Developed countries around the world face a retirement crisis. A spiritual practice from the second millennium BC just might be the answer to our problems.
Most people are aware that the Ten Commandments order people to work for six days and rest on the seventh. A far less commonly known feature of the commandments is that in the original plan delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai, man wasn’t supposed to take just one day out of the week to rest. His entire community was supposed to take one whole year of rest out of every seven. In other words: ancient Israelites were supposed to take a sabbatical year. (The Jewish year that just ended in September was just such a shmita, or sabbatical, year.)
A sabbatical year could be the solution to our increasingly fragile pension and retirement systems. People are living longer, which means they keep withdrawing funds from the pool, draining reserves intended for future generations. Meanwhile, birth rates and economic growth have been too low to support the Western world’s aging populations.
The problem is not only about dollars and cents. Our pension systems were conceived in a different era, when people could be reasonably expected to spend their entire working lives at a single job—often an arduous one that would enfeeble them in old age. So it made sense to dedicate one big chunk of our lives to work, and then another big chunk to doing nothing.
Today the nature of work has been vastly altered by globalization and technological change, as well as by emerging trends like the gig economy. And thanks to modern medicine and changes in lifestyle, most of us are still spry at age 65. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that too many years in retirement can make you less mentally sharp, not to mention socially isolated.
What we need is a way to reform retirement so it is both economically sustainable and ensures that we have a better relationship with work throughout our lives.
Enter the Jewish spiritual practice of keeping Sabbath.
Today, sabbatical years are a privilege primarily reserved for academics, high-skilled employees and those wealthy enough to afford twelve months’ worth of soul-searching.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Companies that offer their employees a chance at sabbaticals, such as software company VMWare and management consulting firm BCG, tend to report that they come back refreshed and full of good ideas.
A yearly sabbatical would also give us a stretch of uninterrupted time to work on our personal passion projects, whether that means building a cabin in the woods, writing a novel or finally mastering Mandarin. Parents would be able to take time to focus on their families while their young children still live at home, rather than delaying leisure time until their children are grown. Those of us who feel restless or dissatisfied with the state of our lives would be able to step outside the daily grind to take stock and decide on a new direction—starting a new business, say, or going back to school.
Given that the modern era demands that people reinvent their skills cyclically in order to achieve and maintain success, this kind of freedom would have a positive ripple effect on the economy, boosting productivity as well as personal happiness.
The point here isn’t to completely abolish retirement. People who are truly elderly, as well as people who have some sort of disability, shouldn’t be forced to work.
But a sabbatical year would make the entire retirement system stronger. People’s preferences tend to be skewed to the short term. This means that most people would be happy to take one year’s worth of retirement money now, even if it means they have to retire later. So pension systems would pay people less money over the course of their lifetimes, helping the systems to remain solvent. This approach would also help sell a politically fraught issue, providing people a tangible benefit in exchange for painful reforms.
Most importantly, the sabbatical year would give all of us a healthier attitude towards work. We all need work to flourish. But while unemployment plagues some members of modern society, those of us privileged to have ample work too frequently become addicted to it, to the detriment of our well-being and, often, that of our families.
Nowhere is it written in the laws of the universe that we must first work for 40 years straight in order to achieve 20 years of rest. We need a mechanism that will restore balance and flexibility to our lives. We need the Sabbath—not just week after week, but also over our lifetimes.