PEBBLE IN THE SKY

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.

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41 Responses to “PEBBLE IN THE SKY”

  1. hamletta Says:

    People don't really live that much longer than they used to; life expectancy has gone up because people don't die off in childhood from diseases we vaccinate for, and women don't routinely die in childbirth.

  2. HoosierPoli Says:

    The most frustrating part of this whole song and dance is that ACTUAL economics is utterly off the table. The economy is on the edge of the dreaded "double dip" and policymakers WORLDWIDE are falling over themselves to implement CONTRACTIONARY policies. It doesn't seem to matter that every single economist who has ever offered an opinion says this is counterproductive nonsense that will cost us money in the long run.

    The richest part is the "pivot": Once we've finished a massive budget cut, we can focus on jobs! So, after laying off tens of thousands of people, we can finally get around to creating jobs!

    I'd be optimistic, but this is 1937 all over again, and I'm in no hurry to be saved by another WWII.

  3. HoosierPoli Says:

    One more thing: I live in the DC metro area. If you ever wanted proof that government spending can prop up an economy, just take a look at Fairfax county and its 4 percent unemployment. The Beltway region and the surrounding parasitic counties (if you ignore Prince George's) are doing GREAT and always will be. But government spending can't help!

  4. Kyle Says:

    I recall reading that the average life expectancy in the US is pretty heavily skewed by the upper class who have access to better medicine and possibly less stressful lives. It's probably not best to base a Social Security age on numbers that include those who don't need Social Security.

  5. wetcasements Says:

    The age for SS entitlement should be _lowered_ so that older folks will move out of the labor pool sooner and younger ones can jump in.

    Of course, Joe Lieberman wouldn't approve. And baby boomers haven't quite finished fucking over my generation (mid-30's) yet.

  6. Middle Seaman Says:

    HoosierPoli is right and not because we are both DC area. Although SS at 97, millionaire Obama's dream, is a crime against humanity and should be dealt with at The Hague, this is the minor issue. The marriage of the GOP with Obama is intent on destroying us both financially and as a democracy.

    If we didn't know better, we would believe that Boehner and Obama work for the Chinese. Not only the 70 year olds, I am close, will suffer. College graduate already cannot find jobs. Everybody in between will be looking into the abyss. Austerity, super congress, the deficit commission are all nuclear bombs intended at maximum destruction.

    Our hope lies with Wall Street. Pretty soon they will realize that their agent, Boehner and Obama, went rogue. They, god willing, will pull the plug before FDR's problem will be negligible compared to ours.

  7. Xynzee Says:

    Half the problem is with the debate is framing SS and Medicare/Medicaid as "entitlements". The debate needs to be framed as these are "savings" and "insurance" programs that one pays into. So from that perspective you *are* entitled to the money you've been saving. At leas that's how my savings account works.

  8. jgalt Says:

    Don't worry friends, teh Singularity is near! Soon we will become digitized gods!

    That, or our ape servants will overthrow and enslave us.

    Could go either way right now…

  9. Juniper Says:

    I'm truly scared, folks. It's starting to hit me that while my job pays crap and my boss is a micromanaging asshat, it's at a larger company and I'd better just suck it up and sit tight. This is because I actually SEE people that are in their 60s here, so there's hope for me in my old age that I won't be kicked to the curb. At least right away.

    What the hell is going on? When did this country become so pigheaded and selfish? Don't these people SEE how the rest of the world sees us? Stop it with the jingoism and pull the head out of their ass? Am I asking for too much?

  10. eau Says:

    "What is it that we expect people to do from 65 to 70? Operate machinery? Teach small children? Do manual labor?"

    No, no, no. Ed! Those are the years you spend sitting on boards, "consulting", perhaps running for Congress…

  11. Noskilz Says:

    I really don't think the people advocating these sorts of changes have given the matter much thought. Or if they have, it's probably that given current trends in dismantling regulatory oversight and safety nets, that pesky life expectancy will be coming down soon enough and the numbers of those collecting will be small enough to not be worth worrying about.

    But I really think it's more just not actually thinking anything through – as long as whatever target number is hit by whatever premises they have to invent to make that number, everything else is somebody else's problem.

  12. Bill Casey Says:

    One of my bookmark folders is labeled "Ammunition". Within are links useful for silencing errant coworkers and loudmouth relatives. I submit the following compilation of Social Security related links from that folder:

    -While life expectancy at birth was only 61.90 for a male in 1941, a man turning 65 in that same year lived an average of 12.17 additional years. A male turning 65 in 2010 lived an average of 16.55 additional years. The difference is 4.38 years. A 65 year old in 2010 has to wait until his or her 66th birthday to retire. Anyone born after 1960 will have to wait until he or she is 67.
    http://www.ssa.gov/oact/NOTES/pdf_studies/study120.pdf

    -Increases in average life expectancy at 65 have disproportionally benefited the well off. A male in the bottom 50% income-wise turning 65 in 1977 lived an average of 14.8 additional years. A male in the top 50% income-wise turning 65 in 1977 lived an average of 15.5 additional years. By 2006, the bottom 50% male turning 65 averaged 16.1 additional years and the top 50% male averaged 21.5 additional years. That's a gain of 6 years versus a gain of 1.3 years!
    http://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/workingpapers/wp108.html

    -Presently, only earnings under $106,800/yr. are subject to Social Security taxation. If this cap were eliminated, 95% of the program's shortfall over the next 75 years would be met, rendering Social Security solvent for decades to come. To be clear: To fix Social Security, all we need do is fund it with a *flat*, rather than a regressive tax. (though benefits would remain progressive)
    http://aging.senate.gov/crs/ss9.pdf

    -Doing so wouldn't be kicking the can down the road. The graying of the population will level off by 2034 as the Baby Boomers age and die. So the balance achieved by raising the cap would be stable. We'll have to pony up between 0.6 and 2.5 percent more of our GDP per year to handle the new age ratio. That really isn't bad.
    http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/119xx/doc11943/10-22-SocialSecurity_chartbook.pdf

    -29% of workers over 55, and 43% generally, have less than $10,000 in retirement savings. I'd say that's not exactly a small, isolated group of irresponsible people.
    http://www.ebri.org/pdf/briefspdf/EBRI_IB_03-2010_No340_RCS.pdf

    -Proposals to change the way Social Security benefits are adjusted for inflation are just stealthy ways of proposing cuts, particularly for the very old.
    http://strengthensocialsecurity.org/sites/default/files/Chained%20CPI%20_factsheet%20Final.pdf

    -"In June 2010, the average Social Security retirement benefit was $1,170 a month, or about $14,000 a year…replac[ing] about 39 percent of an average worker’s pre-retirement wages — significantly less than similar programs in most other Western countries. That figure will gradually fall to about 31 percent over the next two decades because of the projected rise in Medicare premiums "
    http://www.cbpp.org/cms/index.cfm?fa=view&id=3261

  13. Tim H. Says:

    The next thing might be "Retirement camps" where the elderly who were so foolish as to not be born into wealth can do piecework labor for the politically connected, until they die and get dumped into green approved methane generation facilities.

  14. Coffeeman Says:

    This is just a symptom of the real problem…we no longer have a representative democracy. Check out any Pew poll and compare it to how the DC elites rule. It's an alternative reality. Until the natives storm the Bastille, it will not change.

  15. butler Says:

    Correct: we are being set up for a holocaust of the elderly. The "take responsibility for your own retirement by participating in our financial shell games" thing clued me in years ago, and if there is a reason for this current bullshit, there is a profit motive somewhere. Or perhaps this is all just a peripheral result of the general "there is opportunity in destruction and chaos" modus operandi being employed by our upper classes.

    I really appreciate the comments re: language and framing which are at the root of the biggest problems we face in this country. Even people who haven't lost their ability of critical thinking are willing to use terms like "entitlements" in the negative sense presented and hammered home constantly by Faux "News" followed by the rest of the entertainment industry. I began contributing to social security in the '70s and at that point it was assumed one could retire on SS, and retire handsomely if one saved or invested. I assumed then that a deal was a deal. How naive.

    The only thing that has really changed is that a scam on an enormous scale has been, and is being, run on the majority of the population of this country.

    I was surprised that so far there is only 1 idiotic "blame the boomers" comment on this thread. Boomers will be washing windows on 2nd Ave before anyone else.

  16. Misterben Says:

    Big shout-out to fellow DC-area G&T readers HoosierPoli and Middle Seaman! Any other readers living inside the Beltway? We should all meet up once a week at Ben's Chili Bowl! We could take turns doing readings from NPF articles.

    But seriously, any article on this subject makes me think of my paternal grandfather, who would have remained very useful to society in his endlessly pushy, busybody way, had he not accidentally imprisoned himself in the Detroit-area suburbs. In a more urban, walkable setting, my grandfather might still be performing a valuable role in society: helping to keep an eye on the neighborhood kids, watching out for unsavory characters up to no good, functioning as a repository of local knowledge. Instead, when he suffered an incremental decrease in his vision, he lost his driver's license – and in the Detroit suburbs, no car means total isolation. A few months alone in his house, and he gave up. His mind went, and his body followed.

    My point in telling this story is not to be maudlin, but to point out that pre-suburbanization communities used to value the elderly specifically because they weren't working 9 to 5 like the rest of us.

  17. c u n d gulag Says:

    First, the life expectancy hasn't changed as drastically as some would have you believe.
    It was lower in the '30's, and even in the '60's, but that was due to infant mortality, and death from childhood diseases. It's higher now because of improvements made in those areas. But, I'll be curious to see what it will be in the near future because of the decline of Medicare funding, and the overall disaster that is/was our pay-for-profit health care system (and maybe ACA will start to help, if it survives the next few years).

    Due to our self-imposed economic disaster, and the money spent to protect the fucking rich in this country from the consequences, we need to increase the cap on SS to include ALL income, and then increase monthly payments for everyone, and extend the eligible age limit to 60.
    We start to fail after 50, 55, and go downhill from there. I'm 53 and I used to have a mind like a steel trap – now, it's more like a spaghetti strainer.
    If you have an office job, you can last longer than if you have a physical one. This begs the question, for those who want to increase the retirement age – who's going to hire, let alone insure, a 70 years-old to work construction on a high rise that's being built? To be a cop? A fireman? A Kindergarten teacher? Or thousands of other jobs that require not only physical stamina, but mental stamina? Who? And if not, then why on God's green Earth are you fucking evil nitwit's even talking about this?

    And, if increasing payment and lowering the age can't happen, I'd much prefer having a nice last meal, taking some pharmaceuticals, and listening to Beethovens 6th while watching some soothing video, ala "Soylent Green," to starving and freezing to death under an overpass – kicked out of my refrigerator box by younger people, or slowly dying in some hell-hole assisted living facility, lying in my own feces, 12 to a room, and tended to by Nurse Ratched and Dr. Mengele.
    I'd prefer a clean fast death to that.
    Maybe it's just me.
    I'm kinda funny that way…

  18. Sluggo Says:

    "How many jobs do you think can be performed adequately by the average – not exceptional – 68 year old?"

    Any job that a Member of Congress can remember holding. These guys don't bend, crawl, lift and sweat like people that work with their hands and backs do, and they don't get that 40 years of bending, crawling, lifting and sweating wears out a body.

  19. Edward Says:

    In underdeveloped countries, the "social security system" is to have large families of children that will support you in your old age.

  20. comrade x Says:

    The elite is only doing what they have been doing since the days of the pharohs- putting the burden of paying for the maintenence of the state- the state primarily being the mechanism that collects and protects their obscene wealth.
    The real problem is that the working people in this country grew complacent after WW2. What they did not understand was the fact that the U.S. was rebuilding shattered cities, loaning money, and selling desperately needed manufactured goods to countries in Asia and Europe knocked flat by the fighting. That's what created the enormous bubble of wealth we are living off of now. The very dregs of it.
    The workers took their eye off of the class struggle ball and now are paying big time for it. 30 years of declining education, especially in history, coupled with the SOMA of mass electronic entertainment, has produced several generations of working class people woefully underequipped for class warfare.

  21. Ladiesbane Says:

    Don't forget to add race disparity to the "who gets to outlive his employability?" equation. Fewer people of color will survive to the new retirement age, period.

  22. The Moar You Know Says:

    In my field – IT – the ugly truth is that the job you have when you turn 50, whether it be a one-month contract or a ten-year government upgrade project, will be the last job you ever have. It's a good thing I learned fine woodworking back in my twenties. I suspect I'll be doing it again in my sixties. Hopefully the house will be paid off by then.

    Of course, nobody is addressing the real elephant in the room. Through automation and other such technological advances (look at farming, which in 1900 employed about 70% of the populace and now employs far less than 1% while keeping us all pretty damn well fed) the jobs that are left are, in many cases, make-work. Soon we're going to have to acknowledge that there's no possible labor use for most of the long-term unemployed, and then what? Either put them all on welfare, kill them all off, or acknowledge that the whole notion of money how our fellow human beings are allowed to access goods, shelter, and services needs to be completely revamped.

    My money's that, as a society, we choose the "kill them all off" option, because that's what we've always done in the past when a technological change makes vast numbers of people suddenly unemployable. I hope not, but that is the most likely scenario.

  23. acer Says:

    @TMYK:
    That ain't the half. I'm tipping my lifestyle-anarchist hand, but here we go:

    http://www.whywork.org/rethinking/whywork/abolition.html

    I'm still (scantly) enough of an optimist to think the solution, if things get to a certain point, may involve pitchforks.

  24. Denn Says:

    What happened to all the "free market solutions" cheerleaders? The market is demanding a lower retirement age, not a higher one. Firms are offering "golden handshakes" to encourage early retirement. We can lower the SS age by simply adjusting the cap periodically, say once a year, using the trust fund as a buffer. SS could thusly be made sustainable until Armageddon.

  25. Tim Says:

    @Other people in DC metro area

    My daily commute is along Rt. 28, or as I like to think of it, where the government that supposedly can't create jobs goes to create jobs. I guess all it takes to believe in the efficacy of fiscal stimulus is to live around DC. Everything seems so much better here.

  26. xynzee Says:

    @Juniper: You're not from around here are you?
    "…Don't these people SEE how the rest of the world sees us?"

    Since when have Americans ever given a fig what other countries thought of them? Ever heard the term "Ugly American"? It had nothing to do with physical appeal, but that overbearing, loud, rude, ignoramus that should never have been allocated a passport. It's what's caused people to go 9/11 on our collective arses.

    Some how they believe that they are the shining beacon to the world. Well it once was, but now that even the NZD is buying $0.86 and rising (WT….!), and the AUD is buying $1.10, it probably won't last long. A friend just returned from the US, and this guy is an R! and loves the US. But even he is starting to get the sense of foreboding that I'd had for years.

    What the Teabaggers and the Bachmans don't realise is that when things truly collapse, the masters that they've been serfing, their so-called "wealth creators" will be able to up and leave. Leaving them facing a very angry mob with pitchforks and torches in a picked over carcass for a country. I think nows a good time to start queuing outside Mj Kong's torch and pitchfork emporium to avoid the rush.

  27. JohnR Says:

    @Denn:"What happened to all the "free market solutions" cheerleaders?"

    Oh, come on – you know perfectly well how that argument works: it's only used to propose horrible solutions that will benefit the cheerleader at everybody else's expense. This way, the companies can still trash-can the old folks to increase profit, and the government won't be wasting our hard-earned money supporting deadbeats just because they were careless enough to get old or sick while poor. Everybody benefits except those who weren't wise enough to be wealthy. And, after all, they don't really count.

  28. acer Says:

    @JohnR:
    I think some of them (Koch and the NeoCons) are that sociopathic. I think most libertarian pundits (Cato, Reason) are just duped and stupid.

  29. Black_Rose Says:

    Bill Casey, I consider arguing like pitching. You have to throw relevant arguments to hit the strike zone, but if you throw something easily refuted (like a hanging curveball down the plate) it gets hit out of the park. Good job, your ammunition folder is like the repertorie of a pitcher who can throw accurately excellent stuff (like cutters and curves) on the edge of the strike zone (like Cliff Lee).

    BTW, here's something I found that you may like.

    http://toomuchonline.org/guard-labor-inequalitys-hidden-price-tag/

    It shows a graph of the money spend lobbying from the financial, energy, and business lobbies relative to labor unions.

  30. Sarah Says:

    @Juniper & xynzee: I attended a lecture last year given by a lady who was an Iranian native and came to the US at the age of 17. She was a professor of some college in Indiana or Illinois, and the subject of her lecture was the history and the place of women in Islam. Her English was very good. I recall she said she spoke French, and I am presuming she spoke Farsi as well. She made a point of commenting on the US high school system which does not require learning a second language as a requirement for completing a high school diploma. Americans are not only ignorant of the world outside our borders, we're proud of it.

  31. Scott Supak Says:

    I am so sick of people who never worked hard a day in their life telling those of us who worked our asses off in manual labor that we need to keep doing that until we're 70. As if any of us could.

  32. mike Says:

    Revealing graphic here:

    http://www.pophealthmetrics.com/content/9/1/16/figure/F1?highres=y

    Source: http://www.pophealthmetrics.com/content/9/1/16 "Falling behind: life expectancy in US counties from 2000 to 2007 in an international context"

  33. Southern Beale Says:

    My mother died at age 68. She was paralyzed by a stroke, needed 24-hour nursing care, ate through a G-tube in her stomach, and wore adult diapers.

    My father died at age 77. He was hale and hearty, had basically been forced out of his job by his corporation, and was run down in the street by a drunk driver.

    So, how many jobs can an individual reasonably be expected to perform until age 70? Depends on the person. But we had damn well better be certain that we have a plan in place to care for people like my mother, because not everyone is going to be like my father.

  34. Elder Futhark Says:

    I like the idea of executing people at age 60, but only if they get to shoot back. A whole new crop of fantastic prime time reality TV shows await us all!

    Panem et circenses!

    (BTW, I turn 12,472 next Tuesday! HBEF!)

  35. Sharkbabe Says:

    Couldn't they lower the putting-to-sleep age to 58? Swear to gods I'd be first in line. Can't wait to be gone from this psycho clowncar. Yes, thanks for the good. But fuck my times and my luck. Nobody will have it again.

  36. Jimcat Says:

    @acer: That "abolition of work" concept is going to result in a lot of people starving. The world can't support seven billion hunter-gatherers. And if we don't go back to hunting and gathering, someone is going to have to grow the food. And transport it, and maintain the roads to get it to the people. And store it, and build and maintain the storage facilities. And generate the electricity to climate-control the food storage so it doesn't spoil. And extract the fuel to generate the electricity. Oh, and build the houses that the people live in, so they don't freeze in the winter or get soaked in the rainy season. And I hope you don't want diseases to run rampant, so you're going to need doctors and medical support personnel. And let's not forget people to teach all those necessary skills and trades. Now, who does that leave to live a life of non-work?

  37. acer Says:

    @Jimcat:
    Suffice to say that Black believes that farming, building and medicine can be performed in a way that doesn't involve carrots and sticks, that humans aren't intrinsically Hobbesean brutes and can build a functioning civilization without being forced to "make an honest living" in the interest of perpetual economic growth.

    I don't cosign 100%, although I'd like to see how those three fields would look without middle managers, marketers and lobbyists. And I think his ideas are worth reading when our own version of society looks more and more like a shell game, run by people who are openly encouraging most of us to starve, fight for crumbs or start sending resumes to call centers in Islamabad.

  38. bb in GA Says:

    I'm not looking forward to an enforced impoverishment at the hands of [your favorite villan here]

    However, do not despair about our ability to grow stuff. We are using about 400 million acres right now as crop land and as you might guess it is usually the best and most productive acreage to get the most $ out of it.

    I get good ol' Georgia Red to produce all kinds of good fruits and veggies w/ very low tech, natural methods. There are hundreds of millions of acres in private hands on small farms that would be classified as marginal or worse for commercial farming, but can feed you jes' fine. Even in suburban areas there is more open land than you might first guess.

    In that scenario we have nothing to fear from ADM or Monsanto.

    Our problem will eventually be that we have gone and citified ourselves so much that distribution will be an issue. Too many people too far away from the produce.

    And we won't be feeding as many crops to animals (unless they are draft animals) And we sure as hell will not be converting corn to ethanol (that one sure turned a lot of Rs into teat suckers)

    I guess more people will move out from the big cities and that ex-urban farmland will be part of the ticket to help feed the folks.

    //bb