5 Monkeys and A Ladder
November 25, 2019

Perhaps you have heard about a fabled behavioral study regarding five monkeys and a ladder. It goes something like this: scientists put five monkeys in a room. In the middle of the room was a ladder with bananas on top. Every time a monkey went up the ladder to retrieve a banana, the scientists soaked the rest of the monkeys with cold water.

After a while, every time a monkey went up the ladder, the monkeys on the floor beat up the one on the ladder. After some time, no monkeys dared to go up the ladder, regardless of the reward. Scientists then decided to substitute one of the monkeys with a “new” monkey. The first thing this new monkey did was try to go up the ladder for the banana. Immediately the other monkeys beat him up. Over time, the new member knew not to climb the ladder. Eventually, the scientists replaced each original monkey with a new monkey. The same result played out: the new monkey trying to climb the ladder and the existing monkeys beating up the new monkey. Eventually, all the original monkeys who had been showered with cold water were substituted with new monkeys that had never seen anyone get a cold shower. Yet all monkeys in the room always beat up the new monkey trying to climb the ladder.

There is debate over whether this study happened how we describe it here, but it is told – and retold – as an analogy for human behavior and social conditioning. It has entered into legend, even though none of us were doused with cold water.

I think an important parallel can be applied to the notion of retirement at age 65. What’s so magical about age 65? When I ask clients why they initially plan on retiring at age 65, most of them say, “that’s when I can get Medicare or social security.” Many people also add, “besides, that’s when most people retire.” When did this become accepted as a generalization? Here are some interesting facts about the “magical” age of 65.

The first historical reference to retirement was in Germany in 1878, during a labor strike. The government set up pension funds that began at age 65. However, there was one small caveat: life expectancy at that time was 48. Fast forward a few decades to FDR signing the Social Security Act in 1935, which allowed Americans over age 65 to collect benefits.

Society has conditioned us to expect to retire at 65, even though it is still a relatively “new” concept. Ask someone who is still working over the age of 65, and I’m sure they will tell you that they often get asked, “why are you still working?” When I tell people that my father, who is 75, is still working, they ask me that same question about him.

The issue with retiring at any age, whether 60, 65, or 70, is that many times, people underestimate the value work brings to their life.

Retirement, value, and purpose

Work brings value to life. I’m not talking just a financial benefit, but also psychological and intellectual value. I have nothing against people retiring at age 65, specifically – I want to make sure that this choice is made after weighing value and not made because that’s what is culturally expected. Many people go blindly into retirement at age 65 and don’t plan to replace the values that work brought them for decades. The problem with this tactic is that retirement could last for another 30 years. Most people spend more time planning a weeklong vacation than they do planning for their retirement!

I have seen, and science has proven that the most “successful” retirees are those who stay engaged in some way. So how can you have a successful retirement…no matter the age? Spend some time answering these three questions:

  1. What observations have you made watching other people retire? – Are they scared to spend money? Are they bored? Do they have an active bucket list?
  2. What is your vision of retirement? – Do you dream of traveling more? How about learning a new skill or developing a new hobby?
  3. What role does work play in your life? – What aspects do you most enjoy about your current work? What will you miss the least when you leave this work? What would your ideal scenario look like after you leave your current job?

Our goal is not to tell you the perfect retirement age, but to make sure you are retiring into the next chapter of your life with as much consideration to preparation as possible. We don’t want a bunch of angry monkeys pulling you off the ladder without knowing what comes next.

When you are ready to discuss the above questions in more depth, we have some powerful tools that we can use together to plan for and envision your retirement.


Mark Brinser

Mark Brinser

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