The Faux 'Retirement Crisis' Is Rooted In A 20th Century Definition Of 'Work'

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Posted: May 08, 2018 11:11 AM
The Faux 'Retirement Crisis' Is Rooted In A 20th Century Definition Of 'Work'

Nearly two months ago the National Basketball Association staged a draft.  Was this for male or female basketball players? Not even close.  It was for videogame players.  The NBA is starting a video basketball league in order to profit from an explosion of videogame viewing on popular sites like Twitch. NBA 2K “players” won’t make millions like others in the gaming space are, but base pay will be $35,000/year. Players will receive a housing stipend, plus their relocation expenses will be taken care of by the League.

In a recent Sports Illustrated, it was reported that 25 of the 30 Major League Baseball teams employ “mental-skills” coaches.  Rich teams and players are more and more incorporating mental wellness into success on the diamond.  And it’s not just baseball.  The New England Patriots brought “sleep coaches” to Minneapolis for Super Bowl LII.

Which brings us to a popular narrative that’s been around for years.  Supposedly there’s a “retirement crisis” in the works.  Americans apparently don’t have enough money saved.  Politicians and pundits logically see an excuse to “do something,” but then a supposed shortage of anything can always and everywhere be fixed by the profit-motivated.  Figure that primitive mobile phones used to cost thousands, air conditioners tens of thousands, and computers once cost millions.  Now each can be had for a few hundred dollars, and sometimes less.

Applied to retirement, assuming Americans (or those outside the U.S.) lack something that’s necessary, that they do is merely a market signal that will prove rather alluring to entrepreneurs.  And like any other “shortage,” they’ll fix what’s wrong.  Not only is it a safe to bet that they’ll design financial vehicles that set us up for retirement, it’s also possible that entrepreneurs in general will solve the alleged “retirement crisis” with cheaper everything.

Lest we forget, those planning for retirement don’t save dollars so that they can stare at them once they’ve worked their last day.  The money saved is to be exchanged for goods, services and luxuries once the days of work are in the rear-view mirror.  Ok, but with automation happily becoming more and more of a thing in the production of everything, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a dollar will stretch quite a bit further in the future to reflect plummeting costs for everything.  The alleged “retirement crisis” is rooted in a static view of how retirement is planned for, but one that’s static in terms of how much money is needed.  If what Rich Karlgaard refers to as a “Cheap Revolution” continues (Uber, for example, plans to use driverless cars to substantially drive down the cost of transportation), the cost of retirement will decline in stupendous fashion.

Yet all of this ignores an even happier truth about the so-called “retirement crisis.” The latter is ultimately rooted in a static definition of “work” that is thankfully no longer reflective of reality.  While 150 years ago it was a near certainty that most would work on a farm, and 100 years ago it was fairly likely that men in particular would work in a factory, mill or mine, that’s not the case today.  Looking back to 100 years ago, is it any wonder that workers yearned for retirement? The work was backbreaking.  As Wes Dorsett (father of Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett) explained it to his kids about working in Aliquippa, PA’s steel mills, “Come in this place, you don’t know if you’re coming out.  And if you do you might be missing an arm or eye or leg."

In the past, retirement was a dream scenario for workers who’d left it all on the proverbial field. They were tired. They had worked endless hours doing something they didn’t necessary like.  That’s what’s so comical and sad about frequent promises from politicians to bring back manufacturing, mill or mine work.  When they make these silly promises, they’re revealing just how little they understand the common man they aim to secure the votes of.  They’re also unwittingly reminding us that they’ve never seen the inside of a factory except for as a pandering politician.  Those who have, or those who did, didn’t want that same work for their kids.  While “Big Mike” Ditka (father of Hall of Fame tight end Mike Jr.) worked Aliquippa’s steel mills, according to Mike Jr., he “didn’t want his four kids working the mill, too.”

Getting right to the point, the work of the past was much more about work.  Workers had wives, working wives had husbands, and many had kids.  They had endless needs, and so they worked.  Retirement was the reward for all too many who had spent their lives working at something they didn’t necessarily adore, and that often wasn't safe, but that paid the bills.

Fast forward to the present, and the work of today is quite a bit different.  That’s the point of my newly released book, The End of Work.  It’s increasingly true that people are happy getting up and going to work each day.  The workplace is where more and more individuals are free to showcase their unique skills and intelligence in ways that past generations couldn’t.  Nowadays, we can make remunerative careers out of our love of football, pets, wine, and food, among many other pursuits that in the past had little to do with a job.  About food, in the 1970s, “chef” wasn’t even a professional classification.  Now it’s a reasonable alternative to becoming a doctor or lawyer.

So while always-stuck-in-the-past politicians are talking about a looming “retirement crisis,” let's not forget that they’re politicians.  Meanwhile, more and more of us aren’t even considering retirement since work is increasingly an expression of joy.  Wise minds can disagree, but this is the greatest attribute of prosperity.  Growing freedom from work that we dread.  Mondays aren’t as miserable as they used to be.

There’s no “retirement crisis” simply because the definition of “work” has changed profoundly.  And it’s only going to get better.

Article originally published on Forbes.com.