Saturday, April 15, 2006

Social insecurity

Under the current Social Security system, the age at which you can start receiving full Social Security benefits depends on the year in which you were born. According to the current table, I won't be able to get full benefits until I'm 67, which means I'll be two years older than my father was when he retired with full benefits.

With Social Security allegedly in trouble, the leading edge of the Baby Boomers getting set to start collecting benefits in just a few years, life expectancy continuing to increase, and fewer workers paying into the system as the Boomers retire, there's been talk of increasing the ages even more. After all, if I'm going to live longer, I'm going to collect for a longer time, so I need to be kept in the work force longer to keep paying in and to prevent me from receiving 20+ years of payouts. Somewhere in the bowels of the Social Security Administration, actuaries have undoubtedly run the numbers, and they undoubtedly make sense on paper.

Life isn't lived on paper, however, and I wonder if anyone has taken a hard look at the variables. Americans are living longer, but does that mean that serious health declines are beginning later? Do arthritis, heart disease, joint disorders, incontinence, cognitive conditions, and other age-related problems set in at a later age? It may be that they do, but is there solid evidence of this? Before anyone raises my normal retirement age to 70, I'd like to see some proof that the odds favor that I'll still be healthy enough to work between ages 65 and 70.

Next, what will I be doing during those years? Employers aren't allowed to practice overt age discrimination, but the reality is that many do—often beginning with employees in their 40s and 50s. Anyone over 40 who has been "downsized" will tell you how difficult it is to find a new job that is commensurate with his experience and past salary—and sometimes how difficult it is to find any but a low-level job, such as working in a store for a retailer—because that is the nature of our economy. In addition, while employers may not be able to talk about age directly, it takes only a brief review of a resume to accurately ascertain a candidate's age. Are employers really going to retain or hire aging, more highly paid workers at the middle and lower levels when these positions can be filled by younger people who are physically healthier, who are comfortable with rapidly changing technology and business requirements, and who may cost less in salary and health care benefits?

If an older employee loses a job, who will hire him? How many employers seek, say, an office manager with 40 years of experience? If you look at employment ads today, you'll see most employers are looking for 5–10 years of experience except for a handful of senior executive positions. Employers are going to be concerned about an older candidate's comfort level with new and upcoming technology and his ability to adapt to changes. Does this mean that, for many of us, our hard-earned educations and careers will culminate in earning minimum wage serving a retailer as a greeter? Realistically, what work will I be capable of at age 65, and realistically what work will I be able to obtain? At what pay and benefits level?

As a culture, we are so enamored of work that we work far more hours than the 40-hour work week that previous generations fought for and won. Employees routinely work 50–80 hours a week; some love it, some hate it, while some feel they have little choice—it's the price we pay for job security. Now we're asking people to work past an age at which the faculties decline and past an age at which one would think the elder has earned rest, if that is what he desires. Will we ask them to work 50–80 hours a week? Or will we simply hire a 30-year-old who is capable and eager to work long hours in return for immediate rewards and possible advancement? What will we do with those who do suffer from ill health that prevents them from working? What about those with chronic age-related diseases like diabetes and hypertension? Ask them to make do with less because they couldn't last until full retirement age (a lot to ask, given the high price of prescription medication)? Or put them in the position of having to work, thereby hastening their decline? I am aware that there are many people in this situation today—but there will be many more in the future.

My dad retired at age 65. He didn't mind working, and he thought of trying to work past age 65 (which was, I believe, a mandatory retirement age per union rules or agreement). But he had already given up many things in concession to age; his once-extensive vegetable and flower plantings had shrunk to a small patch of flowers with a few outliers here and there. Within about a year and a half of his retirement, he was diagnosed with diabetes. My mother, who didn't have a job, was diagnosed with insulin-dependent diabetes and died at age 64. By the time my dad was 77, he was a candidate for assisted living, with a history of strokes, transient ischemic attacks, and congestive heart failure. Even though he retired at 65, he never had the opportunity to enjoy the so-called "golden years." Most of the men he worked with could tell similar stories, that is, those who had not retired at age 62 or earlier with disabilities.

In contrast to the growing number of wealthy entrepreneurs who are retiring in their 40s on their investments, there is a growing number of elders who can afford to retire from their careers but who continue to work or who take jobs that give them the sense of purpose that work provides. My aunt retired early from her federal government position and then spent several years in a part-time clerical position for a D.C. think tank. After a few years, she left that job; I'm not sure why. She enjoyed a few years of retirement but was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer at age 70. She died at age 71.

It can be said that the concept of retirement is a recent innovation. In past times, people worked until they no longer could; there was no set age to quit, and no expectation that benefits would be provided. In many cases, the elder might have depended on the extended family for financial support, even for a home. In any case, elders generally did not live long past their ability to support themselves. In our fragmented society, where families are spread out across the country and in which broken marriages interrupt the continuity of family and responsibility, a layer of complexity is added that that is addressed by such things as assisted living facilities—a costly solution for the average worker or family. Of course, the past is not the best standard against which to judge how issues should be handled now; after all, no one today, I hope, would advocate putting 8-year-olds to work.

Mostly, though, I believe the raising of retirement ages is not a practical solution. I honestly don't know what is. There will be a palpable imbalance someday between the young and the old, and the former cannot be expected to sacrifice all for the latter. Employers will have to find, or be given, a reason to cease the practice of age discrimination (against anyone, whether 40 years old or 70 years old). They will have to make concessions, realizing that performance declines with age, and that accommodations will need to be made, just as for the disabled. Vision and hearing loss, slowing of physical reaction time, cognitive decline—they are all part of the aging process that begins earlier in life than most of us realize. The beginnings of many of these, for example, the development of the need for bifocals, corresponds roughly to what is mostly likely our natural life expectancy—say, 45–55.

Jonathan Swift warned us of the dangers of desiring a long life span, which comes with no guarantee that robust health will be similarly extended. I can't help but think of the cliché, "Be careful what you wish for." We wish for longer lives and make them possible largely through technology. Now we must do more than wish for solutions to the problems that we have created. Whatever we decide to do must be fair and practical. How many solutions to problems are fair and practical—and don't raise even greater problems?

1 comment:

  1. You have summarized (and balanced) wonderfully those issues I am very concerned about these days. As an early boomer, I hope that answers will be forthcoming from public and private sectors.

    (found you through a link on Ryan Wolf's blog)