PEBBLE IN THE SKY

Posted in Rants on July 27th, 2011 by Ed

It is a foregone conclusion, as it has been one since Obama began his rightward march, that the retirement age for Social Security will be sacrificed to the gods of austerity. A safe bet for the current round of changes is 69 or 70, and in all likelihood it will continue to increase until it hits 75 in the next decade or two. These changes are economically motivated, with proponents constructing a post hoc demographic explanation by pointing out that life expectancy in the U.S. has grown from 70 years in 1960 to 78.7 in 2009 (per the World Bank).

This raises three questions that have no apparent answer, and moreover that Congress has no interest in answering in their search for a short-term fix that protects current (high voter turnout) seniors from experiencing any changes.

First, how many jobs can an individual reasonably be expected to perform until age 70? Just because people are living longer thanks to all kinds of advanced medical care doesn't mean that they're functional for a longer period of time. Life-extending technology can add a few years to the senile, bed-wetting years of one's life but a 65 year old man is still a 65 year old man. What is it that we expect people to do from 65 to 70? Operate machinery? Teach small children? Do manual labor? Hell, it's not hard to argue that productivity declines well before the retirement age of 65, and my field, for instance, usually has mandatory retirement at 70 – meaning, "We really expect that you've retired by now, but if you haven't, there's the door." How many jobs do you think can be performed adequately by the average – not exceptional – 68 year old?

The second question, building off the first, is how an elderly individual is supposed to make it to 70. Many readers are all too familiar with the ways employers are hostile toward older employees. Forget 70 – once you hit 50 they're looking for ways to push you out the door, either offering "early exit" packages, making things unpleasant in the hope that you'll quit, or flat-out firing/laying off the older part of the workforce. People over 50 are expensive, with the high salaries and (relatively) luxurious benefits they've accrued over time. The massive oversupply of qualified 23 year olds in the labor pool can more than make up in costs savings what they cost the company in quality and training time. How exactly will the over 60 crowd manage to run this gauntlet until they're 70 – especially given that they probably will be bad at their jobs by that point?

Third, the trite-but-true "Social Security isn't supposed to be your only source of income, but rather a supplement to your other retirement income" line isn't going to solve any of these problems. The last generation of people with defined benefit pensions will be out of the labor pool soon, the rest of us having been shuffled into the high stakes Three Card Monte game of IRAs, 401(k) plans, and the like. Leaving aside the very open-ended question of what (if anything) those instruments will be worth when we reach retirement age, what proportion of the current workforce under 55 is earning enough to make the level of contributions required to provide a meaningful income at retirement?

The Isaac Asimov story Pebble in the Sky describes a world in which everyone is executed at age 60, after which it is believed that their contributions to society will disappear. That almost seems benevolent compared to a system in which we pretend that we can extend our productive years whenever doing so is politically, economically, or demographically convenient – and leave them to their own devices and a pittance from The Gub'mint thereafter.