Friday, June 30, 2006


The Retirement of Retirement

Despite rampant age discrimination, millions of American workers will be forced to work through their old age anyway - unless drastic changes are made to the system. Americans between the ages of 55 and 64 have accumulated, on average, only $78,000 in assets beyond the value of their homes. Of those in that age group who have 401(k) plans, the median amount accrued is only $23,000. Private pension plans would be a great boost, but most of those are rapidly disappearing. What pensions do exist go disproportionately to the affluent, with 70 percent of all retirement funds held by just 40 percent of workers. Experts believe that between $200,000 and $300,000 in savings - in addition to Social Security (which some would like to take away) - will be required for even a modestly secure retirement. Add to this the inevitable rise in the cost of living and the price of health care, and the prospect of a comfortable retirement seems like a total fantasy.

Working instead of retiring would not be so bad, provided one was healthy, and the work was meaningful. In other words, a suitable reward for experience rather than a humiliating demotion to an economic second-class citizenship. In previous centuries, professionals, craftsmen and farmers were allowed to work as long as they were able. As a result, many enjoyed a kind of "green old age". It was only with industrialization, with its brutal mechanistic pace, that older people started to be pushed out of the workplace. According to an economist 100 years ago, "The old man today, slow, hesitating, frequently half-blind and deaf, is sadly misplaced amidst the death dealing machinery of a modern factory." Excluding older people from fruitful participation in the economy simply because they are old began with our modern era, and it continues. Nowadays, of course, the prejudice against the old is colored by the demands of the service industry. Older folks are not pretty enough, their voices too raspy, their teeth too stained and snaggly, their grasp of pop culture, financial instruments or software languages not current enough for them to compete amongst the young. They may be fit to serve as greeters at Wal-Mart perhaps, as in a parody of grandparents welcoming home their progeny, but that is just about it.

Here is where the blessings of a low birth rate come into play. As corporations run short of labor among the less populous post-Baby Boom generations, they will need to turn increasingly to older people. Or at least that is the fond hope of many, although others believe that older workers will still be shunned in favor of a dramatic increase in foreign outsourcing. Nevertheless, the best case scenario brightens the imagination. Older workers, with their vast experience and their health still intact, may find themselves with opportunities that eluded them in their youth, and come into their own at long last.

"Sweating The Golden Years" from The Wilson Quarterly
"Paying For It" from The Wilson Quarterly
"What's A Retirement For?" from The Wilson Quarterly

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