Those of us who grew up back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, will recall the emphasis our parents, family members and neighbors placed on getting a good education and consequently, a good job.
A good job, generally, was not one found in the private sector; back then, private sector job opportunities were usually unavailable to “people of color.” Back then, a good job for those who had earned a college degree included that of a school teacher, social worker, probation officer or one with the local, state or federal governments. Such employment allowed one to go to work wearing a suit and tie with pay that was reliable, if not good, and a pension that was the reward for working continuously for a number of years. One other thing associated with a “good job” was the infamous “gold watch.”
Without a college education, there were other good jobs at the post office, the Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC), the Budd Company and the Sears and Roebuck Company. Whether it was a white-collar or blue-collar job, some of you will recall the practice of long-term, good employees receiving a gold watch upon retirement, back in the day.
Receiving a gold watch upon retirement, some of you may ask? I initially thought that this was a question that would only be asked by our millennials. However, through discussions with some in my own age bracket, I came to realize that lots of retired senior citizens know little or nothing about the tradition of employers giving employees gold watches upon retirement. So, what is the background and history of this practice? A search of the internet turned up an article by Robert Laura and other contributors titled, “Saying Goodbye to Retirement Traditions,” that provides some insight to the gold watch and retirement. This article points out that the tradition of giving a gold watch upon retirement can be traced back to the 1940s and the Pepsi Company. This article indicated that Pepsi’s management embraced the concept, “you gave us your time, now we are giving you ours.” This thought was applicable when employees worked for the same company for decades. But, this practice has no meaning when the average length of employment with a company or organization today is approximately five years. While I know of no one that received a gold watch upon retirement, I always thought that getting something of value was appropriate for an employee that worked for the same company for three or four decades. Looking back over my career and work situations where one was employed with the same company for years, meeting the traditional qualifications for a gold watch is highly unusual, at least in recent decades. People tend not to remain with the same company or organization or work in the same or similar capacity for an extended period of time. Our workforce today is highly mobile and many individuals will change employment in a “heartbeat.” Thus, the practice of receiving a gold watch is not applicable today. It is a tradition that has, without a doubt, been left, back in the day.
Robert Laura reminds us of a practical economic reason why the gold watch has become a thing of the past. He points out that for decades, the price of gold was about $34 an ounce. Today, the price of gold is around $1,600 an ounce. Such prices would clearly threaten the financial stability of companies. When the gold watch as a retirement present was in vogue, it was typically 18-karat gold. As you can easily determine, giving a gold watch, particularly where employees had considerable longevity working for a company before retiring was not cost effective. If you received a so-called gold watch in the ‘60s or ‘70s, or for that matter, in recent years, examine it carefully as it is likely gold plated rather than 18-karat gold. Besides the cost involved in receiving a gold watch in the good old days, good jobs as described by our parents no longer exist. While you may not have been in the workforce, back then, people worked years and years for the same company or the same organization. Some of you will recall older members of your family and others in your neighborhood boasting about how long they had worked for a particular company. They were proud of their longevity with a particular company. Tenure of more than 40 years was not unheard of, back then. The gold watch was evidence of the commitment of an employee to the company and a commitment of the company to the employee. In recent years, with profit being the top priority, the employer and employee relationship has become secondary. Examine your place of employment and focus on the length of time employees have worked for the company. Employees are far more mobile than in the past and more willing to relocate to take advantage of job opportunities. Making things less secure with regard to retirements and the possibilities of gold watches are mergers, bankruptcies and businesses closing permanently. Then, we must consider that people are retiring at a much younger age and have many things on their “bucket list” and a gold watch is of no significance. Robert Laura in the above-mentioned article puts the future of retirements, ergo the gold watch, in very succinct yet gentle terms. He states, “The gig’s up and retirement will never be the same.” Regardless of the type of recognition a company provides, the era of the gold watch is something that has been left, back in the day.
So, what takes place in this day and age when one retires? Think about recent retirements at your place of employment or retirements of friends or acquaintances. If the person had been employed at the same place for an extended period of time it may have been a retirement dinner that is paid for by ticket prices paid by each participant. I have been to a number of retirement affairs and most are quite similar. Depending on one’s popularity, you may find a large number of people gathered at a nice restaurant with a number of speeches. There is usually a nice gift but no gold watch. Gifts today tend to be more personal; gifts that relate to one’s interests. In another internet article by Brent Bowersfeb, titled, “In Tribute to Your Years of Service,” he identifies the gold watch as a hopeless anachronism. He, too, identifies a retirement gift as something that is personal. Referring to a retiree named Edward L. Hansen, a former director of marketing at a New York consulting firm, he indicated that Hansen appreciated thoughtful gifts given him at retirement. As an avid cyclist, his former colleagues gave him a gift certificate from a bike shop as well as an ergonomic bike saddle, a guidebook to California bike routes, a beach umbrella and other beach-related items in light of his affinity for bicycle riding to the beach. Hansen was quite clear as to what he would have done with a gold watch had one been given to him for a retirement gift. He would have placed it in his bureau drawer where it would have remained until his estate sale where it would have been sold or given away. Another factor that has contributed to the disappearance of the gold watch at retirement is the influx of women into the workplace. I had not given thought to this but giving a gold watch is a practice that is definitely male-oriented. Also, Hansen points out, “Wearing a gold watch is like wearing a badge that says, ‘I worked in one place for 35 years and nobody wants to wear that badge anymore.” This is particularly true when there are often unpleasant memories of today’s work environment.
So, after many decades, if a gold watch is not desired as a retirement gift, then what? You need not take it from me as I share with you what others tell me. They say, “Give me money.” I do not need something that will simply go into a drawer, hang on a wall or be placed on a mantle. Money, many feel, reflects the company’s gratitude for their service to the company. Without a doubt, companies are different but employees are also different because the work ethic is different. As I pointed out in a previous column, no longer are places of employment an extension of one’s personal life. Employers have contributed significantly to the deterioration of the work ethic of the past by failing to continue tying one’s personal needs to the company’s needs. Recall how we once referred to our employer and co-workers as a family? Recall how the company did things as a family such as company cookouts and company outings? Recall how members of one’s own family became the company’s family as employment opportunities were passed on to those that were close to the retiree? Remember how an employee’s personal tragedies became everyone’s tragedy? Such relationships have virtually disappeared in most companies. These relationships, in particular reasons for giving a gold watch have truly been left, back in the day.
So, do you want the experience of receiving a gold watch to make your retirement consistent with retirement experiences of the past? Well, I do not want you to be disappointed. So, I suspect that in order to fulfill this desire, you will have to go out and purchase your own gold watch as receiving one from an employer upon retirement today has been left, back in the day.