In the ancient Indus Valley, families used to pay the Brahmin priests to enact multi-day Vedic Rituals and dances to pray for abundant Cattle and Sons. This was fee-for-service retirement planning in ancient India. Please God, give us security for the future. Cattle were the currency in those days used for milk and butter and to pull the plow; abundant sons were the patriarchal legacy, able-bodied workers to take over the family business and have sons of their own.
Cultures all over the world enact multi-generational rituals and myths around wealth and security yet none in history look like the dances we do and the sacrifices we make in the modern western world. I say often that retirement is a social experiment that we’ve only been running for the length of one human life (through the seventy-five years or so of the post-war era) and we’ve otherwise forgotten how we treated age and aging in the world before.
As a GenXer growing up I heard stories of our family traditions. Both my parents were born on the kitchen table in the family home. When my mother’s grandfather passed, he was laid on the same table for his wake. My mother and father’s generation were the ones who left the fishing ports and the farms and the multi-generational households of another time and moved to the cities. Their families’ traditional prayers, mediated by the priests of the age, were for abundant harvests, bountiful catches and the safe return of their men from their trips to sea.
One of my great grandfathers was still mending nets in his late eighties teaching me as a child of six how to clean the catch and hang it to dry, and one of my grandfathers walked the land on the farm until the day before he died. These stories of generations don’t play into the retirement narratives and myths of the modern world which are still being written.
The best book I ever read on retirement has nothing to do with money, it’s called, “The World Until Yesterday, What Can we Learn from Traditional Societies,” by Pulitzer Prize winner, Jarred Diamond. Diamond spends a significant section of the book examining how different traditional cultures around the world think about aging and treat the aged. He does so in a pragmatic, no-nonsense way pointing to environmental, technological and cultural factors that underly the practices of tribal communities towards their elders.
In one Pacific Island community he visited, when the elders found out how old he was (forty) he was assigned two teenage escorts for his time in the village. The teens were instructed to protect him lest he fall down, hurt himself and die. Elders in that particular society, were revered, fed and cared for when they were in late stages of life, even when blind and convalesced; we can assume the people did this out of love and loyalty but also because their elders were repositories of memory for the community. Their memories were a type of insurance, keeping knowledge of successful survival strategies from several generations prior, for example, knowledge of what kinds of foods to eat during prolonged droughts, or how to cope with crop failures. This was a “respect your elders” culture where the value of knowledge in the elder cohorts enhanced the quality of life of the village.
In the traditions of the people of Turtle Island (the land that we settlers call North America) elders are responsible for raising the children while the able-bodied men and women of the community hunt and fish and provide the labour to grow crops. For a very long time, our ancestors shared nearly the same family and community structures. The Elders, those with the longest living memories and perhaps even accumulated wisdom of the family, clan and tribe, passed traditional knowledge, storytelling and community customs onto the youngest.
I grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Vancouver embedded in a Pacific Rim multicultural community. My Asian friends, and my East Indian Friends, my Sikh friends and Filipino friends all came from cultural frameworks like this. We see the same kinds of family bonds in Italian, Portuguese, Greek and Lebanese families and in many other traditions.
In this type of wealth-planning, money is secondary. It consists of building strong family bonds and emphasizing values of leadership and education as children come of age, socializing the towards secure long-term roles in society, so that when parents become grandparents, they take on the roles as caregivers to the pre-school and school-age children and teachers of tradition, and they have the protection and familial support of the producer generation, and the cycle reinforces.
In this age and culture, we have replaced prayers, rituals and priests with a secular discipline of wealth-accumulation. Our children follow the pattern of leaving their communities and families when they become adults. Parents are left behind. We gather for rituals a few times a year.
Some people say we’ve lost the centrality of the family unit. We’ve sanitized and dissociated ourselves from the immediacy of births and deaths. Certainly, a home birth or a kitchen wake is not a common occurrence anymore and largely the role of the priest has diminished.
We engage with the ministers of money to plan our futures, and we use sophisticated tools to predict our financial security and the economic conditions of the late season of our lives. Different dances and prayers for Cattle and Sons.