My father worked for more than 30 years in an iron foundry. During my summer breaks in both high school and college, he “arranged” for me to work in the foundry alongside him. We used to take our 20-minute lunch breaks outside in the 90-degree heat to "cool off" from the 140 degrees we had to endure inside the factory. It was the hardest work I have ever experienced.
Dad made damned sure that I got that experience, though. After work, we would sit in the kitchen and he would show me his hands. They looked like a bad road map, covered with pock marks, blisters, scars and calluses. These sores seemed to mark the many years he had had to wrestle with the foundry’s heavy tools and equipment while simultaneously trying to avoid all that molten iron. He’d then say: “Now, you see, son, if you don’t stay in school, this is what your hands will look like when you come home from work.”
I got the message "up close and personal,” as they say.
Dad was also an avid fisherman. Almost every weekend, we would go up to the St. Joe River in Michigan, make camp, rent a boat, and fish that river for the best tasting “channel” and “bullhead” catfish anywhere on earth. The catfish would come in from five to 10 pounds and would sometimes be three or even four feet long. And then there was the occasional walleyed pike or coho salmon.
When he turned 62, my mother and I tried hard to convince Dad to retire. He was then eligible for Social Security, we told him. All of his kids, including me, were “grown and gone.” The house was paid for, and he had nothing left to “prove” to anyone. He didn’t owe that horrible factory any more of his soul or body. So, why not say goodbye to that damned foundry, kick back and enjoy life?
“Naw,” he always responded. “Look, if I quit now, I’ll only get $900 a month Social Security. If I wait another three years, I get $1,200.”
So, he ignored our arguments and advice. He worked those next three years. Even though he was one of the senior men in the foundry, he was still required to do some of the hardest, hottest work, often right next to the blast furnace. My father was a tall, “strapping” black man. Yet, we began to notice a slight stoop in his stance, and his gait was just a bit slower during those three years. He would get so filthy and dirty at work that mother used to make him take his work clothes off before she would let him into the house.
Just before he turned 65, he went out and gleefully bought his “dream” fishing boat, complete with a galley. No more rentals for him! He bought all brand new fishing equipment, including poles and reels and rods designed specifically for catching catfish. Then on his 65th birthday, he retired.
Thirty days later, during a routine physical exam, he was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. The disease quickly metastasized throughout his entire body, rendering him into a mere shell of his former self. We buried him six months later. He had never put that boat in the water.
Republicans and conservatives have successfully managed to gradually raise the age of retirement to 67. Now they are shooting for 70.They argue that people are simply living longer these days because of better health care, diet, etc. Plus, they contend, there are very few manufacturing jobs left in the US (thanks to them). So, what’s the big deal about waiting a couple of (or a few more) years to live off a government “entitlement”?
Well, I suppose that would make sense for someone who works in an air-conditioned office, or for whom the heaviest thing they pick up is a pen or a pencil. But what about waitresses and waiters, on their feet all day or all night, carrying heavy platters of hot food and liquids? What about construction workers? Mechanics? Truck drivers? Carpenters? Electricians? And, of course, farm laborers? Do we really want 69-year-olds climbing 100-foot tall utility poles to fix or replace a burned-out or exploded transformer?
Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, recently told CBS:
“Social Security wasn’t devised to be a system that supported you for a 30-year retirement after a 25-year career. … So there will be things that, you know, the retirement age has to be changed. Maybe some of the benefits have to be affected, maybe some of the inflation adjustments have to be revised. But in general, entitlements have to be slowed down and contained.”
Yeah, right, Mr. Blankfein! Without going into this false notion that Social Security retirement benefits are a form of “entitlement” for people who have worked their entire lives, it must be noted that Blankfein was paid $16.1 million in 2011. He paid Social Security taxes on only the first $110,000 of that “salary.” That’s less than one percent of his total income. If the $110,000 cap were lifted on all income for all earners, no cuts or “adjustments” in Social Security would be required for 75 years. Funny how these guys never talk about that as a means of “fixing” or “reforming” the program.
For people who work at jobs they love and which require no strenuous physical feats, and who have “naturally” longer life expectancies, it’s reasonable to work well into your 70s, even 80s.
But for those who don’t necessarily love their jobs, jobs which kill them a little bit every day, and for whom working until they drop is not a desirable goal, early retirement with full benefits is “only natural.”
A friend asked me recently how I was enjoying retirement. I told her, “I should have done this 20 years ago.”