Title Reviewed:
A History of Retirement: The Meaning and Function of an American Institition, 1885–1978

Author Reviewed:
William Graebner

John F. Stover


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 77, Issue 3, pp 300-301

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of Retirement: The Meaning and Function of an American Institition, 1885–1978. By William Graebner. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980. Pp. x, 293. Notes, tables, bibliographical essay, index. $22.50.)

This volume by Professor William Graebner has nothing to do with the joys and problems of people living in retirement, nor does the author endeavor to review fully retirement legislation of the past. Rather the book is an orderly survey of the relationship of retirement to unemployment and the development of social security during the past century of a changing American capitalism. The problem of retirement for an aging population became more difficult as the rural America of the midnineteenth century gradually shifted to the urban industrial economy of the twentieth century. Retirement on the family farm or to the nearby village was one thing—retiring to a big city tenement was far different.

Early in the present century a definite discrimination against the older worker began to appear. The shorter work day, the use of new expensive complex machinery, and an increased emphasis upon greater productivity often seemed to bring grief to the older worker. Herbert Hoover's Committee on Recent Economic Changes found that the new job climate placed a premium upon the vigor of youth. The author presents three case studies covering early efforts in the twentieth century to obtain improved retirement programs in federal civil service, education, and industry.

A major change appeared during the Great Depression with the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. Most historians agree with Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., who held that the new welfare legislation "began a new phase of national history" (p. 181). The 1935 act clearly helped relieve unemployment by encouraging the earlier retirement of older workers, and it also contributed to the ease of Franklin D. Roosevelt's reelection in 1936. Graebner sees the twenty years after World War II as the "triumph of retirement." In those years many private pension plans were established to supplement the minimum support levels provided by Social Security. There developed a general feeling that retirement was an appropriate reward for a lifetime of work.

By the 1970s, however, a serious reconsideration of retirement was underway. New programs of coverage added to the original Social Security Act plus the ravages of inflation made the current and projected costs of the program far exceed the highest cost estimates made during the 1930s. By the 1970s many state and municipal governments found that their retirement programs were seriously underfunded. Mandatory retirement became a dirty word to many older Americans, who sought the same kind of antidiscrimination legislation which earlier had helped liberate blacks and women. Victory for this point of view came in the spring of 1978 with the passage of federal legislation that raised the mandatory age of retirement from sixty-five to seventy both for public and private employment.

Graebner's history of retirement is a tightly reasoned study of the changing views on retirement and aging during the last century. Sound in scholarship, the work is fully documented and based upon primary sources, records, and periodicals of labor unions and federal agencies. A History of Retirement makes an important contribution in a field of great topical interest and should be of particular value to social and economic historians.

Purdue University, West Lafayette John F. Stover

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.