top of page

The Changing of the Golden Years

Fashion portrait three retired women

Our economic security as we age is often fraught with uncertainties about illness or disability affecting our ability to pay the rent, to buy food, or to get medical care when we retire from the workforce. This, of course, is not a new concern, it has been a concern through the ages around the world.

Let's take a look at the history of economic security and the hand-in-hand evolutions of family structures this week.

When reading obituaries for genealogical research we often find that an ancestor was a member of a "friendly society" such as the Odd Fellows, The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, or the Loyal Order of the Moose. Dating myself here slightly, I can only claim to have seen re-runs of "The Honeymooners" where Jackie Gleason's character, Ralph Kramden, was a member of the Raccoon Lodge.

Men in uniforms wearing coonskin caps lodge meeting
From L-R: Cliff Hall, Art Carney, and Jackie Gleason in "The Honeymooners" (1955) The Deciding Vote episode from

These fraternal societies evolved from the Guilds of the Middle Ages and offered help in times of need to members and their families, and often included life insurance policies. Guilds and lodges were the predecessors of modern labor unions.

Guild symbols

We can thank England's "Poor Law" of 1601 for the practice of taxation to provide for the needy and the harshness of workhouses for those less deserving of help than others, solely at the discretion of town elders.

Although you don't hear as much about them in the US as in Ireland or in England (Dickens), there were poorhouses, or almshouses, established here to "contain the problem," which was usually immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. Later in the 1900's poorhouses would be renamed "asylums." If you find a record of an ancestor living in an asylum, it doesn't necessarily mean they were crazy and locked up in a padded room, it more likely means they were poor and needed public assistance.

While researching for this article I found that Annie Sullivan of Helen Keller "Miracle Worker" fame was dumped at a poorhouse in Tewksbury, MA by her father after the death of her mother shortly after they immigrated. I found this info in the biographical book Beyond the Miracle Worker by Kim E. Nielsen in Google Books, and it is also available on Amazon and at Barnes and Noble among others. It contains a pretty horrific description of life in these institutions while telling her story.

Cartoon of Lincoln with divided US Civil War

The concept of providing for retirement security in the US was first proposed by Thomas Paine in 1795 wherein a 10% estate tax would be collected and later distributed to those in need. The Civil War Pension program began for disabled soldiers in 1862 and expanded to widows and orphans in 1890. These pension applications exist for both Union and Confederate sides and can provide a wealth of information for the family tree researcher.

Farmer in field

When America changed from an agricultural society to an industrialized urban-living society in the early 1900's the practice of extended families living together changed. The family was no longer children, parents, grandparents, cousins, etc., it became "nuclear," just parents and children. Where before when parents became infirm or incapacitated, there would be a family member to take care of them, they were now back on the farm to fend for themselves alone.

At the same time, the average life expectancy increased every year due to better sanitation and health practices. When the Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935 its goal was to provide an income for those who could no longer work that were 65 and over. Funds were contributed by employers and employees based upon their earnings. The average life expectancy in 1935 was 59.9 years for men, and 63.9 years for women. So, basically, they were not expecting the vast majority of the population to be collecting Social Security for very long, if at all.

In 1965 Medicare was enacted in the US to provide health coverage for the retired as most people were now being covered by employer provided packages. At the time, the average life expectancy in the US was up to 66.8 for men, and 73.7 for women. Again, apparently, the government did not envision that there would be a great demand by very many, for very long. In 1980 the US life expectancy was now up to 70.0 for men and 77.4 for women. And let's remember we are talking averages, some people were living well past 65 at this point!

The Berkeley study stopped at 1998, with the average life expectancy at 73.8 for men and 79.5 for women. I'll put a link to the study's figures at the bottom of the article. The retirement age was raised in 1983 to 67.

The urbanization and shrinking of the family structure experienced in the US is also now happening in Asia where care of one's aging parents has been an honorable tradition. The one-child rule in China has seemingly backfired as there are now insufficient younger people providing for their rural parents or filling the burgeoning urban workforce. In 2015 a new "Elderly Rights Law" was passed in China mandating that children visit their elderly parents often under threat of fines or jail time.

law books justice scale gavel

Japan's population over 80 years of age was expected to be 7.2% of the population in a 2015 study, vs. 4.1% in the US, and adult diapers were already outselling baby diapers. Their pension system is facing the distress.

France passed a decree in 2004 requiring regular communication with elderly parents, after studies showing that France had the highest rate of "pensioner suicides" in Europe. Not coincidentally, the law was enacted after a horrible heatwave that killed 15,000 people, most of them elderly who were not found for weeks.

In Latin America and Mediterranean countries, the extended family structure remains to a great extent. Pre-Columbian families would often include 2 or 3 different nuclear families living in the same household providing mutual care. This is super-extended household is no longer the case.

nurse and elderly patient in wheelchair

The UK and the US favor have favored retirement homes for their elderly when possible, with a great increase since the 1950's in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and "independent" or "senior" living facilities when funds are available. Care facilities are enormously expensive in the US. Most recently the "in home" health care service has arrived, wherein a caregiver takes care of the elder in their own home.

Medical insurance does not cover these costs but may cover equipment expenses with a doctor's prescription (walkers, wheelchairs, hospital beds, etc.) State and Federal governments may provide funding for aiding elderly citizens based on "means testing" of assets versus expenses, which at this point in the US will often require that a healthy and able spouse has to deplete all of the joint assets to get assistance from the state for an infirm spouse.

Father daughter grandmother sandwich family

The economic crash of 2008 and then the COVID pandemic have greatly impacted the contemporary family structure worldwide. The "sandwich family" is the structure in which the generation in between their elderly parents and their own children is providing them both care or financial support. According to The AARP, "In 2019, roughly 30 percent of family caregivers of older Americans lived in a household that also includes children or grandchildren. They are increasingly Gen Z and millennial (born in or after 1981) caregivers and are more likely than other caregivers to be working while performing their caregiving responsibilities."

Puffin family north atlantic

US millennials are being forced to stay in the family nest longer due to student loan debt, high cost of housing, and high inflation. The Center for Retirement Research conducted a study in 2021 of the savings habits of millennials showed that 40% between the ages of 28 and 38 have student debt that amounted to more than 40% of their income. They are behind on saving for retirement and will (should) have a longer life expectancy than preceding generations.

It makes me wonder what future genealogists and sociologists will make of the future population reports. Will the expanded family structure return for the long term under continued urbanization of the world? How will the new work from home (or anywhere) trend affect urbanization post-pandemic? If families no longer had to pay for daycare because they had more family help at home would there be more babies born?

Will isolationist countries be forced to open their borders again to accept more immigrants in order to expand their shrinking workforces? What will the global migration paths look like in 5, 10, or 20 years? What are your thoughts and observations?

child studying globe of world while hand points

Genealogy is a wonderful all-encompassing pursuit whether as a profession or a hobby. You have to have an insatiable curiosity about people and their motivations to be successful, as well as interests in history, sociology, geography, science, and math. I love researching families, and would really love to help you with yours! Free quotes after evaluating your situation are always available.

Thanks for sharing your time with me again,

Leslie Ryan

Links to the some of the source materials for this article:

The Social Security Administration of the US

The American Association of Retired People

Life expectancy averages from UC Berkeley (no article, just numbers)

Report about the findings regarding population growth in the 2020 US Census

Elder care around the world

US millennials and retirement savings

No compensation is received for any of these links or referrals.

No copyright infringement is intended.


bottom of page