Doing away with retirement

There is a standard way of looking at work versus leisure wherein if someone has worked "long enough" or "until they have reached a certain age", that the "leisure years" begin, in other words, that the person can retire. I think we need to re-examine that idea.

Start from the concept that our society will support, at a reasonable level, all who cannot support themselves. In the United States this is less true than in most other developed countries, but let's take it as a starting point. A corollary is that someone who can partially support himself might still receive a graduated supplement, but that someone who is fully self-supporting at an average economic level should receive no supplemental support from the government.

Next, let's take it for granted that someone who is rich enough not to need to work can retire whenever they want, whether society considers them to have worked enough or to be of retirement age. The corollary is that someone who is rich enough, who has a high salary level, or who gets support from their family, can decide not to work full time whenever they want.

Based on those premises, there are then several different categories of retirement: people of any age who can no longer work due to physical or mental incapacity; people of any age who can no longer work full time or at high enough level to support themselves; people who are above age 60 or 70 who can still work enough to support themselves in full or in part; people of any age who have saved or inherited enough so that they no longer need to work if they ever did to support themselves.

I argue that no mechanism of retirement per se is needed to account for any of those cases. If you can't support yourself, social programs will take up the slack. If you can support yourself, then social programs do not need to be involved.

What about pensions? I would say that a pension should not be viewed in terms of retirement. It should be viewed in terms of a bonus for long service, in other words, as part of the compensation package. No company should be required by the government to provide a pension to its employees, but obviously those that do will be more attractive.

This view of retirement is seen very clearly with military pensions. In the United States, a young man or woman can enlist in the military at age 18 (or 17 under some circumstances). If they continue to serve until age 38, they can retire with a 50% pension for the rest of their lives. I am an unusual case, but I (finally) finished my PhD when I was 35. If I had done so as a member of the armed forces, I would have begun my work life with a substantial pension from the military. Some might find the idea of a fat pension at such a young age obscene, but I don't, because to me, it is only the name "pension" that is inappropriate. In fact, it is very much part of the compensation package for members of the military, and it is one of the most attractive aspects of military service. If it were eliminated or postponed until, say, age 65, you would see re-enlistment rates dwindle to a trickle.

I think that this concept should be embraced explicitly by all employers--why not give employees a reward for long service, that they can start to enjoy after, say, 20 years on the job? Just like in the military, the amount could be increased beyond this, up to (say) 100% after 40 years. Whatever. My only objection to this is that it be thought of in the context of retirement.

Few military retirees (other than those who can no longer work for some reason) actually retire. Instead, using the security and cushion of their long-service bonus, they go into a wide variety of fulltime careers, be it ranching/farming, writing, technical careers, mercenary work, police work, and so on. After all, at age 38 or so they still have 25 or more years even in the traditional view of "retirement age" to work, and if we set no such years, they could have perhaps in some cases twice that long.

So, I say let's get rid of retirement as a concept. Instead, let's support all of our citizens with a quality level of life (including, by the way, all childcare and medical needs). The only very important thing is that the entire system must be seen as fair, and must be accepted by everyone. For example, there must always be work for the able, even if it's WPA-style make-work. No one who is able should ever receive a free ride from the state. Given that all must work, most will prefer to choose their job rather than be assigned one by government administrators.

OK, I know, there are issues with this idea, so why did I write down?

My starting point was with the changes that are occurring with birthrates. I had just read a comment that adjusting the retirement age will not suffice to support the large number of retirees that we will soon have. Perhaps small adjustments can't succeed, but a system that eliminates the concept of retirement could do it. That is, someone who at age 80 is still working and earning a living will pay taxes, along with his fellow workers of all ages, to support those of all ages who can't do so. It seems to me that that is the kind of approach that we need. The other reason is that I am 60, and as long as I continue to be healthy, I have absolutely no interest in retirement (as in not working), and I have no problem helping to support, say, a young man of 30 who is disabled and cannot support himself.

Greg Shenaut

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