Time for progressives to embrace working longer and a strengthened retirement safety net

It’s time for progressives to sort out a question about retirement policy: Is it possible to advocate for progressive ideas like an improved social insurance system and preservation of defined benefit pensions, but also acknowledge the benefits of longer working lives?

I count myself as a progressive who is able to hold both these ideas in his head simultaneously; I’ve been a strong advocate of maintaining and expanding Social Security, preserving pensions and making the defined contribution retirement system work better. But I’ve also written extensively about midlife careers and entrepreneurs and encore careers. I even wrote a book a few years ago about retirement that devoted roughly two-thirds of its pages to work and career strategies.

But the question came to mind this week after Slate.com labeled a feature story I wrote for the current issue of AARP’s magazine as “retirement porn.” My sin, according to the article by Helaine Olen, was in weaving a “fairy tale” about the notion that boomers will “remain employed, collecting paychecks for work that is important and meaningful.” My indicted co-purveyors of retirement porn are Fortune magazine and The Wall Street Journal (ok, the WJS’s decision to run a photo of actress Helen Mirren in a bikini in a story headlined “A Retirement Age of 100? It’s Coming” was pretty bad.).

Anyway – I don’t know exactly what retirement porn is, but apparently I’m guilty, along with AARP’s magazine and maybe even the impressive people I profiled – an eminent oncologist still saving lives and doing important research (age 74), a human resources professional helping to run a charter school network (age 63), the director of a symphony choir (age 70) and a social worker at a non-profit that helps foster children (age 77). I encourage you to read their inspiring stories here. Also check out two books that inspired my article by Elizabeth Fideler, a research fellow at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work. (I guarantee that there is nothing pornographic about Liz’s work).

My article explores the growing phenomenon of people working well past their 70s – usually highly-skilled professionals who simply love their work and can’t imagine quitting. Some are motivated by making a difference in society and leaving a legacy. There’s no doubt that this is an actual trend – not a fairy tale. Older workers will be the fastest-growing segment of the workforce in the coming decade, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A long list of legitimate research studies on boomer attitudes and preferences support that forecast.

But it’s also true that the working-longer trend is not occurring throughout the workforce. As Olen notes, the Center for Retirement Research says average retirement ages haven’t jumped much in the last decade. Not everyone wants to work longer and not everyone can – disability, layoffs, age discrimination and burnout make retirement at a traditional age the logical choice for millions. I’ve written that so often I should have the sentence stored on my computer as a keyboard shortcut.

The mantra that “we’re all living longer and can work forever” should never be used to distract us from the need for progressive reforms to the retirement system – or to justify benefit cuts by raising eligibility ages for Social Security and voucherizing Medicare. But progressives get it wrong when they dismiss the importance of the working longer theme altogether, because it’s not a route available only to elites. To wit, Olen quotes Teresa Ghilarducci, a noted progressive economist, as follows:

“Working longer is a retirement plan like winning the lottery or dying earlier is a retirement plan. Being able to work longer is not a plan. It’s a hope.”

I agree it’s not a plan that can be counted on. But the odds of retirement success by adding a few years of work are considerably better than winning the lottery. The Employee Benefit Research Institute’s annual Retirement Confidence Survey reports that 49 percent of retirees left the workforce earlier than planned, citing health problems or disability (61 percent), downsizings (18 percent) or the need to care for a spouse or family member (18 percent). Apparently the other 51 percent “won the lottery” and retired just when they hoped.

Progressives need to learn to hold, simultaneously, two ideas in their heads:

1) Some people are enjoying greater longevity – generally, those with higher levels of educational attainment and higher-income. A good chunk of them will have the option – and desire – to work longer, and some of them will make valuable contributions to society along the way. This will be good for their emotional and physical health. They ultimately will retire with plenty of savings, high Social Security benefits and perhaps a defined benefit pension to boot.

2) Others will need – or want – to retire at a traditional age. A large percent of the aging population is approaching retirement with inadequate savings and barely able to meet basic needs. A variety of policy ideas have been floated to help this segment of retirees, but the only one that makes much sense is an expanded Social Security system.

The age wave is a huge phenomenon, and there’s room for more than one trend. Working longer and an expanded retirement safety net aren’t mutually exclusive ideas.

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