In My Own Words: Never retire?

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“Whether it’s a conservative pundit saying retirement “is a stupid idea” or GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump talking about cutting Medicare and Social Security, one thing is clear: Republicans rightly recognize that all us Americans would be better off if we worked until we’re dead. – Rex Huppke, columnist for USA Today  

I normally try to write balanced, thoughtful columns, but I am going to make an exception in this case. The above statement is one of the stupidest things I’ve ever read (and believe me, I’ve read a lot of stupid things since I started writing this column). For those of you who love your jobs and plan never to retire, I’m asking you to bear with me for a moment. I bet your employment does not include heavy lifting, long hours standing on your feet or other types of physical intense labor that can cause injury to your back, legs, arms or feet. The joys in your work most likely outweigh the problems, mostly likely because you have someone else who does the boring, grunt work for you.

I see nothing wrong with working for the rest of your life if you want to. I plan to continue my chaplaincy work as long as they’ll let me walk into the building. I’ve even promised to continue writing for the paper once I retire, but I won’t miss dealing with the financial difficulties, the copy editing (don’t ask) and the human resources (meaning interpersonal) problems. I’m hoping, like many people, to pursue some of the interests I don’t have time for right now. I know people who are traveling, exploring volunteer options or taking classes, all things they couldn’t do when they were working. Retiring does not mean dying, something Huppke claims happens to most people five years after retirement. (Really? I know lots of people who’ve lived happy productive lives for decades after they retired. All I can think is that we must run in very different crowds.)

If we are going to be honest, we should face the real reason behind all this retire-later, never-retire, die-at-your-desk nonsense. It’s simple: these folks don’t want you to take your Social Security. They want you to leave that money in the government’s hands, claiming the money is going to run out soon, rather than acknowledging the problems they’ve created by borrowing money from Social Security and never paying it back. They don’t care if you’re physically exhausted or in pain. They are not concerned about long days that leave you with no time or energy for anything else in life, including your family. It all comes down to money: the money the government took out of your pay check that was earmarked to serve as a safety net for you in your old age.

We’re so used to government social services that we forget this is a relatively new thing. The first Social Security taxes were collected in 1937. Before that people were on their own. Well, not completely: religious organizations often helped. In fact, Social Security is a very Jewish idea. In Jewish societies across the globe, people were required to give to a communal fund to help the poor of their city. Judaism recognizes that we are all responsible for each other, even if we don’t always live up to that ideal. Without that help, people who were older and unable to work depended on their children to help support them. (If you’ve ever wondered why women in the Bible were so concerned about having children, this is one reason. Without children, there was no one to help them in their old age.) As societies have grown and secular culture began to play a major role in our lives, the government took over some of that responsibility. It makes sense since, as a democracy, our government has a responsibility to protect its citizens. It’s even part of the U.S. Constitution: one of its stated purposes is that the government is supposed to “promote the general welfare.”

Retire, don’t retire, work part time, sit on a beach and stare at the ocean all day: we should have the freedom – and yes, I use that word deliberately – to make that choice for ourselves. But don’t lie to us or pretend you’re thinking of our well-being when you try to change what our government promised us. When Social Security taxes were, and are, taken out of our paychecks, the government made a promise – took an oath – that someday, that money would be returned to us in the form of Social Security payments. If the government is willing to lie and cheat about this, I dread thinking of what other promises will be broken in the future.