Sunday, December 4, 2011

Raising the Retirement Age: Bad for the Old, Disastrous for the Young

It almost seems as if there’s a conspiracy to normalize the idea of working longer. Every time I pick up a newspaper, there’s another article about how we all have to work until we drop. Rather than dwelling on the familiar argument we just can’t afford to fund Social Security and Medicare, Edward Glaeser in his recent New York Times article,“Goodbye, Golden Years” puts a happy face on working well into old age.

Despite the current crisis in youth unemployment, Glaeser cheerfully tells us that“it’s counterintuitive, but the forever work life of older Americans may turn out to be a good thing for young workers.” He argues against what he calls the “lump of labor fallacy”-- that there are just a fixed number of jobs which the economy can generate:

If the economy needed only a lump of labor, the spectacular expansion of America’s female work force would have led to vast male unemployment. But it didn’t. In fact, the number of working women rose by 87 percent in the 25 years between 1975 and 2000, during which time total male employment also increased, by 41 percent.

However, the entry of women into the labor force occurred during a time of economic expansion (Yes, we had a recession in the early 80’s, but the 90’s were fueled by the dotcom boom.) Times are very different now as we remain mired in deep recession with increasing numbers of jobs out sourced to low-wage economies.

Not only does Glaeser downplay the grim reality of a jobs crisis, he paints a rosy picture of seniors starting businesses:
…by at least one measure, the elderly are often the most entrepreneurial Americans. Self-employment rises significantly with age. West Palm Beach, a retiree haven, has the highest self-employment rate of any metropolitan area in the nation… Self-employment is particularly natural for older Americans, because it provides so much more control over working hours and conditions. …Gradually, our image of 70-year-olds needs to change from Florida retirees to Florida entrepreneurs, who find ways to make a bit of cash doing something a bit more fun than their former work.

The message seems to be that, yes, we can cut their Social Security checks because they’ll be making extra cash with their small businesses. What makes Glaeser think that people who have not been entrepreneurs all their lives will suddenly develop this interest and talent in their golden years? How many retirees will be willing to gamble their nest eggs to start a business? The appetite for risk for most folks decreases with age. And finally most small businesses fail in their first year. Entrepreneurship among the elderly is not likely to compensate for decreased Social
Security checks and increased Medicare costs.

If our social policies force more elderly workers to remain in the work force longer, the greatest consequences will be felt by the young. Those young French men and women knew what they were doing when they were demonstrating in favor of retirement at 62. Don Peck’s article in the March 2010 Atlantic points out the consequences of long-term joblessness:
The effects of pervasive joblessness—on family, politics, society—take time to incubate, and they show themselves only slowly. But ultimately, they leave deep marks that endure long after boom times have returned. …If it persists much longer, this era of high joblessness will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults—and quite possibly those of the children behind them as well.

We need to spread the jobs around. Our society has been pushing workers to stay in the paid work force by gradually raising the age at which they are eligible for full retirement benefits and now policy makers are proposing raising the eligibility age for Medicare But either we pay more in Social Security and Medicare by encouraging older workers to leave the workforce or we’ll be paying more in unemployment compensation--not to mention the range of social ills resulting from a generation of young people who can’t find steady employment.

Of course, seniors who love their jobs and want to continue working should do so. But most do not, and it’s not just those with physically demanding jobs who long to retire. I have seen so many teachers, social workers and nurses who are exhausted by the emotional demands of their jobs but are hanging on for fear that there will be steep cuts in Social Security and Medicare. A social contract across the generations is sometimes discussed in terms of fewer entitlements for the old and more for the young. A better way to think about this is sharing what has become an increasingly scarce resource—a job and all that means for family and community stability.

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