May 03, 2006

Half truth

People are healthier longer, so they should work longer. Not only are people able to perform physically demanding jobs later in life, fewer people have jobs that actually are physically demanding. Hands up if you've heard this one. If you haven't, check this example out:

What's wrong with this? Well, the fun thing is that this kind of rant advertises its own irrelevance, yet people insist on rehashing it. Yes, less people have physically demanding jobs. We've moved from heavy industry and farming, to clerking and bagging groceries. And it makes sense that someone that bags groceries is going to be able to continue doing so until much later in life than someone that works the field with a horse-drawn plough. At least on average. But that's clearly irrelevant, since people don't bag groceries all their life. There are less people performing physically demanding jobs, so physical problems associated with aging are less important. Most people work themselves up from the physically demanding jobs they do when they are young, to more mentally demanding jobs when they are old. And because of the change in western economies, increasing numbers of workers start off in cubicle jobs, where the physical readiness requirement amounts to the ability to get to the water cooler. And the bath room.

So the real question is no longer about physical ability, but mental acuity. When does mental alertness, ability to learn new fields, mental flexibility, start to decline to a point where wisdom and experience no longer compensate for it? This is the issue we need to face, when discussing retirement age. The simple solution - and one that does occur in practice - is to have people in mentally demanding jobs, go start bagging groceries when they no longer perform. But our entire culture is geared towards pushing people "up the ladder", away from the physical workout towards the mental one. Reverting would be damn hard on anyone's psyche. Is that why luminaries such as Saletan completely ignore this issue?


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