mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Grasshoppers in Winter: Quitting Time Postponed For Spendthrift Boomers

An article at CNN Money spotlights an important and trend: older Americans are increasingly choosing to work longer and delay retirement until they have accumulated greater savings:

A quarter of middle-class Americans are now so pessimistic about their savings that they are planning to delay retirement until they are at least 80 years old — two years longer than the average person is even expected to live.It sounds depressing, but for many it’s a necessity. On average, Americans have only saved a mere 7% of the retirement nest egg they were hoping to build, according to Wells Fargo’s latest retirement survey that polled 1,500 middle-class Americans.

It’s easy enough to moralize about this.  All those Boomers knew that time was passing by; while some needed every cent they could scrounge to get through the day, most of them made choices not to save.  They wanted a nicer car, a fancier college for the kid, a bigger house in a greener burb.

None of these things are bad in themselves and there is nothing wrong with wanting them.  But the essence of maturity is to balance future needs against present wants and take appropriate actions; millions of Americans haven’t done this, and they are now looking at the results.

It isn’t as bad as it looks.  Work is a natural part of life; for thousands of years the only people who didn’t work were either under five, extremely ill, or dead.  My grandmother used to tell a family legend about a ninety year old matriarch who could no longer get out of bed; she insisted her family put hen eggs around her so she could incubate them with her body heat.  That, I suspect, was apocryphal, but one of my great-aunts was still mowing her lawn with a push mower in her nineties.  She only quit, I’m told, because her children begged her.  They were getting too much criticism from people in the neighborhood who couldn’t believe that her children were too cheap and selfish to hire someone to mow her lawn.

I don’t favor physical labor for nonagenarians, but having more people work longer in life is not a bad thing — for the country or for the people themselves.  Many of our nation’s economic problems could be solved by getting more people to work later in life. This is no terrible injustice; many people now remain in school well into their twenties — two generations ago many entered the workforce at sixteen. Paying for ten extra years of school when young with ten extra years of work at the end of life seems like a fair bargain. Changes in the American economy and the shift away from manual labor have made this bargain more attractive still. While it would be wrong to expect workers to continue to perform backbreaking labor in their late seventies, America’s economy is becoming increasingly service-based and much of our work can be done part time and from home.

Economic arguments aside, this is also good from a social standpoint. Work is not a horrible chore one endures just to pay the bills, it is one of the core things that constitute a healthy, active, and fulfilling human life. The fact that older people can continue to work into their seventies and eighties should be celebrated — greater engagement with the world in your old age is a positive thing. Modern medicine has made tremendous leaps in lengthening our lifespans; that precious of gift of life and health should inspire us to service and work for the common good.

The failure of so many Boomers to save may not just reflect fecklessness and folly.  People have been making a calculation that in fact they can work much longer than their parents and grandparents did.  They haven’t saved for a thirty year retirement because at some level they didn’t think they would have to.  Many of them were right, and they will now continue working that extra ten or so years their better health allows. (Others will need help due to physical disability; we need to make sure this system is ready to cope with a large increase in people who need disability insurance as the working population ages.)

In any case, my generation must get used to a working life that for many of us will go on past 65 or even 68.  It’s not a tragedy, it’s a fact — and it’s not even a particularly harsh or sad one.  This is simply living life on life’s terms, and it’s something we all have to do.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Mrs. Davis

    Paying for ten extra years of school when young with ten extra years of work at the end of life seems like a fair bargain.

    Not when the ten extra years of school do not increase marginal productivity enough to offset a decade of lost wages in prime earning years. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but those grandparents who lived long enough for me to remember seemed well informed with only their eighth grade educations. My grandfather could build a house himself including all the mechanical systems.

    Today’s education seems primarily designed to prolong adolescence for too large a proportion of the population without imparting additional wisdom or skills.

    With the pace of technological innovation accelerating we would be better off finding a way to have people be in the labor force earlier while continuing to be formally educated throughout their employed life. Segregating education from employment works to the advantage of no one. Integrating education and employment would have the advantage of allowing the young to enter the adult world earlier while skills and knowledge could be enhanced throughout life.

  • ms

    I’m afraid that many of the jobs that older workers keep are the jobs that young people want. I’d be interested in an analysis of how youth unemployment is affected by Boomer non-retirement. Otherwise, I agree that working longer is not necessarily a bad thing.

  • Jeff77450

    In February I turn 53 at which point I will have three more years until I’m fully-vested and elligable to retire. (I’ve already retired once, from the army-reserve, pension doesn’t begin until age 60). In three years my step-son will still be in college. That, plus the fact that I can’t access my 401(k) until 62 without a penalty means that most likely I’ll be working until at least 62 (and I’m trying to wrap my head around the idea of working until I’m 67). My wife & I are debt-free except for our very reasonable pre-bubble mortgage; my ’97 Chevy Lumina, with 210k miles, continues to soldier-on (my thanks to a benevolent Providence and my mother’s stories of life during the Great Depression).

    I’ve read a great many catty remarks from members of generations X&Y about the boomers, in this and other forums. I gather that the idea of all the boomers working until the day they die fills the hearts of X&Y with glee. But beware the Law of Unintended Consequences: Boomers delaying retirement means a delay in hiring & promotions for X, Y and even Z. And those of you who had planned on your boomer-parents providing free day-care for your children and related services will be disappointed as well.

  • Puck

    Very nice essay and short review of the history of work!

    The boomers have put off maturity as long as possible (“hope I die before I get old”), but it looks like now we must accept the full mantle of adulthood. I have no doubt that once the “grieving” is over, we will turn to our extended or redefined work with the same passion we had for play. And we’ll probably end up thinking our “golden years” superior to those of our parents.

  • John Burke

    Work until age 80 may be fulfilling if one is a college teacher but trust me when I say that if one is a Wallmart greeter, it’s a chore done to pay the bills.

    And lest Mead think the old folks keeping their jobs is reducing pension costs, he should inform himself better about how many of those working septagenarians are drawing both pensions and paychecks.

  • Richard Treitel

    Well, we boomers were hoping that by accumulating lots of paper assets we could get rich enough to retire early. But it now appears that … suspending moral judgements for a moment … there aren’t any financial assets solid enough for us to invest all that paper and still be rich thirty years later. Even my brethren who think they are enrolled in defined-benefit pension plans, thereby shifting the risk to their employer (think GM, think Calpers), will find that the risk comes back and bites them in their well-padded posteriors. As for me, I contributed to two retirement savings plans early and often, but my most important retirement plan consists of getting enough exercise and not eating too much food.

  • Jordan

    #3: “I’ve read a great many catty remarks from members of generations X&Y about the boomers, in this and other forums. I gather that the idea of all the boomers working until the day they die fills the hearts of X&Y with glee.”

    No, that would be contemptuous remarks that you’ve read. And actually, no, it does not fill my heart with glee that boomers will work until they die. One of the supposed benefits of following the boomers is that when they retire, a whole slew of jobs openings would appear. Now that won’t even happen. And we are STILL stuck paying for your social security and medicare…

  • Jeff77450

    Work long and hard, Jordan, work long and hard. My felow boomers and I need the money. But whether you do or you don’t you’ve been added to my list of whiners that I regret having gone to war to defend (unless you reciprocated which I’m guessing that you didn’t). You weren’t/aren’t worth it.

  • Bonfire of the Idiocies

    Remember that “retirement” was invented during FDR’s administration as a way to free up jobs held by older workers so the young could get them. Up until that time, people generally worked until they couldn’t anymore, at which point their families (or for the unlucky ones, charity) would support them until they passed on. Setting a retirement age of 65 was not arbitrary as many workers did not live to reach that point and those that did would not be around much beyond then. In its early days, social security had 40 people paying in for every one taking out.

    Now, we reap the unexpected consequences of that plan. We once again have an economy where the young can’t get jobs. The older workers are deeply in debt so they can’t retire. The young are deeply in debt so they can’t take in their parents (many, in fact are still living with them.) The social welfare programs depended on by the old can’t be funded by the ratio of two workers paying in for each one taking out.

    Yeah, it’s time to rethink things because the last “fix” didn’t fix anything, it created a bigger problem.

  • Jeff77450

    Oops, I meant “fellow.”

    Prof. Meade, how about adding an edit function?

  • Haiku Guy

    Back in the Eighties,
    When a line worker retired,
    He had eightteen months.

    When I started working at GM plants back in 1986, the average number of monthly checks Generous Monther would send out to a line worker before cutting the survivor benefit was 18. By the time workers got off the line, they were used up. Their health was ruined, their health habits were terrible, and they just went off and died.

    Nowadays, when somebody steps off the line at 62, he’s an athlete. He doesn’t have cancer, he has managed his coronary disease, and he has twenty to twenty-five years left to live.

    Work places have become much more healthy, which is a good thing. But those long-lived retirees do screw up the pension plan projections.

    Instead of counting retirement as years from birth, it makes much more sense to count it as years from expected death. If you are going to live until you are about eighty-two, plan on seven or eight good years in the sun at the end, and work until you are seventy-five.

  • Leigh

    Since few workers under 60 in the private sector have pensions and because Social Security and Medicare are likely to be cut in the future, it’s not surprising that most of these workers will be working much longer. Many may have to work just to get some healthcare benefits. Many may be providing some support to their adult children much longer than in previous generations. The days when one could just pick up at 62 and move to Florida to play golf are gone. Who can do this without a pension?

    Like Prof Mead I see a lot of health benefits in working at non-physical jobs until a later age. The workers I know who retired early (again, from desk jobs) seem to go downhill faster mentally and physically than those who stay in the workforce.

  • Jordan

    #8. First of all, I deeply appreciate your service to this country. And you are correct, I have not served in the military. Does that mean I am not allowed to be critical of the previous generation? Weren’t the boomers famous for being critical of their previous generation? Are only those in my generation who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere allowed to make such criticism? Since I did not serve in the military, should I still be allowed to vote? Exactly what can I criticize then?

    I find your comment odd given the substance of our opinions seems to be the same: I too think it is a tragedy that the boomers will have to work longer than expected and see the same downsides as you. However, when the boomers were working, they generated a suplus of FICA tax to be used when they later retired. However that money has been spent by other parts of the gov’t. So who do you think is going to be stuck paying that bill? The generations that follow.

    I understand the whole “each generation leaves challenges for the next” meme, but you have to understand the X & Y’s have been put in a terrible position. We on the whole do not have pensions, been priced out of the housing market for quite some time, have large amounts of student debt, and are staring the treasury and entitlement debt in the face. If you consider this whining, then fine. I consider it mathematics.

    WRM has done a great job highlighting this fact on his blog. There is a disaster coming.

  • Mahon

    All well and good to be “willing” to work to 68 or 70, but it may be another thing to keep your job that long (or to find another one past 50, let alone 60.) A lot of retirements are in fact, if not technically, involuntary. Corporate turmoil churns on, for better and worse, and even those with good skills and contacts can get frozen out eventually.

  • anirprof

    Dr. Mead,

    This seems so utterly out of touch with the reality of the non-academic working world. Looking at my dad, uncles, and their friends, now mostly early 70s, they would have jumped at the chance to keep working! They were classic “company men”, getting white collar jobs — in sales and management mostly, it’s worth noting, not engineering or other high education fields — at Fortune 500 firms in their 20s, and sticking with them for decades. Almost to a man, they were forced out of their jobs around age 60 and have found it almost impossible to find subsequent work, even at much lower pay. As the previous poster notes in many cases the technically were allowed to take earlier retirement, but in practice they were laid off despite being eager to stay and eager to work. The vision of a world with later retirement and thus smaller retirement packages doesn’t work very if employers aren’t willing to keep those over 60 in the workplace.

  • Jeffrey

    The biggest issue we now have is not a crisis due to people retiring too early, with too many benefits (there are some exceptions, but they only prove the rule). The issue is our overall economic and employment picture for the middle class — declining wages and benefits due to outsourcing of jobs, and an overall reduction in tax revenues. Until such a times as our country has demonstrated a commitment to retaining and creating MIDDLE CLASS jobs and a reasonably priced health care system, bumping up the retirement age by a few years will create more problems than it solves.

  • sen

    #7: I’m still working (voluntarily) at age 72. I pay Medicare and Social Security tax just like you do. If people work longer the burden on younger generations will decrease.

    A lot of the comments seem to implicitly assume what economists call the “lump of labor” fallacy: There’s only x jobs, so if older folks keep working that will mean less jobs for younger people. This normally isnt true.. for example the proportion of women who are in the work force has grown dramatically, to everyone’s benefit. If we can get our economy functioning normally, a larger labor force ought to lead to a more prosperous country.

  • Joe Vecchio

    The people choosing to remain in the work force aren’t doing so because they want to, they’re doing so because they have to, as the quote which was the basis for this entire, ridiculous article to begin with.

    “Work”, for sure, is a part of life, but when you live in a society where the acquisition and retention of wealth has become the sole purpose for living, eventually you have to think, is this what we really want? Especially if, as some would like to have it, you get rid of child labor laws, minimum work week laws (already pretty much a thing of the past), and any other laws that recognize life as being anything more than the time you spend trying to earn enough to feed ourselves?

    Seriously, is that what we want?

  • Ella

    All I can say is you better hope it’s not your fat a** my 80 year-old nurse’s body will be having to lift after cardiac bypass surgery. Just sayin–not everyone should work until they die.

  • Pablo

    Jeff77450: (#8)

    “I gather that the idea of all the boomers working until the day they die fills the hearts of X&Y with glee”

    No, the idea of all the boomers FINALLY DYING fills our hearts with glee. Until then your cohort is just this resource-sucking pig everyone else will have to push through the economic python. Your comments, dripping with self-entitlement, are proof enough.

    p.s. We’d be in better shape as a nation if the wars Boomers fought in (and started — thanks GWB) had never happened. So thanks for nothing there too. You’re [darn] right we weren’t “worth it,” and if I had a time machine I’d go back and beg you object conscientiously.

    Enjoy your government-funded pension (and Social Security, and Medicare), I hope you’re having fun rocking on my dime. Just don’t rock too long, ‘kay?

  • Jesse Powell

    “… having more people work longer in life is not a bad thing — for the country or for the people themselves. Many of our nation’s economic problems could be solved by getting more people to work later in life.”

    Unless this is A Modest Proposal-style attempt at satire (and I’m afraid that it isn’t), this is a contemptible sentence.

    There is nothing good about this news and these statistics.

  • Jim.

    In calling for a 25% cut to Social Security and Medicare benefits, and for Boomers to work until they’re 70 or 75, GenXer’s and GenYer’s aren’t being arbitrarily nasty. We’re simply wishing the same situation on the Boomers that we’re going to see ourselves. Boomers are into “fairness”, right?

    Those cuts will need to be made eventually. If we make those cuts now, there’s a chance that America will survive the coming debt debacle that is consuming Eurosocialist countries as we speak. There’s a chance that the Pax Americana will survive, that the soldiers of the coming decades will not be sent into battle practically unarmed like late Roman “legions”. There’s a chance that the America we inherit will be as great a country as the one the Boomers inherited.

    Cut Medicare and Social Security back to sustainable levels, and do it now. If a company knows that a 55-year-old new hire is likely to earn their 20-year-service pin, the workforce will becomes a more welcoming place to more experienced workers.

  • mick

    thanks for this dispatch from your ivory tower walter!

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service