Americans are less prepared for retirement than they have been in three decades. In 1989, 70 percent of working-age American households were on track to maintain their quality of life in retirement; in 2016, fully half of households are at risk of old-age downward mobility.
The crusaders for forcing us to work longer make at least two specious arguments. First, we are living longer than ever, and extra years of labor are simply the price you pay for those extra years of life. The biological argument is paired with a humanist vision: working is actually good for seniors. In an age of isolation and loneliness, they suggest, continued employment provides a sense of purpose and keeps the elderly sharp and engaged.
These arguments confuse the issue and hide its root. By turning a political problem into a personal responsibility, they push the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess.
While average Americans have, on average, gained significant years of life, the distribution of health gains — like everything in the past four decades — has become radically unequal. Today there is a fifteen-year difference in life expectancy between men in the top and the bottom income brackets. Since the 1970s, retirees in the top half of the income distribution gained six years of life while those in the bottom gained 1.3. Since 2001, the richest Americans have tacked on three years; the poorest, nothing.
The second claim, that employment edifies and enriches the lives of the elderly, disguises necessity as opportunity. No one wants the elderly to be isolated or lack a meaningful social role in society. But to dress up Uber-driving and CVS-bagging as a solution to old-age loneliness is deliriously optimistic.
When you step back from it, the exhortation to work-longer-for-your-own-good starts to look a lot like welfare reform discourses of the 1990s: as people are pushed into low-wage jobs, they are promised it will be good for their “dignity” and “independence.” We know now that this argument was ideological cover for brutal austerity measures that made many Americans’ lives miserable and actually undermined their dignity and independence.
Instead of false biological determinism and Orwellian doublespeak (elderly poor + Walmart work = fulfillment), we would do better to understand retirement as a political battleground. Workers won the right to stop working in the mid-twentieth century through organizing and struggling to get retirement written into union contracts and, ultimately, federal law through programs like Social Security and Medicare.
That political victory is being steadily rolled back. After four decades of increasingly early retirement, since the 1990s, Americans have been working longer again. Why? The replacement of guaranteed company-provided pensions with private 401(k) accounts has pushed the risk-burden of retirement planning onto workers and Ronald Reagan raised the Social Security age, all while stagnating real wages and ballooning household debt have made serious saving a fantasy for many. And it shows: In 2018, the Aspen Institute estimated that households headed by someone age fifty-five to sixty-four had a median retirement account balance of less than $15,000.
The retirement crisis is a political problem. Political problems need political solutions. Instead of stuffing seniors behind the counter at CVS, we could raise Social Security payments by lifting the cap on payroll taxes for the wealthy. Rather than have seniors deliver our Uber Eats, we could help workers bargain union contracts with the retirement accounts that they need.
There are plenty of solutions to the retirement crisis. Forcing seniors to work longer shouldn’t be one of them.