When I'm Sixty-Four: The Plot against Pensions and the Plan to Save Them

By Teresa Ghilarducci | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Hope for Retirement's Future

Until the 1950s, only the wealthy could expect to retire. In 1951, less than 5% of men said they retired because they wanted to rest and have some time off, and these were the men with the highest incomes.1 In that same year, over half of older men were working and most of the others were unemployed or unemployable. Today, over 60% of older Americans, not working, actually chose to retire because they prefer free time to paid work. Making retirement available to almost all workers, that is, “democratizing” retirement, is one of the greatest achievements of robust market economies. Nonetheless, even in rich societies, conflict persists about who is entitled to pensions and how generous they should be. Reflecting on the debate over Americans' new social insurance programs—Social Security, unemployment insurance, and poor relief programs—philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote in 1935:

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking
to the rich.…When I was a child, shortly after urban working men
had acquired the vote, a number of public holidays were established.
I remember hearing an old Duchess say, “What do the poor want
with holidays? They ought to work.”2

The nineteenth-century duchess reflects a twenty-first-century conviction, deeply held in some circles, that because people are living longer, instead of society shoring up pensions, the elderly ought to work more. Indeed, if trends continue, sixty-five-year-olds in 2010 on average will live longer than sixty-five-year-olds ever lived before; however, perplexingly, the expected months in retirement will fall by 14%. People will live longer but they will work a whole lot more.

This book explores the basis of the belief that the elderly have too much retirement leisure; and asks the question, Who loses and who wins if and when pension income becomes less secure and the elderly work more as a consequence?

-7-

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