Many Utahns look forward to – or worry about – a comfortable retirement. But having the financial security to leave paid work after a long career is a concept that is relatively modern.
When Effie Merrill’s husband died in 1915, there were few financial safety nets for women who depended on their husbands’ income. Effie was in her 40s and could have – in her own words – “settled down to being an old lady.” Instead, she finished her university degree and got to work. Effie taught school until 1930, and then built and managed an apartment house in Logan. During World War II, at age 73, she briefly resumed teaching at the Topaz Internment Camp near Delta. Effie worked into her 90s, looking after the students who rented her apartments, cooking their meals and doing her own building maintenance. So, had Effie Merrill never heard of retirement?
Actually, retirement is a relatively modern idea. Until the late 19th century, workers worked until they couldn’t anymore. But when Americans left farms for factories, employers worried about their bottom lines. Experienced older workers became expensive, so businesses began to offer pensions to move them out of the workforce to make way for younger, cheaper labor. In addition, the US government created Social Security in 1935 to extend financial benefits to those retiring from the paid workforce. But retirement was a hard sell to a generation who found social status and emotional fulfillment through work. To encourage greater uptake of company pensions, businesses in the 1940s began to market retirement as a reward for service – a chance to revel in what they called the “joy of leisure.” But such benefits were largely for people leaving unionized jobs. Workers outside those jobs often relied on family for financial support or – like Effie Merrill – continued working into old age.
The idea of retiring never really occurred to Effie because the “joy of leisure” held no appeal. For her, retirement meant giving up the busy life that made her happy. While hobbies and friends helped fill her time, it was work that kept her warm, fed, and happy. When Effie talked about her long life filled with hard work, she said, “Happiness is not an end. It’s a by-product of being busy, of being useful. If you look for happiness,” she continued, “you never find it. But if you dig into the nearest job that needs doing, happiness sneaks up behind you.”
Mikee Ferran and Megan van Frank for Utah Humanities © 2018
Image: Mrs. Effie Merrill kept up her Logan apartment building and looked after the students who lived there – fixing leaky faucets, painting, cooking, and baking her famous bread. “Easier than being bothered with help around the place,” she declared. Salt Lake Tribune Negative Collection, 8/30/1954, courtesy Utah State History.
See Liz Davidson, “The History of Retirement Benefits,” Workforce, June 21, 2016; “A History of Retirement: It's a Modern Idea,” Seattle Times, December 31, 2013; “A Brief History of Retirement (parts 1-5),” The Next Hill, October 18, 2009; Salt Lake Tribune, August 30, 1954; “Logan Honors Await Teacher at 90,” Salt Lake Tribune, August 31, 1961; Effie Ensign Merrill obituary, Salt Lake Tribune, August 8, 1965