Planned Obsolescence


Farm Notes

Some say that household appliances, vehicles, and gadgets are engineered to break or wear out within a certain amount of time, a concept called “planned obsolescence.” I have always assumed that the manufacturer does not want their washing machine or cell phone to break, but rather, by using cheaper materials, they’ve made the end product more affordable for a wider range of buyers. Cheaper materials simply result in a shorter lifespan. These products are so affordable, it is often cheaper to buy new when the old one fails rather than attempting an expensive repair. It just seems so nefarious…if you pony up for the warrantee, you can bet your bottom dollar that washing machine will need a major repair the day after the warrantee expires!

I am not sure whether the concept of “planned obsolescence” is real or not, but there is ample anecdotal evidence of its existence. When we remodeled our kitchen 13 years ago, we put in a new refrigerator, cooktop, dishwasher, and oven. Our daughters were 6 and 1.5 years old and our old dog was still very much a puppy. We were all so young!


Now, 13 years later, all of these appliances are failing, one by one. We replaced the refrigerator just before the pandemic started, but the rest of the appliances remain on life support: The oven’s temperature is wildly inaccurate; I have been handwashing dishes for several months; and our cooktop has only one functioning burner left. If I didn’t know any better, I would suspect all our appliances were in cahoots! To add insult to injury, our hot water heater completely gave up the ghost this last week. What will be next???

Between the failing appliances, a global pandemic, and an upcoming election, I have been feeling a tad fatalistic. But one thing has me waxing philosophical more than ever…both my husband and I turn 50 this year. (Good grief!) I told my dear hubby Peter on his birthday last August that I wanted us to start thinking about our exit strategy. What can we do over these next 10-15 years to make sure we are able to exit gracefully? Can we plan for our own obsolescence?

The prospect of planning to retire is daunting: Farmers are notoriously bad at retirement. The average age of a farmer in the US is 58; more than half of farmers are 65 or older. In fact, 1 in 10 is 73 years old or above. Talk about a group that won’t quit!

Ultimately, there are multiple factors that prevent farmers from retiring. Firstly, retirement may be a financial impossibility for those who have invested their heart and soul (and money) in their farms, rather than a 401(k). Retiring means selling the farm and all they have built—a heartbreaking thought. If they are lucky enough to have younger generations ready to take over, oftentimes Grandma and Grandpa will continue to help anywhere they are needed. I know plenty of farmers that will milk cows, drive truck, or mow hay as long as they are physically able.

I suspect my husband is firmly in this second camp. Growing up in Wisconsin, his neighbor Earl was a retired mechanic with a small farm. Earl filled his days planting and harvesting. He kept busy and fit maintaining the house and outbuildings. He kept his mind sharp planning months in advance, whether it was splitting enough wood for winter heat or ordering the right seeds for spring gardens. Earl had a reason to get up every morning and that drive kept him healthy and strong. This is my husband’s idea of retirement.

I haven’t given much thought to what I want for our “golden years”…nothing specific, anyway. Rather, I am more focused now on how we can thoughtfully take the business we have built and provide for an eventual, workable transition. I would love nothing more than to see it to live on, flourishing without us. That is planned obsolescence!

I asked our neighbor Steve what he planned to do in retirement; did he have an exit strategy? His immediate answer was a hearty laugh, as if I just cracked a fantastic joke. No; as a dairy farmer, he is doing exactly what he has wanted to do his whole life. He cannot imagine leaving it or wanting something else. As much as I admire the sentiment, I cannot say I want the same.