The retired cyclist, Part 2: Death

August 15, 2022 Comments Off on The retired cyclist, Part 2: Death

If retirement has a physical aspect with many moving parts, the emotional side is easier to sum up but much harder to deal with: Retirement is a euphemism for death.

When the first federal retirement scheme was passed in 1935 and the retirement age set at 65, life expectancy for men in the United States was 58. This meant that in order to begin receiving Social Security benefits, the average man had to be dead for seven years, a rather difficult hurdle for most corpses to clear.

This was hardly odd. The first national retirement scheme, passed by Germany in 1889, set the age of retirement at 70. Life expectancy was about 40. The idea that one worked until death was a fundamental underpinning of capitalism, and only the threat of Marxism and the high cost to business of older workers was able to ring in the era of retirement.

Leaving aside the economic swindle of retirement for the moment, retirement in fact introduces death as an inevitability around which all subsequent life must be planned. However, it was important for economic reasons not to introduce retirement as death but instead as rest and leisure so that people would accept it.

And accept it they have, only with the greatest imaginable difficulty. Of the six retirement lifestyles in the US, four involve working, an outcome as ridiculous as the notion that in order to collect benefits you have to be dead.

If retirement were posed as the final life stage ending in frailty and death, people might make vastly different choices, and governments might be forced to set up schemes that dealt with decline and death rather than ones that dealt with money that is ultimately funneled back into more employment, the healthcare industry, and the financial services industry. Nonetheless, when you are the retiree, it comes as a shock when you realize that you’ve been gaslighted. You shouldn’t have been preparing for financial security, you should have been preparing for the best way to die.

And since the death stage can last for thirty or forty years, and since it rarely ends in a happy demise with arms linked in bliss on the golf course, when you finally understand the bait-and-switch, it’s a pisser. Recently, the retirement swindlers have recast retirement not as your “golden years” a/k/a a soft and lovely landing, but as a “new beginning” in an attempt to make the whole thing sound like you aren’t going to die after all, and to thereby continue the application of pressure and coercion through fear.

What fear? The fear of scarcity, the fear, of course, that you will run out of money, when the real fear you should have taken note of is the fear that you will live the final stage in an unhealthy, sedentary, sickly, and immobile state. While the hucksters and scammers promote Internet imagery of happy, thin, active old people, statistics tell the truth: 41% of Americans over 60 are obese, according to the CDC. Not overweight, OBESE. And the number is growing. When you factor in the number who are also overweight, the percentages are staggering. This is another way of saying that the best pension on earth won’t help you climb a ladder, dig in the garden, hike up Half Dome, or get an erection when you are not simply old, but morbidly fat as well.

If retirement were packaged as death prep, there would be a much smaller emotional price to pay when you quit working. You’d see retirement not as a new beginning, a time to take up tennis and volunteer at the library, but rather as a shit-or-get-off-the-pot turning point where you’d better spend every waking moment plotting and planning on how you’re going to stay lean, fit, and extremely active. Of course confronting that reality would lead to a radical reduction of the purchases and lifestyles that make people so sick to begin with, and which underlie the functioning of capitalism and consumerism. Retirement planning would become healthy living and it would start in your 20’s and capitalism would come crashing to a halt.

Instead of being pitched as a health and end-of-life proposition, retirement is sold as a business deal, which is about what you’d expect capitalism and big business to do.

My father died with dementia, barely mobile, overweight and alcoholic in a retirement that lasted barely ten years. His wife, a horribly obese woman many years his junior, took early retirement from Exxon and has struggled with more maladies than you can shake a stick at in a retirement that to me seems nightmarish at best.

My mother, thanks to a total inability to even imagine life without a paycheck continues into her 80’s doing contract psychiatric evaluations for the VA despite multiple cancers, what appears to me to be greatly diminished cognition, and incredible frailty. Her husband’s lifetime of being overweight has resulted in heart problems, knee surgery, and an existence that has locked him into the shell of a greatly enfeebled body, at least compared to when he was younger.

These examples are actually good outcomes because, miserable and relatively immobile as they are, these folks are orders of magnitude better off than the millions who “retire” into facilities where the only life management strategy is sedation and restraint. And what’s ironic is that many people in the worst retirement scenarios, that is, sick and institutionalized, have great retirement portfolios that accounted for these very eventualities. Yet is that a good outcome? Wouldn’t it have been far better to retire with extraordinary health and a less robust portfolio instead of a great portfolio and dementia?

Dementia, obesity, and metabolic disease are precisely the outcomes for millions who have taken the bait and focused on the question “How much money will I have?” rather than “How healthy am I going to be?” All the money in my dad’s portfolio couldn’t save him from dementia or his wife from obesity, whereas an extremely active and vigorous life from his 40’s on would have greatly increased the chances that he’d be alive and happy today.

Retirement is preparation for death writ large. Ignore it at your peril.



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