“For the good of the country,” older Americans urged to work more, take less

SuperAgers know that “retirement” at age 65 is no longer automatic. Continuing to work confers many benefits — physical, mental and financial.

But is it also a social obligation? Do we owe it to the country?

This article in The New York Times makes that case. The authors are C. Eugene Steurle, who co-founded the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and Glenn Kramon, a lecturer at Stanford Business School. Both are in their 70s.

They lay out, in dramatic (and accurate) terms, the underfunding of Social Security and the fact that today’s beneficiaries will be received much more than they paid in:

“Consider how much lifetime Social Security and Medicare benefits have grown. For a typical 65-year-old couple, those benefits, adjusted for inflation, are worth over $1.1 million today, compared with $330,000 in 1960. Benefits rise as each generation lives longer and receives amounts that grow with the cost of living and as medical prices rise and expensive medical treatments proliferate. Yet the lifetime taxes this couple pays into Social Security and Medicare amount to about $650,000. With Medicare and Social Security, older Americans are taking far more out of the system than they paid in.”

What’s more, the number of people “available to pay for each retiree’s benefits” is decreasing: “Declines in birthrates and, at times, immigration rates, have helped lower the ratio of covered workers to beneficiaries from 4.0 in 1965 to 2.7 today with 2.3 projected in two decades.”

We’ve written about this problem before, with particular reference to the upside-down demographic pyramids that are emerging in Japan and China, for example, and that are freaking out the government planners in those countries. So it’s not as if these observation are inaccurate.

Nor is the proposed solution unreasonable, at least in mathematical terms: “Those in late middle age will need to work longer as they live longer. That would help shore up revenue with additional Social Security taxes and the income taxes that largely pay for Part B of Medicare. It would also reduce pressure to cut benefits for the oldest of the old.”

The authors give a brief nod to the other benefits of working longer: “By the way, research shows emotional and cognitive benefits to working and volunteering.”

But the thrust of the argument is that working longer represents something of a sacrifice, to be borne cheerfully for the greater good of society as a whole.

There is a tinge of generational bitterness here — it’s those greedy seniors again, hogging all the goodies. We’re not sure why this is necessary. The math is certainly compelling, and the idea of increasing the age of eligibility (starting perhaps with 50-somethings, so that they have a reasonably long runway to plan ahead) is not unreasonable. But why the rest? Kicking off the argument with “for the good of the country” implies that it is not necessarily good for the individuals caught up in the system. Kissing off the whole (and largely positive and exciting) SuperAging rationale for not retiring at 65 with the phrase “By the way…” is shallow and unfair. Read the article and see if you agree.

(Photo credit: Ivanko_Brnjakovic at iStock by Getty)

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