Ready to Work Until You Die? America Needs You

Pushing older people out of the workplace was a last-century solution to make way for “strong and eager” younger workers. Now the country is paying for it.

Retire retirement.

Retire retirement.

Photographer: J.D. Pooley/Getty Images 

Shortfalls in retirement savings have been widely regarded as a crisis of our times. Perhaps. The history of the relationship between old age and work reveals a more complicated picture, one that calls into question the idea that retirement is both necessary and desirable. It turns out that the modern concept of retirement, far from reflecting a desire to give the elderly a break, was the product of something more insidious: age discrimination.

Nearly two centuries ago, lexicographer Noah Webster defined “retire” and “retirement” as a form of withdrawal: retiring for the evening, for example, or retiring from public life. But retiring to pursue hobbies and spend more time with the grandchildren while living off a lifetime’s worth of savings invested in stocks and bonds? No.