Retire Retirement?

Michael Metzger

Does Monday off make you long for retirement?

As Congress wrestles with our government’s soaring debt, one entitlement program might be the easiest to fix—Social Security. Trustees project a shortfall of $3.7 trillion over the next 75 years. There are essentially two solutions being proposed. While there is merit to both, a third way—proposed by a few and consistent with Judeo-Christian faith—is worth considering.

Congress is presently trying to resolve the Social Security crisis two ways. One is on the supply side, such as raising the wage cap or taxes. The second way focuses more on the demand side. Here, benefits can be reduced, part of a Social Security account can be privatized, indexes can be changed, and/or the retirement age can be raised. When Social Security faced the 1983 fiscal crisis, the retirement age was raised—in phases—from 65 to 67. A gradual hike—for example, to 70 by 2083—would lower the projected Social Security shortfall by 38 percent according to AARP calculations.

There is, however, a third way: retire retirement. This is admittedly contrary to popular opinion but it is consistent with the Judeo-Christian faith. This tradition has historically been told as a four-chapter story: creation (how things ought to be), the fall (what things are really like in the real world as a result of our shortcomings), redemption (what we can do to mitigate our shortcomings, to make things better, to fix or repair things), and the restoration (what things will be like some day, when the world is fully restored).

In this faith tradition, work as it ought to be is understood by the Hebrew word avodah. Beginning in creation and used broadly throughout the Old Testament, avodah is translated work, service, ministry, worship, and craftsmanship (e.g., handicrafts). Work ought to encompass all we do (paid and unpaid) throughout our lives. The notion of retirement is nowhere to be found in scripture. And for much of human history, even if this story was not taken seriously, that’s the way the real world worked. People did not retire.

Throughout the Bible, the institution of work is viewed as a central feature of every stage of life. An individual’s vocation and work might change with different stages of life, but work is understood in scripture as continuing until the last days. Even when this story was not taken seriously, work was still largely a family affair, with the home as the economic engine of most societies. This is why work was often called a cottage industry.

This didn’t mean work is always enjoyable. “Chapter two” of the gospel story predicts that, with the fall, much of work would feel more like toil (Gen.3:17)—the same word to describe “the pain of childbirth” in the preceding verse. It explains why, when this story was not taken seriously, the toil of slavery was so common. As Adam Hochschild notes, at the end of the 18th century, “well over three quarters of all people alive were in bondage of one kind or another, not the captivity of striped prison uniforms, but of various systems of slavery or serfdom.”1

The travails of toil were exacerbated in the early 19th century industrial revolution. Work left the home as men toiled in the “dark, satanic mills.” Work was no longer enjoying a handicraft but enduring the horrors of factories. Industrial societies made production a premium, necessitating the cycling of laborers in and out of the system to keep up production. This is why Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck invented social security in the 1880s and set the retirement age at 65, a convenient age since the average life expectancy at that time was 45. As Michael Novak observed, “When Bismarck promised his generals a guaranteed pension after age 65, he knew that few would actually live longer than that.”

In the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935 to create a similar social insurance program designed to pay retired workers a continuing income after age 65. At that time, the average life expectancy was 61, so Roosevelt’s Social Security, like Bismarck’s, was more of a safety net for those who made it past 65. It was not designed to fund a new lifestyle for “golden years” of perpetual leisure and relaxation for large numbers of people.

The problem today is a system in crisis as a consequence of the collision of demographic realities. Life expectancy is nearly 80 today. In 1935, more than 30 working people paid for each one retired. Today, fewer than three pay for one retiree. If Albert Einstein was right—you could not solve a problem inside the system that created it—we need a new system. How about retiring retirement? Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Ken Dychtwald notes how the traditional practice of retirement—“a one-time event that permanently divides work life from leisure—no longer makes sense.”2 Rebecca Gardyn, writing in the November 2000 issue of American Demographics, agrees. “The dictionary often has trouble keeping up with society’s changing definitions of traditional nomenclature, but perhaps the term ‘retirement’ needs to be retired altogether.”3

Easier said than done. Dictionaries reflect a society’s definition of reality. Institutions largely shape these definitions. To retire retirement requires overlapping networks of institutions taking seriously a definition of work similar to avodah, encompassing all we do throughout our entire lives. The two current ways we are addressing the Social Security crisis might have merit but they operate inside the old framework. The authors of Don’t Retire, Rewire point out how later-life Americans are increasingly looking to work in a “third way.”4 Their ideas are similar to avodah. If the church acts as a resource for their “third way,” the gospel will begin to be taken seriously. That would be good news for the church as well as those who long to get more out of their work rather than toiling to get out of work altogether. It would mean on a Monday off—say, Memorial Day—we no longer long for retirement.

1 Adam Hochschild, Bury The Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), p. 2.
2 Ken Dychtwald, Tamara Erickson, and Bob Morison, “It’s Time to Retire Retirement,” Harvard Business Review, March 2004. p. 7.
3 Rebecca Gardyn, “Retirement Redefined,” American Demographics, November 2000, p. 52.
4 Jeri Sedlar and Rick Miners, Don’t Retire, Rewire (Indianapolis, IN: Alpha Books, Penguin, 2003), pp. 75ff.


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  1. Thanks for making me feel so much better about the fact that financially I’ll never be able to retire! Sharon

  2. The church needs to be leading this discussion and disconnect retirement from the American Dream. It has no place in kingdom thinking or living.

  3. Thanks for this Mike. It helps take some pressure off of someone who wonders how to fund life without work.

  4. I think the concept of a safety net is valid but in practice it needs to be balanced with a biblical perspective of individual responsibility. Given our current national leader’s lack of political will, I’m skeptical that balance can be achieved within our current SS system.

  5. First, I like the idea. But I think the complete elimination of retirement, at least in this generation, is unrealistic. How about this? Incentivize work without withdrawing the benefits under SS. Tax benefits for non-workers and not for workers, for example.
    I also want to point out that there is one fix that seems elegant, but that absolutely nobody is talking about. Invest the trust fund in something that pays an actual return on investment. By investing only in treasury securities, the gov’t is lending with one hand and borrowing with the other. The interest earned on the trust fund is paid by, guess who? If we were to invest a very modest percentage – say 30% – in a mix of things with the potential to earn an actual real return, it would in one fell swoop save the system for the next 100 years.
    Yeah, I guess the chance of that is zero too.

  6. Bingo!!!

    It is interesting to me that here in Europe there are serious protests in many EU countries against raising the retirement age. Specifically in France they are incensed because the government has the audacity to ask them to work beyond 60! Scandalous!

    I am also smiling now because when I first went to the well, Mike gave me a “severe tongue lashing” because I thought the problems we are experiencing could be solved with political courage and common sense. Now he writes a great piece on exactly that!

  7. Sorry about posting again…

    Hey Mike! Next week cover the cost of the Dept of Homeland Security!

  8. Hello Mike,

    Excellent overview, most people don’t realize the actuarial design of social security would only be working if the start date kept increasing with life expectancy facts, which currently are around 79 for a male, and around 84 for a woman.

    As Christians we are not to retire, but rehire as unto the Lord. We have 40 years while being in the desert – working for secular reasons and pay – to be honing our gifts and talents so that when we cross the river to the end of our secular job, we will be used beyound our imaginations. And the Bible shows only 2 out of 12 will take the step of faith – first recording of the 80% – 20% pareto principle by the way.

    Traditional financial planning is not Biblical, and has failed the country, and led the church astray.

    This ties into the piece you did on mega-church bankruptcies awhile back. They did the math, and figured it had to work. We know what God told Israel in the OT about relying on numbers.

    Thanks again.

    George Cisneros

  9. George:

    Good words… and did you notice that one mega church, the Crystal Cathedral, filed for bankruptcy this week. The property is up for sale. Sigh.


  10. Mike: great article. Bob is right about lack of political will…so realistically what’s the solution?

    George: I think there’s instrinsic value in our vocations and they are not simply deserts to hone our skills for meaningful work later one. Of course, not all jobs have equal value. A change of perception about how one’s job can reflect creation and redemption, in addition to add to human flourishing, can make a profound difference in ourselves and the fruit of our labor.

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