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Keep them working

Jack Balshaw 12/11/2002


Two seemingly unrelated pieces of information surfaced this week. I "found" my great grandfather in a 1920 census which showed he immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800's and was still working as a laborer at 73. I thought about how present Social Security allows people to retire around 65 and that it was a shame poor people had to work until they died in those times.

Later in the week, I came across a C-span presentation by the Urban Institute - a Washington think tank - discussing the need to keep people working longer. It seems some are already worried that, as the Boomer generation retires, there won't be enough workers to keep our businesses going. The panel's preferred and only solution focused on removing incentives that encourage or allow early retirement and adding controls to retirement plans to encourage people to keep working during their older years.

I've always found it strange when educated people in suits and ties support changing the retirement system, requiring people to work longer to receive the best benefits. Perhaps they see no problem, from their point of view, in continuing to go to their executive offices until they're in their 70's. Perhaps they have the personal financial choice of retiring whenever they want and just like the idea of staying active in the upper echelons with their perks as long as they care to.

This is another case of those with position, authority and maybe power favoring a scenario that suits them without thinking about how this will create a much less desirable solution for many others. The poor, the unskilled and the unfortunate have to physically use their bodies to earn a living. The white-collar decision makers seem not to take into account that our bodies wear out much faster than our minds do.

Since my great grandfather came here, our labor laws and retirement plans have always moved in the direction of keeping children out of the work force and letting older workers retire with at least a minimal pension. It looks as if there may soon be a movement to encourage or require people to go back to working longer than the present retirement age of 65. At least those people who can't fund their own retirement plans.

The thought that molders-of-public-opinion may now be starting to prepare us for major changes in retirement policies warrants that we pay some attention to what they're saying today. The theories may sound reasonable if you share their status but, when applied across the board, can be unsettling. These theories may work in Lake Woebegone where the children are all above average, but not where, in reality, half the people earn below average income.

The concern this Urban Institute panel is discussing may seem far off to those for whom retirement is still many years away. But it will be too late to do anything if no one pays attention until after new laws take effect. Changes may take years to bring about, but those changes will have long lasting impacts on our labor force and on what quality of life in old age becomes. Unless you can feel certain that you, your children and grandchildren will be higher income, white-collar workers, the comfort of your and their old age may be in jeopardy.

While government and large institutions plan 20 or more years ahead, most individuals don't seriously consider more than the next two years, if that. It's difficult to convince the average person that he needs to be concerned with something that isn't on the network talk shows yet. But the average person should at least pay attention to this issue or he may find himself working as long as my great grandfather had to.


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