June 16, 2005

Raising the Age of Retirement

John Tierney writes in his op-ed piece The Old and the Rested
Is it possible that people this age are still physically capable of putting in a full day's work at the office?
Americans now feel entitled to spend nearly a third of their adult lives in retirement. Their jobs are less physically demanding than their parents' were, but they're retiring younger and typically start collecting Social Security by age 62. Most could keep working - fewer than 10 percent of people 65 to 75 are in poor health - but, like Bartleby the Scrivener, they prefer not to.
The problem isn't that Americans have gotten intrinsically lazier. They're just responding to a wonderfully intentioned system that in practice promotes greed and sloth. Social Security is widely thought of as a kumbaya program that unites Americans in caring for the elderly, but it actually creates ugly political battles among generations.
Greed and sloth? When I look at the retirees I know I don't see greedy, lazy people, unless they were that way all their life. By the time someone is 64 or 67 I'm thinking their personality and character are pretty well formed and won't be hurt much by a modest stipend each month. And believe me, John, most of us out here get a modest check from Social Security. And what about those who work at relatively low paying, physically demanding jobs all of their employed lives and pay a price in wear and tear on their bodies? Should they have to work their whole lives to survive when we can pretty easily provide enough money through Social Security to make their later years easier?

That brings me to your "kumbaya program". In Social Security we have a social contract in which we agree to provide for each other a basic income during retirement. This isn't unearned welfare and we aren't soft in the head to want to do this. As adults we contribute to our community/country by our labor, by taking care of our families, by volunteering, by being faithful friends and in myriad other ways. It is reasonable for us to want to look out for each other in retirement and Social Security provides us a means to join together and do that in a way that is well administered, efficient and equitable. We don't have to be social Darwinists who grasp for ours and tough noogies to you if you didn't manage to grasp as much as the other guy.

Many retired people already do spend time volunteering, working part-time, taking care of young or sick relatives amongst other things. They don't magically become parasites the moment they get their first check from Social Security. They are free, maybe for the first time in their lives, to labor for love. This has value that deserves recognition. Social Security works pretty well and with a little tweaking (not a major overhaul, not private accounts) we can keep it healthy and continue to support each other in making our golden years a little more secure.


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