We attended a long time friend and colleague, Frans’, retirement party, last Saturday, in an idyllic farm setting among the hills surrounding the small town of Riebeek West. The large contingent of friends, colleagues and acquaintances from the past entailed a severe memory test of putting names and faces together. I started thinking about the origins of the concept of retirement and the pension that usually goes with it. It would lead to interesting discoveries about the history of man’s development and our progress as a social species.
Of course there were the normal corny jokes at the party, like asking Frans if for his “reti(y)rement” he was going for Goodyears or Fire Stones.
But those aside, the word itself has a fairly straight forward and uncomplicated history. Essentially the word means to withdraw or pull back from something. It comes from the Middle French word, retirer. The word is formed from 're', meaning 'back, and 'tirer', which translates to draw.
In its original meaning the word indicated the withdrawal to some place for the sake of seclusion and first recorded as such in 1538. In the sense of leaving an occupation, the word was first recorded in 1648. Closer to the original meaning, in the sense of announcing that you are “retiring for the night”, as in going to bed, was first recorded in 1670.
In most countries around the world, the concept of formal retirement is of relative recent origin. It only got introduced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During earlier times, life expectancy, plus the absence of the concept and practice of pensions, made the idea of retirement a nonstarter.
If people did grow too old to physically continue with their normal occupation on of two things happened: Their younger kin would look after them, often in exchange for looking after the grandchildren. In ancient Ireland there even developed legal code to formalised the responsibilities to look after the old folk in the family.
The other possibility was for the person too old to hunt or work the fields, turn to tending to the grandchildren or fix nets and tools. The more cunning patriarchs amongst them, who could no longer farm, herd cattle or pitch a tent, opted for more specialised, less labor-intensive occupations, like prophesying and handing down commandments. Or some, like many until today, moved in with the kids.
As the centuries passed, and living conditions improved, the elderly population increased. By early medieval times, their numbers had reached critical mass. The white-bearded patriarch was no longer the exception and other ways of dealing with the elderly had to be made.
By the 1880s the situation inspired one Anthony Trollope to write a futuristic novel, The Fixed Period. He foresaw a time when large numbers of retiring old men would go to a place where they will be encouraged to enjoy a year of contemplation, followed by a peaceful chloroforming.
Luckily for those of us, reaching that stage of our lives now, around the same time Otto von Bismarck came up with another innovation, which would soon spread to other parts of the world. As part of his social legislation, an Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill passed in 1889 and the world saw the birth of the concept of the pension (stemming from the Latin word pēnsiō, meaning weighing out.)
The Old Age Pension Programme, financed by a tax on workers, was originally designed to provide a pension annuity for workers who reached the age of 70 years. This was lowered to 65 years in 1916.
Frans’ party was very much in the Irish tradition of looking out for the elderly folks, with his beautiful young daughter, Charlotte and her husband, organising a lamb on the spit braai for the occasion.
I know that is for sure what they had in mind, but that lovely lamb on the spit might have been a throw back to a tradition of some ancient civilisations.
Way back during the Stone Age, retirement just did not exist since there were no old people.
Everyone was fully employed, in the sense of contributing to the everyday existence and/or survival, until age 20. By that age nearly everyone was dead, usually of unnatural causes. Any early man who lived long enough to develop crow's-feet was either worshiped or eaten as a sign of respect.
And, with respect, few of us at that retirement party would have made a pretty picture on the spit or inspired pictures of being eaten.