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NEW YORK Jan 29 Pop quiz: What would it take
for you to have true retirement security?
Odds are you just thought of a number - $500,000, maybe, or
$1 million, or $5 million.
But Charles Eisenstein, author of "Sacred Economics," has a
message for you: Whatever number you came up with, you got the
answer dead wrong.
That's because real retirement security isn't about a
number, as he discusses in his book. It's actually about the
relationships in your life - the friends and family and
communities you can truly rely on. After all, when the money
runs out - as it will for many of us - those relationships are
all you have left.
Reuters sat down with Eisenstein to discuss the "gift
economy" that defined traditional societies for thousands of
years and may now be making a comeback out of financial
Q: When we're talking about retirement security, why
shouldn't we talk about numbers?
A: Numbers in investment accounts are actually pretty
fragile. They can disappear overnight, either because of a
financial crisis or foolish decisions. They're not secure at
I'm not saying we shouldn't make investments, but that we
need to broaden our concept of what an investment is. Everybody
understands the principle that whatever you put out, will come
back to you: People who spend their lifetime being generous,
find in old age that others will take care of them. That's the
kind of real security money can't buy.
Q: For much of human history, that's how societies were
A: In a "gift economy" like more traditional cultures, your
wealth isn't about how much you own or control. It's about how
generous you've been, because then everybody wants to be
generous to you, too.
After all, what you have given is the one thing that can
never be taken away from you. Even in the event of a revolution
or a total financial collapse, what you have given will always
Q: In a society where we are isolated in our own cocoons,
how do we re-establish these kinds of ties?
A: There's no easy answer, but I see a lot changing already,
because it has to. Some people think the trend of
twenty-somethings moving back in with their parents is a bad
thing, but maybe it's a sign of the rebirth of extended family
and community. I hope so.
In the old days farmhouses were huge, because they were
meant for grandparents, for uncles, for cousins, to all live
together. Historically, single-family homes were an aberration,
and grandparents were not always locked away in old-folks'
homes. Families and friends had to rely on each other, and we
may be moving toward that again.
Q: What if you are giver, but those around you are not --
doesn't the logic fall apart?
A: Yeah, there's no guarantee. But the reason to be generous
is not a cold calculation that a gift is going to be immediately
repaid. In any real gift there's a leap of faith, and you won't
always know how it will come back to you.
But if we act from that place of security, usually we have
experiences that confirm and justify that. I see all the
generous people in my life being OK and enjoying riches,
financially or otherwise. Things always seem to work out for
them, because people want to do nice things for them.
It basically requires a different way of looking at money.
We associate it with security, but that's a delusion. At some
point every one of us will be on our deathbed, and we won't be
able to take all that money with us. All we'll have at that
moment is the satisfaction of having made the world a little
better - even the most cynical investment adviser knows that.
Q: Since hardly anyone is saving enough for retirement,
might more of a gift economy be coming whether we like it or
A: With an increasing concentration of wealth, stagnant
incomes for most, and more and more of the middle class falling
into poverty, people will naturally gravitate toward a gift
economy. Because people do take care of each other in times of
It happened in my area a couple of years ago, when the
Susquehanna River flooded. In times like those money is not
going to rescue you, and so people formed long-lasting bonds in
just a few days. In some ways we're being both pulled and pushed
into a gift economy - pulled by a desire to be connected again,
and pushed by economic necessity.
Q: Do you believe more crises are on the way, that will
cause us to rethink how we look at money?
A: Things can change so much, so fast. In Cyprus recently
when a financial crisis hit them, you could have a big fat bank
account, but you weren't allowed to withdraw any money anymore.
It doesn't take much for something like that to happen.
And when that happens, even having gold bars in your
basement won't help. Wealth is ultimately a social agreement, an
interpretation of what numbers in a computer mean, and that can
change overnight. If you really want to be rich in a way that's
lasting and secure, you have to have strong relationships.
(Follow us @ReutersMoney or here;
Editing by Lauren Young and Dan Grebler)