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Ageism and Retirement

Abstract and Keywords

Retirement is a modest social institution that appeared in most industrialized nations near the start of the 20th century. The aim of retirement was to solve the societal dilemma of an increasingly aged labor force by moving older workers systematically out of their jobs so as to not cause them financial harm (Atchley, 1980, p. 264). Although retirement has been considered benign since its inception, the history of retirement indicates that it is one of the main progenitors of ageism in society today (Atchley, 1982, 1993; Haber & Gratton, 1994; McDonald, 2013; Walker, 1990). Retirement and its accompanying stereotypes have been used as a tool for the management of the size and composition of the labor force contingent on the dictums of current markets in any given historical era. Ever-changing ideologies about older adults that extend from negative to positive ageism have been utilized by business, government, the public, and the media to support whatever justification is required in a particular era, with little thought to the harm perpetrated on older adults. Unfortunately, society has subscribed to these justifications en masse, including older adults themselves. In this article the ageism embedded in retirement is examined to make what is implicit explicit to social work practitioners and policymakers in the field of aging.

Keywords: retirement, ageism, retirement policy, older workers, age discrimination


There has never been common agreement on what constitutes retirement in the social science literature. Although many would agree that retirement involves some type of withdrawal from the paid labor force, the definition of retirement remains problematic. Some people retire and go back to work, some people never retire, and some people retire who have never worked. Conceptually retirement has been characterized as an event, a social role, a process and as an institution as noted above. As a single event, retirement customarily means the formal end of employment, accompanied by some rite of passage (McDonald & Wanner, 1990). As a social role, retirement refers to the societal norms about the rights and responsibilities of the social position of retiree (Palmore, 1985). Retirement as a process customarily views retirement on a life course continuum to include planning, the decision to retire, the transition from work to retirement (and back) and the stages the older adult purportedly experiences in retiring (McDonald & Donahue, 2011). As a societal institution, retirement operates to remove older workers from the labor force in a timely and orderly fashion for the benefit of the individual and society. Retirement as a social institution started as a social construction by business and industry but gradually became second nature as a taken-for-granted structural reality (Ekerdt, 2010; Kohli, 2007). Most North Americans and Europeans came to see retirement as a social right that they looked forward to (Graebner, 2015; Macnicol, 2015; McDonald & Donahue, 2011). Although the boundary between work and retirement is constantly shifting and retirement practices and policies constantly evolving (e.g., raising the age of retirement), there remains an element of ageism fundamental to retirement. The ageism embodied in retirement is all the more lethal because it is unknowingly biased against older people and is harmful to them (McNamara & Williamson, 2012).

Like retirement, ageism is a multifaceted concept that would find little agreement among scholars. Iversen, Larsen, and Solem (2009) offer an encompassing definition:

Ageism is defined as a negative or positive stereotype, prejudice and/or discrimination against (or to the advantage of) elderly people on the basis of their chronological age or on the basis of a perception of them of being ‘old’ or ‘elderly’. Ageism can be implicit or explicit and can be expressed on a micro-, meso or macro level.

(p. 15)

The definition is most useful because it includes the major aspects of ageism: the cognitive (stereotypes), affective (attitudes) and behaviors (discrimination), the positive and negative aspects of ageism and that ageism occurs, not only at the individual and group levels but also at national/international levels. In this article, only institutional ageism is addressed. Institutional age discrimination refers to systems in society such as the state, employers, the economy, the media, and retirement that fundamentally see the young and the old as not only unequal but different (Bytheway, 1995, p. 130). These systems justify and sustain their beliefs on the basis of their dominance in society.

Ageism and Models of Retirement

Regardless of the nuances in the histories of retirement in industrialized nations, the fundamental link between chronological age and retirement is what renders retirement ageist and serves as the basis for age discrimination (Graebner, 2015, p. 188). The central models that attempt to explain retirement are contradictory at best and represent the view of handful of historians and economists that tend to split along two lines (Achenbaum, 1978; Fischer, 1978; Graebner, 1980, 2015; Haber, 1978; Haber & Gratton, 1994; Macnicol, 1998, 2008, 2015; Phillipson, 1999). While Europeans appear to favor the role of public and economic policies in the development of retirement (Kohli & Rein, 1991; European Commission, 2007; Macnicol, 2008, 2015; OECD, 1995; Phillipson, 2004; Platman & Taylor, 2004), North Americans emphasize individual behavioral explanations (Atchley, 1976; Graebner, 2015; Marshall & Gard Marshall, 2003; McDonald & Wanner, 1990; Hardy et al., 1996; Quinn, Burkhauser, & Myers, 1990). The individual versus structural issues have been framed as the push/pull factors affecting individual retirement (Graebner, 2015) and as the supply side and the demand side of the economy. Did people decide collectively to retire? Or is retirement an after-effect of economic structuring beyond individuals’ control (Macnicol, 1998, 2008, 2015)?

The pull factors, buttressed by rational choice theory, is that the behavior of older adults is a voluntary response to economic incentives such as personal wealth and public and private pension plans (Meadows, 2002; Quinn, 2010; Sandell, 1987; Snell, 1996). The launch of the Social Security Act (1935) in the United States and other countries was argued to be the quintessential feature that led to mass retirement (Haber & Gratton, 1994; Leonesio, 1993; Wise, 1997). Volumes of labor force statistics have been marshaled to illustrate how labor force participation rates of older men (not women) dropped with the introduction of social security while others provided contradicting data questioning the “causal” association between the two (Burtless, 1987) and raising the possibility of reverse causality (Macnicol, 2015). Reverse causality means that retirement pushed many men into destitution that led to the establishment of social security.

The opposing accounts are that the evolution of Western industrialized economies have contributed over time to the marginalization of older adults beginning in the late 19th century (Macnicol, 2006, 2008, 2015; McDonald, 2013). Retirement was driven by long-term economic imperatives through the advent of industrialization and the introduction of faster technologies to a global economy that required “flexible” workers. Age discrimination in employment was not blamed for retirement in this explanation. Macnicol (2015) shows that there has been a net fall in average ages of retirement between 1970 and 2012 in North America and in European counties that cannot be explained by different social security systems. Furthermore, to conflate macro-economic restructuring with individual behavior assumes behavior should be changed when the structure of the economy may be at fault. Palmore (2006) takes Macnicol’s perspective to task on the basis that Macnicol seems to support mandatory retirement from the demand side of the supply/demand equation, something Palmore is obviously against (2006, p. 849). Palmore says, “I am glad … the United States has taken the lead in outlawing this kind of injustice.” referring to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) 1967 (2006, p. 850). The ADEA was amended a number of times since its inception in 1967 and outlaws age discrimination in employment and mandatory retirement in the United States except for a few select occupations.

One of the more perplexing aspects of the two accounts of retirement is that ageism in retirement—as an institution—is rarely mentioned. For example, Graebner (2015) concludes that there is little that is ageist in the history of retirement. He concedes that mandatory retirement was ageist, but once retirement was no longer associated with age 65 there was no more ageism—retirement had been “de-chronologized” as part of the life course (Graebner, 2015, p. 203). Macnicol (2008, 2015) is less circumspect and does not appear to think that mandatory retirement was ageist at all because it did not affect many people, a rather unconvincing argument that does not address the ageism issue.

The problem with both accounts is only attitudes on the part of employers and the public are recognized as ageist and the behavioral and institutional aspects of ageism are overlooked. More importantly, however, if a decision is rational according to the precepts of economics (i.e., good for productivity) there is no ageism. As Macnicol (2015) states, “In law, discrimination is ‘rational’, ‘justified’ or ‘fair’ if a personnel decision can be proved to be productivity related.” (p. 183). He clearly states that retirement is a tool wielded by corporations to manage the labor force; however, since it is rational, it is not really ageist (Macnicol, 2015). Graebner makes similar arguments (e.g., “rational labor market decisions by corporations to keep pace with technological change … [are also not ageist]” (2015, p. 250).

One of the great levelers of age discrimination in retirement in both perspectives is that systematic ageism is simply a result of the “natural” functioning of the economy, which is “self-regulating,” “scientific,” and the most “efficient” of economic systems—a handy social construction by government, business, and industry that is false but makes ageism in retirement an unquestionable given (McDonald, 2013). To be precise, the economies in most industrialized nations are not “natural” or “self-regulating” since they are constantly subject to government interventions such as the regulation of corporate tax rates in the United States. Retirement was not “natural” and was the initial outcome of the intervention of government and business to stabilize the economy. Economics was originally part of moral philosophy but rapidly withdrew from this discipline to model itself on positivism and the natural sciences to be theoretically value free. With few values to apply, the ageism of retirement was simply a scientific given. There are a host of economic models that have been disastrous at prediction and explanation (Cassidy, 2009). If there is any doubt, the worldwide recession in 2008 had much to do with poor economic projections by economists. The implication they could be wrong in their analyses suggested they could be wrong about ageism and retirement. In essence, the main perspectives on retirement are economic in nature and do not see retirement as the epitome of ageism—and, in their estimate, if there is ageism, it is scientific and therefore justified.

The Growth of Retirement in Western Industrialized Nations

From a social work perspective there are other ways to look at the history of retirement and what it means for current and future policy and practice. A quick look at history using North America as an example shows that retirement has always been related to age in the form of “on time retirement” at age 65, “late retirement,” which is past age 65, and “early retirement” usually between ages 60 to 64. Although the histories from industrial countries are different in terms of time, the main threads to the story are similar. As an example, in United States in 1862, the retirement of Civil War veterans of the Union army were “pulled” out of the labor force by “windfall benefits” (Graebner, 2015, p. 192) a difference from Canada where there was no civil war but a pension was paid to soldiers in the British garrison in Canada, which served to attach older soldiers to the country while the younger soldiers deserted to the United States.

Landmarks in Retirement

First Nations

Modern conceptualizations of retirement did not exist in pre-industrial Aboriginal society. Biological aging provided the impetus for the gradual withdrawal from work for both men and women. In these communal subsistence societies, men and women were supported in their gradual withdrawal from labor until they became a burden to the group and a potential threat to survival and both were equally likely to be abandoned when this condition was reached. When there was less pressure on the aged to contribute to the group, due to better food supplies and technological advances in travel, both men and women were usually maintained by the band or group even though they were not productive. With the establishment of the fur trade, a corporate welfare system administered from Hudson Bay Company posts provided backup assistance to Aboriginal men and women experiencing hard times, a service designed to maintain strong ties with Aboriginal people and thereby to advance commerce.

Stepping Down in Pre-Industrial Countries

Retirement prior to industrialization did not resemble the retirement we know today. Visions of lying on a white sandy beach under gently swaying palm trees with drink in hand—a culturally conditioned lifestyle made possible by a social security system, a private pension system, and a financial planning industry—was unfathomable. Retirement meant that a man or women ceased work in the jobs that occupied them over a lifetime, a transition that was usually gradual and according to the desires, capacities, and timetables of the older persons and their families (McDonald & Wanner, 1990). According to Pakans (1989), in the period before the inception of formal retirement, people “stepped down” from their work, but these actions were informal, “that did not necessarily mean a complete separation from the world of work. They signaled, at most, the beginning of a process of withdrawal that ended only with complete infirmity or death” (Pakans, 1989, p. 176). Stepping down was a long process characterized by a broad variety of patterns. At the same time, withdrawal from work could also be abrupt and swift, with people “dropping in their tracks” as a result of illness or accident—but even then, people still tried to engage in productive work (McDonald, 2013).

Agrarian Times and the Early Industrial Economy

In resource-exporting and agricultural economies in North America that predominated until the latter half of the 19th century, “stepping down” was probably the norm, at least for men. Ownership of the family farm facilitated the stepping down process for men (Fischer, 1978; Gagan, 1981; Haber & Gratton, 1994; Synge, 1980). The family farm was the primary productive unit in which adult children worked for many years without pay. The children acquired a vested interest in the family communal property, which was expected to grow in value as a result of their labor and that they would inherit in time (Snell, 1996, p. 101). When daughters or sons were married they drew on the communal property to establish their own households or sometimes took over the main property. Every member of the family had a claim to family land, generation after generation, although some had larger claims than others, customarily sons over daughters. Ownership of the farm gave the farmer the power and the opportunity to control the whole process of succession and the related process of stepping down. According to Snell (1992), maintenance agreements, which had roots in medieval Europe, were used at the time of succession that detailed the care the older farmer was to receive in his old age once he handed over the farm to his children.

The “retirement” of women had a shadowy presence during this time. Women lacked the power and benefits derived from the ownership of property that made their stepping down subject to the needs and wishes of others. If women had the opportunity to withdraw from work at all, they likely stepped down at their husband’s bidding and according to his timetable. The single most important feature of the whole process was the husband’s death, which cast the woman into circumstances circumscribed by her husband’s last will and testament that, typically, passed her social and economic security over to a male adult child. Unquestionably, the dominance over women varied from household to household; yet, ultimately, how a woman withdrew from work was in the hands of her male providers.

When a worker did not own property and was employed by others, the worker continued to work until physically incapable. To support this approach at the time, the relationship between employer and worker was characterized as a paternalistic arrangement with a more individualized type of association between employer and employee that preceded the more impersonal relationships of industrial capitalism (Pentland, 1981, p. 26). Historical accounts of the 19th-century workplace found that older workers were reassigned to jobs that matched their abilities so they could work as long as possible (Macnicol, 1998; McDonald, 2002; Snell, 1996). It is important to note that during this time biological aging provided the impetus for the gradual withdrawal from work for most persons in pre-industrialized nations (McDonald, 2013). As early as 1790 in the United States mandatory retirement at ages 60 or 70 applied to public servants such as judges (Graebner, 2015), a rule based on biological aging.

As North America began to industrialize, private pensions began to appear in the early 1800s and sowed the seeds for the multipurpose use of retirement to discipline and stabilize the labor force. The aim of a pensioned retirement was to encourage the loyalty of employees, to cut labor turnover, and make it easier to rid the company of aging workers (Morton & McCallum, 1988, p. 11). One of the first uses of the pension was as a “gift” to employees provided by the railways—not to ensure the welfare of the older worker but to control the worker through incentives to stay with their employer, and the gift could be easily revoked. At the time, Imperial Oil stated that the new corporate welfare “is not philanthropy and it is not benevolence: it is a cold-blooded business proposition” (Morton & McCallum, 1988, p. 11). If there is any doubt about this view, in 1910 during a bitter strike, the Grand Trunk railway wiped out the pension rights of the workers who had struck the company, only to return them in 1923 when the Grand Trunk became part of the government-owned Canadian National Railways. While there are many more examples in North America and Europe of these developments, retirement, accompanied by a coveted pension, was evolving from economic roots and not from any of the values of benefice social workers subscribe to.

So by the beginning of the 20th century, older workers’ retirement still remained unlikely although the idea gained some ground through the introduction of “corporate welfare.” Only the wealthiest, the sickest, and those few privileged workers with pensions, (Civil War Veterans in the United States), who were usually men, could retire.

Advanced Industrialization

A bellwether event in the history of retirement was the policy of Bismarck in 1889. This policy relied on a military metaphor in calling for state pensions for working-class men in a rapidly industrializing Germany:

The State must take the matter into its own hands, not as alms giving but as the right that men have to be taken care of when, from no fault of their own, they have become unfit for work. Why should regular soldiers and officers have old age pensions, and not the soldier of labor?”

(Donahue, Orbach, & Pollak, 1960, p. 351)

His comments are ageist because he is only referring to age in his third and last piece of social legislation. The Sickness Insurance Law already passed in 1883 insured those who were ill and the Accident Insurance Law of 1884 insured those who were injured, both temporarily and permanently. Chancellor Bismarck was referring to those who naturally aged and could no longer work as a result.

The law was proclaimed 24 May in 1889 and set the age for retirement at age 70. A compulsory pension at age 70 was paid for by the worker, the employer and the government, and was extremely unpopular among workers at the time (Herbay, 2014; U.S. Commissioner of Labor, 1896). The policy was also ageist, since a cut-off age was used, and it took an unjust advantage of older workers because the life expectancy in Germany at the time was 37.7 years for newborn males and 41.4 years for newborn females (Herbay, 2014, p. 5). Even though it was compulsory to pay into the plan, most German workers would not live long enough to collect. Chancellor Bismarck’s motivation for old age security was to inhibit the development of the opposition of the German Social Democratic Party by copying their policies and had little to do with beneficence. The social insurance plan reverberated around the world but gained little, if any, traction with the implied ageism in the plan. The German plan led others, especially government and business, to focus, however, on the threat of social insurance, which was really nothing more than a case of subsidized wages as far as they were concerned (McDonald, 2013). What most did not notice was the link made between age and incapacitation as stated by Bismarck (McDonald & Wanner, 1990).

The Effects of Advanced Industrialism

With the die being cast, advanced industrialization undeniably had negative outcomes for certain male and female workers (Atchley, 1982; Graebner, 2015; Haber & Gratton, 1993; Snell, 1996). With massive demographic and technological changes, the structure of industry was transformed dramatically. Units of production became larger, labor became a commodity bought and sold in the marketplace, and the organization of firms became more bureaucratic with specialized divisions of labor, hierarchical chains of command and centralized authority (McDonald & Wanner, 1990). These changes made it much more problematic for firms to accommodate the needs of older workers.

During the late 19th century to the mid-20th century a virulent ageism developed across many institutions in North America including corporations, the government, charitable agencies and the military. Coupled with the dubious wear-and-tear-theory of aging promoted by scientists, the need for efficiency promoted by business through Fredrick Taylor—and the dangerous comments by Dr. William Osler—older men and women were considered useless and generally unproductive (Haber, 1983; McDonald & Wanner, 1990). Charitable organizations such as the Social Service Congress of Canada, while well intentioned, added to images of older people not only as unproductive but also as indigent, the “deserving poor” (Ames, 1987, p. 75).

“Scientific management” introduced by management consultant, Taylor (1947) divided the production process into small, easily learned, and repetitive operations that emphasized physical efficiency and speed. By focusing on physical ability at the expense of skills and knowledge, Taylorism touched the Achilles’ heel of older workers and undermined their authority based on experience, knowledge, and skill. During this time the wear-and-tear theory of aging gained prominence, reinforcing the principles of scientific management (Achenbaum, 1978). Dr. August Weismann, the originator of wear-and-tear theory, believed cells and tissues had vital parts that wear out, which results in aging. As a consequence, older workers were already “worn out” and not able to keep up with the pace of the technology. At the same time, renowned professionals such as Dr. William Osler urged that men over 60 should retire. He pointed out the “incalculable benefit … in commercial, political, and professional life, if as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age” (The Globe, 1905a, p. 1). An older man in St. Louis chloroformed himself several days later in light of these comments (The Globe, 1905b, p. 7). Given Taylorism—the belief that older workers were worn out—and ageist views by national leaders, it is not surprising that older workers were seen by employers as having lost control over the pace of their work and unable to meet new productivity demands. Women workers were particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of technological change because they were paid piece rates (Prentice et al., 1996).

Mandatory Retirement

US management practices were quickly adopted in the 1920s in many industrialized countries. Ford’s innovation of rewarding seniority through annual bonuses and his introduction of the wage ladder became particularly attractive during the strikes in 1919. After having deskilled the worker through Taylorism, the traditional discipline attached to the crafts disappeared, causing the continuous turnover of uncommitted workers. By creating a complex set of graduations among indistinguishable jobs within the factory, Ford provided semiskilled workers with an artificial hierarchy to climb, one that was tied to seniority rather than skill. With the creation of the internal labor market the seniority schemes necessitated a cut-off point. Older workers became inefficient because they received considerably more money than younger workers for doing the same work and, as a result, an important reason for mandatory retirement was invented (Haber & Gratton, 1993, p. 109). Haber and Gratton have argued that these innovations worked for and against older workers: protecting the long-term employment of some but preventing older workers, such as older women, from breaking into “internal markets.” Haber and Gratton also maintained that the internal markets and seniority systems curtailed by mandatory retirement were not instances of conscious ageism but were management solutions to labor force problems (Haber & Gratton, 1993, pp. 106–107; McDonald, 2013). Undoubtedly they were solutions to a self-inflicted problem by business and industry, but they were still ageist. As Lawrence Friedman (1984) stated, mandatory retirement is “the form of age discrimination par excellence.” (Graebner, 2015, p. 197).

The irony of retirement is that over time it was a double-edged sword. Retirement initially was developed as a mechanism to commit workers to the firm in times of strife by “buying their loyalty” through promised retirement pensions that could only be collected at the end of their employment. The business sector that developed retirement then had to adjust this short-sighted policy by the introduction of mandatory retirement to prevent the runaway costs incurred by older workers who hypothetically could work indefinitely. In short, age was used to both keep and remove workers from the labor force, a compounded ageism at minimum (McDonald, 2013).

Older workers were not that enthused about mandatory retirement as developed by industrialists to suit their own economic needs. Even though their work was difficult in the factories, mandatory retirement led to significantly lower income and many resisted. As the celebration of youth spread from the 1920s onward, older workers stepped aside grudgingly in North America. After the devastation of the stock market collapse in 1929 and the beginning of the Great Depression with its massive unemployment, social security was introduced to put the young back to work and to move older workers out of the way. Notwithstanding the significance of social security in the history of social welfare, the old-age insurance provisions continued to support mandatory retirement indirectly. Pensions were still keyed to specific ages of retirement at their inception and continued over time as they matured through the 1960s. For example, in the United States the insurance provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935 set pension payments at age 65; the British Old Age Pensions Act in 1908 set retirement age at 70, while in Canada the Old Age Pension Act in 1951 set payments at age sixty-five. Various countries implemented social security for different reasons, such as poverty in Canada, or pauperism in Britain; however, at bottom, the reasons were largely economically motivated. In the United States, Social Security, among other factors, was calculated to increase retirement in times of high unemployment. According to one survey in 1940–1941 over 50 percent of retirees said they had actually been laid off (Costa, 1998). In addition, a close look at retirement regulations for a pension indicated that Social Security created a work disincentive because a certain level of earnings decreased benefits.

The Entrenchment of Retirement

During the Second World War the growth of private pensions came about because of labor shortages and wage controls. In inflationary times pensions were once again used to manipulate the labor force; however, this time the idea was to attract youth, women, and older men to the labor market. With only employer fringe benefits on offer, there was an increase in mandatory retirement schemes across North America (Graebner, 1980; McDonald & Wanner, 1990). In the United States, private pensions went from 12% of workers to 17%. In Canada over 700 firms offered compulsory retirement plans. The Financial Post observed, “The order of the day on business and industry is fast becoming compulsory retirement at age 65” (Financial Post, 1949, p. 15).

In the aftermath of the Second World War and the economic recovery faced by most industrial nations, older men and women were once again pushed out of the labor force to make room for returning veterans. Older workers still did not embrace mandatory retirement, since up to 60% of persons nearing retirement did not want to withdraw from work according to surveys in the United States (Graebner, 1980). In Canada, critics saw retirement as a “chronological guillotine” that could actually lead to an earlier death because it was unnatural and unhealthy to retire (Financial Post, 1957; Labor Gazette, 1957; Macleans, 1961). Not to be deterred by negative views of retirement, governments and corporations in their quest to remove older workers from the labor force, marketed retirement as a natural and inevitable event for the deserving older worker who could enjoy their newfound leisure. Most were convinced.

The negative ageism experienced by retirees took a sharp turn toward positive ageism, sometimes called “benign” or “compassionate” ageism (McDonald, 2013; Binstock, 2010). Western economies were prospering through the 1960s and 1970s (Macnicol, 2015) and so it was economically feasible to make changes to support older adults. Examples include Medicare and Medicaid, enacted in 1965 in the United States; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1967, amended in 1978 and 1986, which abolished mandatory retirement at any age and the enhancement of retirement benefits through the Employee Retirement Income Act of 1974. The new generosity was based on a stereotype of a deserving older person who should be collectively insured by government against the financial risks associated with a fixed-age retirement either early at age 62 or at age 65 in Canada, the United States, and Europe (McDonald, 2013). This stereotype also included the downside of “structured dependency,” a matter of treating older adults as more dependent than they needed to be (Townsend, 2006, p. 161). It is not surprising that retirement was viewed as one of the main culprits promoting positive ageism when, for example, in Canada in 1984, the government provided 51.3% of income for those over age 65 (National Council of Welfare, 1984, p. 42), and the number was still close to 50% at the beginning of the 21st century. In the United States in 1985 around 122 million Americans were in employment that was covered under Social Security.

The “retirement expectation” developed in some quarters to provide a cultural explanation of retirement can also be used to indicate how the acceptance of retirement seeped deeply into the consciousness of Western societies. Retirement had reached the level of social right with older workers joyfully trooping into retirement on their own accord, not forced by the corporate sector (Atchley, 1993; Graebner, 1980; McDonald & Donahue, 2011; Macnicol, 2015). As outlined by two early American gerontologists, “In the relatively short period of forty years Americans have adopted policies … which have institutionalized relatively early retirement as a fundamental and expected part of the life course” (Morrison & Barocas, 1984, p. 119).

The Early Retirement Trap

The positive ageism experienced by older workers quickly evaporated as the long economic boom came to an end and the restructuring of Western economies continued. With the oil crises in 1973 and 1979, and subsequent recessions in 1982 and 1990 in developed nations, the corporate need for larger profits in a global economy, downsizing and lowered wages, encouraged early retirement as at least one solution. High unemployment rates did not help. Employers in the private and public sectors began to downsize their work forces through offering early retirement packages to older workers (Foot & Gibson, 1993; McDonald, Donahue, & Marshall, 2000; Siroonian, 1993). Once again, retirement was seen as a possible tool to help solve economic problems such as unemployment and once again older workers were manipulated to meet the needs of governments and corporations. In the late 1980s and early 1990s approximately 39% of older Canadian men retired because of early retirement provisions; in the United States during the 1980s, 40% of American corporations with a thousand or more employees winnowed their labor forces through early retirement incentives (Meier, 1986). In the UK, almost 50% of early retirees left work due to early retirement plans introduced by employers to cut staff (Laczko, Dale, Arber, & Gilbert, 1988).

Although in the 1990s some scholars have tried to argue for the de-chronologizing of retirement, early retirement is still defined by age categories, usually anywhere between 60 to 64 years of age. On this basis alone, early retirement is ageist, but it also had other dubious effects such as extending the length of time of old age, extending the length of retirement when people could still be productive, and unfortunately frequently served as a mask for involuntary retirement (McDonald, 2013). For example, in Canada in 2002, 30% of early retirees reported they were involuntarily retired (Schellenberg et al., 2004). How many of these forced early retirees fell within the “retirement gap” where they were too young to qualify for social security is unknown (McDonald et al., 2000).

The net reduction in retirement ages across Europe and North America indicated that government and business were successful in solidifying early retirement but found themselves ensnared in another bind of their own making. Along with the public, they problematized early retirement during the retrenchment of the welfare state in the late 1970s because early retirement was too expensive to maintain in the long run (Macnicol, 2015). At this time, society viewed older adults as consuming too large a proportion of the Social Security budget that was unsustainable (Graebner, 2015). As Robert Binstock concluded in the 1990s, the compassionate stereotypes of older persons had undergone revision (1994, p. 727), and a new stereotype of older people as “ruining the nation” or as “greedy geezers” (in the United States) was solidified (Binstock, 2010, p. 576). The fact that job growth was in youth-dominated sectors of the economy (technology) did not help the cause of older workers who tended to be found in declining industries. In order to increase the labor pool and thereby reduce costs, retirement was used by governments and business to try and put older workers back to work after having successfully encouraged them to retire early (Graebner, 2015; Macnicol, 2015; McDonald, 2013).

Back to the Beginning

Late retirement, preferably after age 65, became the new norm for the retirement age as witnessed in the legal increase of retirement ages in North America and Europe (Sass et al., 2010). As early as 1983 the retirement age in the United States was changed to gradually rise from 65 to 67 years under amendments to the Social Security Act. This change, of course, represented a cut in Social Security benefits and lower benefits for retirees of the future. For corporations, the amendments raised payroll taxes (employer contributions) to over 5% of business revenues in the United States, a switch found in a number of countries (Baldwin & FitzGerald, 2010).

Businesses and industries quickly implemented a solution to save costs. They changed from offering defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans (401K plans), which cost less to administer and shifted most of the market risk in their pension plans to their workers (Butricia et al., 2009). A defined pension plan is a type of plan in which an employer promises a specified monthly benefit on retirement that is predetermined by a formula based on the employee’s earnings history, tenure of service, and age. In a defined contribution plan, the employer and employee contribute a defined amount to the pension account and the amount of pension income received on retirement is determined by the amount of contributions accumulated and the investment income earned. The first type of plan is better for the older worker because the exact amount of the retirement income is known while the second type of plan has no guarantees at time of retirement because the investment income fluctuates with the economy. The extent of change from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan was extensive. For example, in 1975 in the United States over 70% of workers had defined benefit plans but in 2006, 75% had defined contribution plans.

What is perhaps most thought provoking is how older workers are now viewed by society. Previously seen as the deserving poor, unproductive and technologically illiterate (and then as “greedy geezers”), older workers are now seen to be productive, healthy, vibrant, and effective workers. This view is supported by the active aging metaphor and/or the successful aging paradigm proposed by Rowe and Kahn (1998). The perspectives posit that older adults currently have the ability to avoid illness and to minimize losses (including physical losses) and that they should enhance their engagement in life, whether it be through work, volunteering, active leisure, or other avenues. There is little research to support this view, but it resembles activity theory (keeping older people busy) that reigned in the 1950s (Havighurst & Albrecht, 1953). In some ways retirement has gone full circle back to earlier times where the older worker continued to work, the burden of the cost of retirement was on the retirees’ shoulders, and pensions, if they existed at all, were small. Nevertheless, pensions that make retirement possible are now tied to later ages past age 65 so that chronology and age are still linked and therefore ageist.

The Significance of Retirement and Ageism

The ageism rooted in retirement is important to social workers for at least four reasons. First, by moving older workers in and out of the labor force, retirement helped define the last segment of a person’s life by acting as the main bridge to later life. The link is of considerable import since it connects the intuitional structures of work and non-work via a pension, the value of which contributes to income and well-being in old age (McDonald & Donahue, 2011). This relationship holds today and can be traced to the poverty of some segments of the older population in a number of countries. According to the United States Census Bureau, 10% of those 65 and older are below the official poverty line while 15% are below the Supplemental Poverty Measure. Of this group, women are over represented, mainly because of their different work and retirement histories (Cubanski, Casillas, & Damico, 2015).

Second, falling sway to retirement stereotypes constrains the choices faced by many older adults and can be harmful to them. A stereotype currently encouraged is the “late retiree,” a person who works past age 65 because older people are now seen to be vital and active, indeed, a picture of successful aging (Chappell et al., 2008; Macnicol, 2015). While innocuous at first glance, retirees with a disability or caregiving responsibilities, for example, cannot always work into their seventies and have “failed” as a late retiree.

Third, age discrimination is reportedly perceived by 34.8% of older adults in England compared to 29.1% in the United States according to more recent national longitudinal studies of “everyday discrimination” (Rippon, Zaninotto, & Steptoe, 2015). What is particularly offensive about age discrimination is that it has deleterious effects on older adults such as on their own self-perceptions because they internalize the negative stereotypes (Bensadon, 2015). They also internalize positive ageist perceptions that can increase their dependency. Ageism can affect older adults’ health, family relationships, medical care and work history (Palmore, 2015, p. 873). Most recently, researchers using data from 28 European countries discovered that the adverse effects of income inequality on the health of older adults are largely explained by perceived age discrimination (Vauclair, Marques, Lima, Abrams, Swift, & Bratt, 2015). By being vigilant to the many masked stereotypes of retirement, more possibilities will be open to the social worker for intervention beyond attempting to help people “adjust” to dubious circumstances.

Lastly, social workers have considerable impact on the formulation and implementation of social policy. The case of retirement needs to be thoughtfully addressed, however, because jettisoning age-based retirement can cut both ways (Macnicol, 2015). If retirement were no longer age-based there may be the danger of eliminating all age-based benefits for older adults, which could end subsidized housing, transportation, leisure activities, health care, etc. Such a move would be disadvantageous to many, especially the poor. In spite of this dire view, the citizenship model of social work offers an attractive solution (Payne, 2012). The integration of services for holistic practice through age-proofing and mainstreaming services is at the heart of citizenship social work practice. The aim of age-proofing and mainstreaming is to ensure that everyday services do not exclude older adults, which is a switch from “specialist services” often favored in many countries. Payne (2013) aptly argues that older adults should be able to partake of all business, public, health and social services just like anyone else and that the services should be organized accordingly. Not only would the cost of aging to society be reduced but older adults would genuinely be part of mainstream society instead of marginalized, in this case through retirement. Furthermore, specialized gerontological services could be better targeted at those who would need them most, not on the basis of age. When translated into practice this would mean that gerontological social work would be embedded in the full continuum of services available to the entire population.


This abridged history of retirement has shown how retirement as an institution has been systematically ageist since its inception over a hundred years ago. There is little doubt that retirement has been utilized as a management device by corporations and governments to manage the labor force over time, depending on whether it is financially advantageous to business to remove or attach older workers to their employment. Ever-changing ideologies about older adults that extend from negative to positive ageism have been utilized by business, government, the public, and the media to support whatever justification is required in a particular era, with little thought to the harm perpetrated on older adults. The justifications span a wide array of images of older people from being dependent, vulnerable, and frail through to job snatchers and greedy geezers, joyous early retirees, and now productive and healthy but late retirees. Unfortunately, society has subscribed to these justifications en masse, including older adults themselves. Professional social workers armed with more knowledge about retirement have the option of avoiding stereotypes and choosing different models for intervention that avoid ageist stereotypes and empower older adults to make their own choices about work and retirement.


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