Retirement (R)age

Recent protests in France rattled that nation. Prime Minister Macron proposed raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Oh mon Dieu! Despite this attempt to address a looming economic crisis for the French economy, labor unions organized massive protests. The opportunity to stop working and get paid for idleness seems unsatisfying to me. As an alternative, I wondered about the potential rewards of shifting gears later in our working lives.

The American attitude toward retirement differs from the French. The AARP reports that twenty percent of Americans are now working past age 70.  The average retirement age now exceeds 65 years. Our laws were amended to defer full Social Security payments until age 67 and no one rioted in the streets of Washington, DC. People of different nations can have diverse attitudes toward lengthy careers. Perhaps the Jewish approach to work, first seen in Torah, is something altogether different.

From Torah, we know that Moses worked until he was 120! Not everyone was so employed. Something that resembles retirement appears once in the Torah, in Parshat Behalotecha. A priest’s term of service began at 25 and ended at age 50 (so young!)

A retirement at 50 rule was challenging for me to ponder. I’ve already exceeded that date by a decade and a half.  I have no plans to retire.  I’d be frustrated by a profession that demanded I retire after only 25 years of service.

I believe that the one mention of forced retirement in the Torah is not at all about retirement. The priestly job was to tend to the sacred objects and other holy tasks. After serving God with piety and obeisance, the priests were required to switch gears.

Imagine if we all undertook a second career. The skills, caring, and responsibility we learned in our first career would undergird our second employment venture. In fact, people are staying in the workforce longer and switching to second and even third careers.

Instead of retiring from work, Torah is teaching that we can redeploy our skills. We grow when we meet new challenges. Holiness can be found in new workplaces and in new roles. More importantly, the essence of our lives as workers is not just what we do, but if we perceive our work as a contribution to this world. Work should be a holy endeavor, whether hauling trash or suing for justice. And if work ceases to be meaningful or detaches from any holy purpose, then a change of employment is good for your psychological and spiritual well-being.

When the time to retire arrives, we still can improve this world. All we need to do is employ the holy skills we learned in our working lives. Instead of a time to receive a salary, retirement can be a time to compensate the world for all we have received. In that way, we might retire from work but not from doing Jewish!

Rabbi Evan J. Krame