Work Until You Die

Old man with wrench

“Life is very different now. Don’t you know that 100 years ago the average life expectancy was 40?” This random comment wafted my way last week after some coworkers started chatting the next cube over. They were talking about how people needed to pay more attention to their health, and plan for their retirement earlier, since what we were experiencing today is so vastly different from anything experienced in the past.

Like the myth of the frog being slowly cooked alive in as the water surrounding it heats up*, the life expectancy of earlier ages is also a so-called fact that gets thrown around.  People were so sick and tired back then that they just dropped dead at age 40. Your life was over in the blink of an eye! This is simply not true.

An average life expectancy is just that – an average – and averages are biased when the numbers being used in the calculation are extreme. In the case of the ancient world, something like 2/3 or 3/4 of all children would die before the age of five.  Anyone who is a parent, or who knows a parent of a young child, can easily understand why this is the case. Since children are exposed to everything for the first time, hardly a week goes by without them getting sick from some random bug. If they didn’t enjoy the wonders of modern medicine these illnesses would often kill them rather than make them uncomfortable like today.  However, if a person survives past the age of five they generally lived into their late 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.

So why am I bringing this up? The reason is this: modern medicine has saved billions of kids from dying. And millions of mothers from dying in childbirth. However, the average life expectancy of adults has hardly budged over millenia.  Barely 5-10 years.

What this means is that people in past eras faced a dreadful reality: they would generally need to work until the day they died.  There was no economic safety net like Social Security provided by the government. Churches and charity provided some help, but this was probably not enough for all their needs. Moreover, if the research is to be believed, 1/3 of all women who have ever lived and 2/3 of all men who have ever lived never left offspring. Even if some people had large families who could help them in old age, many did not, or didn’t have enough children who survived to make it economically feasible.** To be elderly was to live in a desperate straits. ***

So we should rejoice and be grateful!

We have so many opportunities now to secure our future that never existed in the past. Work is plentiful if you want it. Money is plentiful if you’re disciplined. There are tools available now that can help make retirement accounts blossom over a lifetime. There is information everywhere detailing innumerable methods to financial freedom, and innumerable examples of what happens if you don’t follow any of them.  Even then, if you screw up your savings the government will provide for you in old age. And you can still rely on your family or extended family to help in times of need.

There is no excuse for us to fail with this wealth of resources. There is no situation that is harder today than it was yesterday. There is no need for us to work until the day we die.

*The frog was lobotomized as part of the experiment. No frog with its brain intact would do such a thing.

**The Chinese used to refer to older bachelors as “bare branches”.  No fruit/offspring for the future, no leaves to give shelter to wife and children. Just a dead stick waiting to break.  Kind of brings home just how important it is to settle down while you’re young, right?

***Even if you weren’t old, poverty was still ever-present. Megan McArdle wrote an excellent article a few years ago examining the life described in The Little House of the Prairie book series that would shock many Americans today.

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