The rules of society aren’t always logical

The rules and social conventions of our societies form the foundations for the structures that are built on them in the context of what’s considered to be the best wisdom of the time.

Some rules go by the wayside, but others remain in place long after they stop making sense. To make matters worse, it’s easy to keep building on these rules until we’re faced with an unbalanced, illogical structure that takes an enormous amount of time and effort to take apart.

It’s these invisibly out-of-place rules and structures that I’d like to draw your attention to, and I want to highlight the idea of retirement as an excellent example.

A brand new variety of human

According to an article titled A Theory of Human Life History Evolution by a group of authors listed below, between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago during the Late Paleolithic era or Stone Age, “based on data from modern hunter-gatherer populations, it is estimated that at 15, life expectancy was an additional 39 years (total 54), but the probability of reaching 15 was just 60%.

In a famous quote about retirement, journalist and author Mary-Lou Weisman said, “In the beginning, there was no retirement. There were no old people. In the Stone Age, everyone was fully employed until age 20, by which time nearly everyone was dead, usually of unnatural causes. Any early man who lived long enough to develop crow’s-feet was either worshiped or eaten as a sign of respect.” 

Wikipedia references a number of articles on Life Expectancy which are listed below, to say “in Europe in the late Middle Ages, which is around 1300 AD,around one-third of infants died in their first year.[1] Once children reached the age of 10, their life expectancy was 32.2 years, and for those who survived to 25, the remaining life expectancy was 23.3 years. Estimates like this reflected the life expectancy of adult males from the higher ranks of English society in the Middle Ages and were similar to that computed for monks of the Christ Church in Canterbury during the 15th century.[2] At age of 21, life expectancy of an aristocrat was an additional 43 years (total age 64).[3]

As you can see, there was some variation depending on a person’s station in life, but it doesn’t look like many made it past the age of 65.

During the Industrial Revolution in Britain which was between 1760 and 1840, living conditions slowly started improving and a number of advances in science and medicine prevented many children dying before they reached adulthood. To find out more about this, follow the link to an interesting article from the BBC on the Foundling Hospital –

A new problem

But now there was a new problem. Because people were living longer, they could work longer. But the older men whose bodies were stiff, sore and didn’t function as well after years of hard, physical work slowed down and were replaced by young, fit men. There weren’t enough jobs for everyone, and older workers couldn’t support themselves.

The idea of providing a pension to past soldiers, started in Rome by the military, spread to other countries. In 1889 Germany became the first country to come up with a pension system as a handy mechanism for pruning off the worker deadwood to make room for new growth. But those older workers didn’t want to go anywhere, and when retirement began to be enforced, there was huge resistance from the retirees who felt they weren’t ready to be written off and put out to pasture.

Of course, once the government silenced and settled them in their rocking chairs, there were new and bigger problems to deal with.

How would they pay for the growing number of people who were living longer than at any other time in history? After retirement, these people were not living as humans were designed to live – in groups, with purpose, by staying active.

It gets more complicated

When humans don’t live as they were designed to, things start going wrong, so now the cost of all the medical treatment needed by all the old people became a bigger and bigger drain on the rest of society.

Not only did the growing numbers of old people need help to afford the spiraling cost of living, but according to the UK Mental Health Foundation, one in five of them would be experiencing significant mental health issues because they no longer have a reason to get out of bed in the morning. After a life spent working to save for retirement, many hadn’t had time to develop any interests outside of work, though almost all had useful skills.

And here we are in 2021, with trillion-dollar industries (amounts quoted are for effect, not based on any actual data) in financial and retirement planning, pension and superannuation funds, health care and aged care, trying to fix a man-made problem that’s become a feature of our society. A problem that came about because of a situation that hasn’t been a problem for at least a hundred years – physical workers in a production-line that are holding up the works because they are getting a bit slow.

What solutions can society come up with?

Do we get rid of the concept of retirement? That’s only going to make a bad situation worse. The concept of retirement isn’t a bad one, it’s the evangelical zeal it’s promoted with that’s the problem.

What if we looked at retirement as an interchange instead of a dead-end? What if we found something more creative and constructive to do with what is, in evolutionary terms, a brand new variety of human being?

Older people have a lot going for them. Maturity, wisdom, patience, life-skills, experience, fewer living expenses than people who are raising families and if we assume that they’re no longer in full-time work, then they also have one of the most precious commodities, time.

For different reasons than I’m suggesting, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry is calling on greater incentives for pensioners to return to the workforce.

In a December 2021 media interview with Perth’ 6PR radio, Australian Chamber of Commerce & Industry CEO Andrew McKellar said the Australian workforce is “screaming out for workers”. He went on to say “we’ve got one of the most pressing skills shortages that we’ve had facing the Australian economy in two decades” but retirees are discouraged from taking paid work because it could easily jeopardize the safety net that their aged care pension provides them with in an increasingly uncertain world.

What if we had to look at the big picture and consider how the benefits of an active older population could outweigh potential costs? What if we made it worthwhile for retirees to be back in part-time or casual work without penalising them financially? What if the government, as the more financially secure party in the scenario, took on the risk of a potentially fruitful social experiment?

Circular solutions

Having older people in the workforce in a part-time capacity could have enormous benefits all round and solve partly or completely, a whole lot of other problems that are looming on the horizon for Australian society in particular. These include:

  • rising rates of homelessness for women over 55
  • rising medical costs for the elderly relating to inactivity and obesity, and
  • rising costs relating to the aged pension and an aging population.

Other problems could be addressed by engaging our older members of society in the wider community.

What if they could act as experienced mentors for the growing number of socially isolated young people entering the mental health system. Young people, mothers, young tradesmen, entrepreneurs of all ages?

The kind of wisdom that only comes with age

The most successful social systems are ones that incorporate elements of mentorship and community, like the concept of the apprentice and master, which has been around for as long as humans have.

A similar concept is a feature of tribal life in parts of Africa, where the younger adults go out to work and the older people care for young children and counsel teenagers while keeping the home fires burning. Everyone has a role suited to their age and abilities, and no role is less valued or important.

We know there’s no substitute for the wisdom that comes with age but for some reason we’ve relegated our wisest citizens to their rocking chairs rather than including them in the conversations about the future.

The rules of society may not always be logical, but the solutions to our current challenges certainly are.

What you can do

If you liked this episode, talk to someone else about it. If you loved it, talk to two. Like yawning, positivity is infectious so let’s see what we can do about spreading it around.



References from this listing:

[1] Kotre, John N.; Hall, Elizabeth (1997). Seasons of Life: The Dramatic Journey from Birth to Death. University of Michigan Press. pp. 47–49. ISBN 978-0-472-08512-5.

[2] Carrieri, Maria Patrizia; Serraino, Diego (December 1, 2005). “Longevity of popes and artists between the 13th and the 19th century”. International Journal of Epidemiology. 34 (6): 1435–1436. doi:10.1093/ije/dyi211. PMID 16260451.

[3] “Expectations of Life” by H.O. Lancaster (page 8)

A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity”, Hillard Kaplan; Kim Hill; Jane Lancaster; A. Magdalena Hurtado (2000)