Retirement from Business
Marcus M. Marks
in American Review of Reviews
THERE are many business men who could render most valuable service to the community and at the same time benefit themselves physically, morally, and intellectually, if they would but recognize their possibilities. To give full measure of their service involves retirement from the all-absorbing detail of everyday business. It is my purpose to point out that such retirement is within the reach of many business men (and in that classification I include merchants of all kinds, manufacturers, promoters, agents, etc.), and to offer some practical suggestions to this end.
Many men whose success has been phenomenal, and whose fortunes have far exceeded their fondest hopes, continue the daily grind of business because they have no taste for anything else. From early boyhood they have been completely absorbed in business, to the exclusion of everything that interfered in the least, until they have become slaves to their occupations. These men now go about their daily routine like the imprisoned squirrel treading the wheel in his cage, -turning and turning, without making any real progress.
There are some who contend that business, per se, is a proper end in life; that any man may well devote all his years to building up and improving his establishment, giving himself up entirely to the one ideal of commercial development. The plea is made that wherever one’s lot in life may cause him to be placed, there he should work out his destiny and develop the best that is in him ; tfiat business is an honorable and can be a noble calling, and that a great service to mankind may be performed by pushing a business to its highest plane, even though this may require a man’s whole lifetime. A minister of the gospel may fairly take this position and carry on his good work
to his last day, spreading blessings among those with whom he comes in contact, and giving himself up with free heart to the service of God and man. A physician who has the spirit of self-sacrifice may also consecrate himself to the cause of humanity, responding day and night, summer and winter, to the call of the suffering.
There are also other callings that bring men into holiest touch with the hearts of their fellow-men, that may also well be followed to the last day in properly working out man’s highest destiny. Shall business be included among these occupations? It is certainly not my intention to deprecate in the slightest degree the great constructive opportunities of a business career. In the relations with employes, with customers, with fellow-merchants, there are possibilities of achieving the highest ideals by cooperation, But let us not forget the restrictions of business. Hard as it may sound, business is not a philanthropic institution. Its first test is its earning power ; it is a failure if one doesn’t make money. To make money one must meet competition. This entails a great and cruel limitation of one’s ideals; it restricts liberality and compels one to push and grind whether so inclined or not. The position of the minister and of the physician is different. The amount of money they have saved does not enter into the consideration upon which is based their “rating” in the community.
Now, as to the exaggerated idea of service to society in perfecting one’s commercial scheme : What business man cannot retire with little loss to those who use the articles he may be manufacturing or distributing? In case he decides to step out, will not some one else be able, in a reasonable time, to grow into his place? In fact, may not the new man, possibly younger and more ambitious, put
new life and energy into the development of the ideals of the business ? This plea of a lifemission to be worked out to the end in business is, to my mind, usually not a reason for continuing in business, but more likely an excuse for satisfying the miserly instinct to pile up more money.
The complete absorption in business which we so often see seems to me positively unethical. Piling up business after the need of it is past is, I contend, as sinful and useless as the hoarding of gold by the miser. No man has a right to give up his soul exclusively to financial gain. If men do not arrive naturally at the realization of this fact, the day will come when the feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction, now strongly showing itself among the poorer classes, will break forth in tumult and disorder. It is not only right but politic to give heed to this sign of the times. Men who cling to business after securing a competence, are encouraging discontent by their commercial avarice. Having secured the means to live, why should they not truly live and give others a chance to work up, and in turn get their competence?
It frequently happens that men acquire the means which would fully enable them to retire at an early age —say, when forty or fifty years old —but feel that they are too young to retire; feel, in fact, that they have no right to retire in the prime of life. How do they know that they will ever reach old age, or that in the rapid ups and downs of business they will be able to retain what they have acquired till they reach the age which they have arbitrarily set as the proper one? Many a man has been rich at fifty and well able to retire, and poor at sixty. Happy the man who can live the better life while the blood is still running warm and vigorous in his veins. Were there only enough such men to take an active part in public life, in the preservation of the rights of true citizenship, where would the scheming “bosses” be? There is crying need in public work for practical, successful, honest men who have time.
N early everybody seems to be “ too busy ” except the political “ heeler,” who, taking advantage of the situation, puts his time into the scales with, alas! too much effect.
No one with a reasonable competence should be afraid to retire young. I do not mean retire like an oyster in its shell, to a narrow sphere, but retire from the detail and routine of business to do what is best for his own higher development, best for his family, best for humanity. If a man retire young, he can properly work out his life’s problem. If he wait, he may be too old, his habits too firmly formed, his ability or even desire to adopt a new manner of life, gone
If a man should decide to withdraw from active business, plans must be carefully laid and carried out with judgment to supply to the organization the equivalent of the talent and energy that are to be withdrawn. It will take time and thought to shift duties and responsibilities gradually and wisely upon the shoulders of others. A corresponding increase in the share of the profits of the business and of the honors of its management should compensate those who now assume these added cares. The founders of a business as well as the ones who have led it to success are entitled to fair consideration for their important constructive work. Whatever the good-will of the business' is* worth should properly be credited to them. But the new managers should not be handicapped ; they should be liberally dealt with and encouraged, for their own sakes and for the safety and earning power of the investment which may remain in the business.
If the business has been well organized, there is reason to expect that the withdrawal can be effected without appreciable loss and without changing the personnel of the juniors; but if there has been too much concentration of authority in the hands of the one who now contemplates retirement, the process of reorganization will not be so simple. New blood may have to be infused by acquiring one or more men experienced in simi-
lar undertakings. But with patience, skill, and determination, there is usually a way to solve the problem in a reasonable time.
Some men, when they have acquired a capital of, say, $25,000, set the sum of $100,000 as the standard of their ambition. They declare, in all sincerity, that if they are ever fortunate enough to amass that amount of wealth they will certainly retire from active business, devote themselves to study and to travel, and get acquainted with wife and children, whom they now more or less neglect in the absorption of their affairs. They figure out their budget about as follows : $100,000 at 4 per cent, would give a reliable income of $4,000 a year. Their expense now is, say, $2,500 a year; so even allowing for an increase of $1,000 to $1,500 a year in their expenses, retirement at $100,000 would still be conservative, and leave them beyond any possibility of deficit. But alas for human calculations ! As prosperity continues, one luxury after another is indulged in, and gradually becomes a necessity; there is a move from the little flat, to a neat house, at higher rent, and requiring an additional servant ; other conditions change in proportion, so that by the time the $100,000 dream of fortune becomes a reality, expenses have doubled and show signs of still growing; and the thought of retirement is put aside till the day when a fortune of $200,000 may make it conservative to figure on an income of $8,000. Thus the standard of retirement from business is, like the cup of Tantalus, always a little out of reach; and expenses grow and grow.
Meanwhile the business man has been working and planning, his whole soul absorbed in his occupation. He leaves home early, before his young children are about, and returns home late, after they have retired. Weary, often fretful and impatient, after the strain of the day, he is hardly a proper companion for his wife. The telephone, the stenographer, and other modern facilities have put two days’ business stress into one; the pressure
is intense. More agencies, more customers, more employes ; rush, rush, rush; no time for anything but business ; no time to do a true citizen’s duty ; no time for charity ; no time for any of the higher, better things of life. And at home more luxury, more society, more expenses—an automobile, perhaps—and the day of retirement further and further away. If, some day, exceptional success should roll up a fortune beyond his evergrowing requirements, what then? The chances are that by this time the man has become so attached to his daily tasks that he hasn’t the heart to leave them. He no longer does business to make money, but for the mere pleasure of merchandising. All the higher hopes of his youth have been stifled. The most serious mistake was made when his home expenses were allowed to grow out of proportion to his means. This is what kept him “in harness” so long, that, like the old car-horse, he can be happy only when he hears the wheels rattle and the bells ring.
Few so-called merchant princes who keep on toiling laboriously after the need of such toil is past are willing to admit their weakness. Some of the reasons they give for continuing (that are really only excuses) have already been mentioned. Another so-called reason is their consideration of the welfare of their children. They say that they do not wish their boys to be compelled to work as hard as they themselves did, nor their girls to have any need to work at all. The girls, of course, should be provided for ; and so they will be. For they are much more protected after their father has retired than when he has all his capital at the risk of a single undertaking; for, in the latter case, his chances of failure increase with his years. The boys, naturally, would have an easier time were they to receive a prosperous business, in good running order, or a substantial capital to start in with, than if they had to strike out and build up for themselves. But they would lose that most satisfying and proud feeling which conies to those
who, by enterprise and ability, push their own way to the front.
The father, in taking from his son this great satisfaction, is also depriving him of the important knowledge of the value of money, which only he thoroughly appreciates who has earned his first dollar; who knows what it means to be in need; who denies himself comforts, perhaps at times even necessities, in order to tide over a critical period. This father is taking from the son he loves so much the best opportunity for the development of strong character which comes in the first hard struggle with the world ; and, on the other hand, he is laying him bare to a great danger. A young man coming into his father’s wellestablished business is exposed to many temptations. He is at once in the false position of having received, what he has not earned. On account of his name, deference is shown him which is not due either to his ability or his experience. This is apt to demoralize not only the young man himself, but the employes of the business, who see the old standard of worth displaced by the new standard of birth.
Putting all these considerations aside for a moment, let us carry the father’s argument to its logical conclusion : If it is the duty of his
father to continue in business for years after he has a competence, for his son’s supposed welfare, will it not be just as much the duty of the son, in his turn, to keep the wheels moving for years and years for his son’s sake, and so on? In other words, will not each generation be compelled to sacrifice vainly for the next? For the chances are great that a business, easily secured, will not be appreciated or properly guarded. How much oftener do we hear of the failure of a son who inherits a business than of one who has worked up his own. Another suggestion: Before you place
your son into business ask yourself this question: What will he do after
retiring? If we live to do business, then my suggestion is irrelevant; but if, as I firmly believe, we do business to live, then I feel that business men
should prepare to retire from the absorbing detail of everyday routine as soon as they have secured a fair competence. This being conceded, a youth intended for a business career should, wherever possible, be given the opportunity to develop those higher tastes, for literature, art, langauges, the sciences, etc., which will enable him to enjoy life more and appreciate leisure when he has earned it.
The American business man occasionally falls back on another excuse for not retiring: He would be “out
of things,” would feel lost, would have no company, no friends situated similarly to himself ; in other words, he says he fears to retire because we have no leisure class. If by leisure class he means the lazy, idle class, the drones in the human hive, let us accept his excuse ; for business life with all its limitations is much to be preferred. But he forgets that, with retirement from business, new duties will soon come to him, which, if he does not shirk, will occupy his time to such an extent at least that he will have no cause to be lonesome. In England, in Germany and in France there is a substantial leisure class; in America it is only now in formation. And, with the spread of the movement in America, every year will strengthen the bond of sympathy between those who arrange to devote themselves to true living. In England there are some men who live on their income and give all their time to hunting, fishing and other sports; but a comparatively large number enter public life actively, throwing their effort and their influence in the direction of municipal and national betterment.
In Germany, while there are some men of the leisure class who spend their time at the coffee-houses and beer gardens, there are many who lead most useful lives, always ready to lend a helping hand wherever needed, in private or public affairs. In France, though gambling and other dissipations attract many who have achieved leisure, others in large num-
bers interest themselves in the field of art, in philanthropy, and in public matters.
Here, then, is the opportunity, the mission of our successful business men. As soon as they can afford it, let them retire from the pursuit of gain, joining the true leisure class, devoted to the patriotic work of highest citizenship. Their children may
not receive as large a legacy in the shape of fortune as they would if the father had slaved all his life, but they will have a much dearer and more enduring inheritance in the proud memory of a parent who co-operated with them to work out the best that was in them, and whose life was spent in developing the highest ideals of humanity.