The Evolution of Retirement: A Historical Perspective

Oct 4, 2023 | Mastery

Let’s start with a socialeconomic truth: We are still cave dwellers; we just make better caves.

For the last million years (+/-), we might be better, cleaner, and healthier but in the end, has anything changed?

As we grapple with the evolution of social norms, it is important to know that only some things can be considered new subjects. We love to talk about the political environment, but the reality is that everything has stayed the same since the beginning of time. Economics is the same; nothing has changed. Relationships, entertainment, faith… yep, no changes.

So, what has changed?

The only change in the last millennium is the way we think about our thinking.

i.e., there are a few relatively new subjects, but we act as if they have been around for a while (like forever).

The biggest is the concept of retirement.

Retirement, as we understand it today, is a modern concept. Throughout history, people’s lives have been marked by labor, often with no formalized period of cessation. This essay explores the history of retirement, tracing its evolution from ancient civilizations to the present day and highlighting the social, economic, and cultural factors that have shaped it.

I. Ancient Civilizations

Retirement, in its modern form, did not exist in ancient civilizations. Instead, individuals worked until they were physically incapable or died. In ancient Egypt, workers toiled until old age, with little consideration for leisure or retirement. Similarly, the Greeks and Romans did not have retirement as a societal institution. Wealthy citizens might withdraw from active politics but continue to engage in various forms of public life.

 II. The Middle Ages and Feudalism

During the Middle Ages in Europe, the feudal system dominated, and life expectancy was considerably lower than today. Most people’s lives revolved around agrarian labor, and there was no concept of retirement. Peasants worked the land throughout their lives, while nobility, though not engaged in manual labor, held responsibilities and duties that extended into old age.

III. Early Modern Period and Industrialization

The early modern period and the onset of industrialization marked significant shifts in work and retirement patterns. The advent of factories and the industrial revolution led to a division of labor, and many workers found themselves engaged in repetitive and physically demanding jobs. The concept of retirement emerged as industrialization increased life expectancy, and industries looked for ways to replace older (slower) workers with younger and stronger laborers.

IV. The Birth of Social Security

 The late 19th and early 20th centuries witnessed the first formalized retirement systems through pensions. The pioneering example came from Germany in 1889 when Chancellor Otto von Bismarck introduced the world’s first social security system. This program provided financial support to workers aged 70, setting a precedent for other countries to follow suit. FYI – The mortality rate was 64, so it’s a nice bonus if you made it to 70.

V. The Role of Labor Unions

Labor unions played a crucial role in advancing retirement benefits for workers. In the United States, for example, labor unions such as the American Federation of Labor (AFL) negotiated for retirement benefits as part of collective bargaining agreements. Pensions became a standard feature in many employment contracts, providing retired workers with a stable source of income. Again, it was designed to get employees to step away and funded by the fact that the new younger employees’ production output was greater than the aged-out labor, and the new revenue covered the retirement cost as well as profits.

VI. The Great Depression and Social Security Act

The Great Depression of the 1930s exposed the vulnerabilities of the elderly, many of whom had lost their savings in the stock market crash. In response, the U.S. government passed the Social Security Act in 1935, originally known as the “Old Age Act” by establishing a federal retirement program. This landmark legislation provided a safety net for older Americans, offering financial assistance in their later years. FYI – The age of 65 for benefit attainment was right out of the German’s playbook under Bismarck. The average age of death in the US at the time was 67. Best of all, the original Social Security Act was not designed as a full-out retirement plan but a supplement to your income, assuming you worked less in old age. On top of that, it allowed FDR to retain votes and grab a 4th term.

VII. Post-World War II Prosperity

The post-World War II era saw unprecedented economic growth and prosperity in many Western countries. This period was marked by the expansion of retirement benefits and the promotion of leisure as a fundamental aspect of life. The idea of “the golden years” gained traction as retirees were encouraged to enjoy their newfound leisure time. Here comes Madison Avenue – How do you sell more beach lots and Country Club Memberships?  Simple – create a new way of thinking and convince people to spend their golden years spending versus earning.

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VIII. Retirement Today

Today, retirement has become a well-established phase of life for many individuals. People plan for retirement, save for it through pensions, retirement accounts, and investments, and look forward to a period of relaxation and enjoyment. Retirement age varies by country, with some nations gradually raising the official retirement age in response to increasing life expectancy and changing demographics. It took a minute, but the lawmakers are realizing that the strain of an older population might be greater than FDR’s “Buy the Votes” efforts with the original Social Security plan.

IX. Challenges and Future Trends

Despite the progress made in retirement planning and benefits, several challenges loom on the horizon. One significant challenge is the sustainability of social security systems, given the aging population in many countries. There is a growing concern about whether these systems will be able to provide for retirees adequately.

Additionally, the concept of retirement itself is evolving. Many older adults choose to work beyond the traditional retirement age for financial reasons or because they find fulfillment in continued employment. This trend challenges traditional notions of retirement and raises questions about the nature of work and leisure in later life.


The history of retirement is a testament to the ever-changing nature of society, work, and culture. It is one of the few things we can celebrate as “new.”

Retirement has undergone significant transformation from its absence in ancient civilizations to its emergence as a well-defined life stage in the modern era. It has been shaped by economic forces, social movements, and government policies, all of which continue to influence its trajectory. Today, over 60% of the Dow Jones is traded in association with retirement plans and mutual fund family ownership.

As we look to the future, it is clear that retirement will continue to evolve. Economic factors, demographic shifts, and changing attitudes toward work and leisure will all shape the retirement landscape. The history of retirement reminds us that what we consider “normal” today may be very different in the years to come, underscoring the importance of adaptability and planning for the uncertainties of retirement in the 21st century.

If you’d like to dive deeper and talk more about what retirement plans are, just let me know.

If you are having a hard time as an employer giving away the benefit and you not getting anything in return, let me know.

It’s time for a change again, and I suggest this – lose the word retirement and replace it with “gratitude.”

Instead of a 401(k)Plan – how about a Gratitude Plan? 

Instead of collective bargaining – how about collective gratitude?

 Let me know what you think and if I can help. While nothing is new, some things are worth looking forward to, and nothing is better than a grateful society free of retired mindsets.



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