The Future of Retirement Security in the United States: Laying the Groundwork for Public Discussion

By Whalen, Charles J. | Journal of Economic Issues, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Future of Retirement Security in the United States: Laying the Groundwork for Public Discussion


Whalen, Charles J., Journal of Economic Issues


Retirement-related policies and programs have changed greatly throughout the past century. That's true for both the public and private sectors. As a result, the connections and fit between government policies and private retirement programs have been in a near constant state of transition.

The evolution is likely to continue. Current programs haven't even caught up with recent changes in the economy, life spans, population, and conditions affecting workers' health-all areas where further developments are almost certain. Policies and programs will also need to keep up with changing attitudes toward work, aging, and retirement.

As legislators, corporate leaders, and employee representatives begin to examine possible changes, the nation could benefit from a public discussion about retirement security and the appropriate goals and direction of public policy in this area. Such a discussion can help decision makers choose the right mix of policies and institutional arrangements. It can also help citizens make sound individual choices.

The Interactivity Foundation (IF) began laying the groundwork for a public discussion of retirement security in early 2002. (1) A few months earlier, the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security released a report outlining three options for introducing personal retirement accounts into the Social Security system. (2) Rather than rethink America's retirement policies in the broad context of a changing society, the Commission looked only at the program details of Social Security-and did so under the constraint of six "guiding principles" that restricted the alternatives to be developed. In contrast, IF sought to provide background material to spark the missing, broader discussion. (3)

To generate this background material, IF established the Retirement Security Project. It was directed and facilitated by this author, who resides near Rochester, New York. A diverse group of project panelists was recruited, selected, and convened from a three-county western New York area containing urban, suburban, and rural communities. (4) In accordance with the IF discussion process, a dozen panelists met monthly from November 2002 through January 2004, initially working as two panels-one for retirement-related professionals and one for interested citizens-but eventually combining to form a single project panel. (5)

Panelists had three tasks. One was to explore the meanings of retirement and dimensions of retirement security. Another was to outline a range of alternative policy directions for addressing this area of concern. The third was to consider the likely consequences of the various alternatives. Rather than strive for consensus on an appropriate course of action, panelists were to develop a range of alternatives that could encourage and enrich public discussion. (6)

Meanings of Retirement

Retirement Security Project panelists began their work by discussing what "retirement" means to Americans. Decades ago, the meaning of this term may have been clear, but not today.

Most often, retirement involves a change in a person's relationship to paid work. It can involve (voluntary or involuntary) separation from the paid workforce with no expectation of returning. Or it can involve separation from a certain position, occupation, or profession but can leave the expectation of eventually returning to--or even remaining in-the workforce. Retirement can entail a brief time of rest or just a movement from one position to another.

For those returning to (or remaining in) the workforce after "retiring," the motivations for doing so--and activities engaged in upon their return-are quite varied. Financial considerations are sometimes, but not always, a deciding factor; some people choose to work simply to remain productive or to experience the social aspects of work. Similarly, work done in retirement might be identical to work done prior to retirement--or it could be radically different. …

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