Gold Watches And Disaster Recovery Plans

Making provision for life beyond the “employed years” is a reality of modern developed countries. Generally speaking, for pre-modern societies, low life expectancy rates meant that most people died before attaining an age where they were unable to contribute productively. And those who did “grow old” were taken care of by their families. However, the huge leaps forward in medical science have resulted in dramatically extended life expectancies – now averaging 80 years or more in some countries.[1] This has major implications for work – and for providing for people in their later years.

While individuals in developed countries are encouraged to save actively for their retirement, many governments financially support the elderly through state pensions and superannuation. The earliest state-initiated pension plan was in Germany in the late nineteenth century, but such government sponsored support of the elderly gained momentum in most industrialized nations during the early part of the twentieth century.

However, the financial burden of providing for increasingly large numbers of “retirees” is now being placed on a shrinking younger workforce. This population ageing is expected to reach a peak around 2050.[2] As a result, many governments are faced with increasing the age of eligibility for pensions and/or reducing the amounts paid, meaning people having to work in paid employment for longer and to save more themselves for retirement.

Much of the pressure to save for retirement years is fuelled by high standard of living expectations and the fear of not having enough. Having grown accustomed to particular lifestyles in their late income-earning years, many people seek to maintain these same standards beyond paid employment. Retirement has also been presented as a kind of nirvanic vision – where people can now enter the bliss of pursuing hobbies and long-held ambitions to their heart’s content, free from any “have-to’s”. As such, retirement is the very goal and epitome of our culture’s “good life”.

For Christians, there are several matters to consider regarding retirement:

Insurance

Another way of provisioning for the future – particularly in regard to unexpected or catastrophic events – is insurance. At its most basic, insurance is the pooling of funds to cover the financial risks associated with the unpredictability of life. It is therefore a form of risk management. To reduce the economic devastation of an accident, burglary, fire, natural disaster or loss of income, a group of people contribute to a fund that over time can be drawn on when unexpected loss occurs.

In pre-modern societies such cover was unheard of, though families and communities did their best to pool their resources together when disaster occurred (as frequently happened).

However, in more complex, larger and modern societies, this has been achieved across communities and nations by the development of (now) multinational insurance corporations. Because of the sheer volume of contributors, they are able to spread the risk widely and so reduce the financial devastation of a disaster in one community.

In his book, The Ascent of Money, economic historian Niall Fergusson tracks the development of the modern insurance industry. He notes, among other things, that in medieval times Italian merchant ships were insured, the first fire insurance company was developed in London shortly after the Great Fire of 1666, and the rapid expansion of the industry occurred after mathematicians figured out how to calculate risk with reasonable probability.[3]

Several issues are relevant for Christians in evaluating whether to buy commercial insurance cover. Two key questions are, on the one hand, “To what extent might insurance reduce our reliance and trust in God’s provision?” and on the other hand, “To what degree is insurance exercising responsible trusteeship?”

In Matthew 6:34 Jesus instructs his disciples not to be anxious about the future, saying, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” It would be easy to interpret this as a prohibition to planning for the future. However, as I noted in the first article in this series, Jesus’ language is clear – he is not suggesting we do not concern ourselves with tomorrow’s needs. He is stating that to worry about such matters is not to genuinely trust God for his provision.

Where we have assets we rely on to live and work (such as homes, vehicles, and businesses) it is prudent to do what is reasonable to insure them from possible loss – presuming the premiums are fair, relative to the risk and size of asset. Basic cover for the resources that would be most catastrophic if lost, is sensible. Indeed, in some societies, certain forms of insurance are mandatory. And some form of life insurance may even be appropriate – especially if we have dependents relying on our capacity to feed and clothe them.

However, it must be remembered that the insurance trade is big business. Like most industries, it is easy to fudge the line between needs and wants, convincing people that more and more insurance is necessary.[4] There is a line between judicious risk management and using insurance as a substitute for trust in God (and our relational community).

Where is that line? Like the distinction between savings and hoarding, there’s no definitive answer, as our personal situations are very different. However, asking ourselves (and those we are committed to) why we need a particular form of insurance and what would happen if we didn’t have it, is a healthy discipline. If buying the cover is based on a belief that we can insulate ourselves from the storms of life, or as an alternative to building strong relationships and community as the ultimate support for times of uncertainty, then we have reason to question its validity.

What about those for whom such hedging against disaster is unaffordable? Like so many issues addressed in this series of articles, the people who most need protection are the very ones who can least afford it. The poor are exposed to the risk of financial disaster and the Church has a responsibility to be involved in acts of relief and mercy. There is strong precedent in the New Testament church for the community of faith responding collectively to economic disaster. As has already been noted, this is what the churches of Asia Minor did in giving to the church in Jerusalem.

We should do likewise.

[1] According to the UN, 15 countries now have life expectancy rates higher than 80 years; 61 countries in excess of 75 years, and 115 countries in excess of 70 years. The majority of countries with averages less than 60 years are from Africa – largely a result of the very high HIV/AIDS mortality rates. Global average life expectancy has risen dramatically since 1900, when it was around 30 years, to an average of 67 years in 2010. A significant element in this change has been the reduction of infant mortality rates.

[2] This phenomenon is particularly acute in Europe and has been referred to as the “greying of Europe”. It is a result of dropping birth rates and increasing life expectancy rates.

[3] Niall Fergusson, The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World (New York: Penguin, 2008). Chapter 4.

[4] Over-insurance is common. And then there is the proliferation of new forms of insurance. Such products are created regularly, to cover an absurd range of possible situations. Additionally, the proliferation in some societies of litigation (law suits) sadly increase dramatically the levels and forms of insurance required to be prudent.

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