The Predictable Surprise: The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System

The Predictable Surprise: The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System

The Predictable Surprise: The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System

The Predictable Surprise: The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System


Social Security is in jeopardy, private pension systems have fallen apart, and workers are trying to save on their own for retirement with the stock market in the worst shape since the Great Depression. In The Predictable Surprise, Sylvester J. Schieber shows that forewarnings of the coming retirement crisis have been apparent for decades, but we have never mustered the political will to address the problem. This book explains how we have gotten into the retirement predicament and where we can go from here. Schieber, a renowned authority on this topic, provides a compact, insightful history of Social Security, pension plans, and other retirement options, highlighting both their original justifications and the point when things began to go wrong. He brings his discussion right up to the present morass and concludes with suggestions as to how we can reform our retirement system. Our situation is not hopeless, Schieber concludes, if we take on some of these issues and resolve them. If we do not, we will severely jeopardize the prosperity of younger generations.


“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing!”

“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly …

“Living backwards!” Alice repeated in great astonishment. “I never heard of
such a thing”

“—but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.”

“I’m sure mine only works one way,” Alice remarked. “I can’t remember things
before they happen.”

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” the Queen remarked.

— LEWIS CARROLL, Through the Looking Class and What Alice Found There,
Chapter 5, “Wool and Water”

Retirement: for many people it is the time to hang it up, put away the work clothes, get out the fishing gear, the golf clubs, gardening tools, or whatever “floats your boat” as the saying goes. When my grandfather “retired” from farming in the 1930s, he moved to town and lived off some savings he had accumulated over the years, but his large family lived nearby and they provided sustenance and support until he died in 1967. By the time my parents’ generation retired in the 1970s and 1980s, it was a different world. Almost all of them received Social Security and were covered by Medicare, and those that weren’t generally received some sort of government pension. It all seemed like an awfully good deal to them. Many of those who had left the farm and gone to work for manufacturers, financial firms or the government received monthly pensions that supplemented their Social Security benefits. Things were so good that many employers were offering early retirement windows, which allowed some of my aunts and uncles to retire in their mid-50s, still healthy and able to really enjoy life after many years with their nose to the grindstone.

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