The choices are changing
St. Petersburg, Fla. — It is just before 9:30 on a morning Florida vacationland brochures make the rest of the world dream of. A solitary brown pelican lazily circles in a cloudless sky, glides over Boca Ciega Bay, and half-heartedly dives for a fish. The only really hard-working creature in sight is a sandpiper skittering along the beach with a determination that seems misplaced in such a serene world.
In a high-rise condominium overlooking the bay, elevators discharge a small group of men moving with a rather wonderful lack of urgency to their first meeting of the day. The men are dressed alike -- Bermuda shorts, knit shirts, and hats looking extra white above their tanned faces: the unofficial uniform of Florida retirement. They tote almost identical canvas bags.
On the roof of a carport Astroturf has been spread out to form a lawn bowling rink. After exchanging a few greetings, the men remove bowling balls from bags and begin.
The lawn bowling ball is a slightly elliptical object, given to unpredictable rolls. The object is to come as close as possible to a white target ball. As in shuffleboard, a player can dislodge an opponent's successful shot.
The men concentrating on the game give no hint of the diversity of their former careers. Once, it so happens, they were a physician from Kansas, a trumpet player from California, an equipment broker from Illinois.Now they are lawn bowlers in Florida.
A pleasantry passes now and then -- a bit of bantering. But mostly, as the sun rises in the sky, there is bowling.
One bowler has calculated he walks a mile and a half each morning, following his ball.
Nearly two hours later, after two games, there is a closing ritual. The men shake hands and say to one another: "Good game -- thanks." Then the balls go back in the bags, the men go back to their wives and lunch.
On the way to the elevator one bowler says to another: "Well, tomorrow we've got shuffleboard."
His companion answers: "If it's nice I'm supposed to go fishing."
Lawn bowling can be taken as the metaphor for all that is relaxed and congenial and healthful about Florida retirement -- practically the only model of retirement that exists in the popular mind.
It is easy to satirize the "retirement community" -- the Disneyland for the over-65s that seems to say: "Have fun -- or else." Often the retirement community satirizes itself, like a recent issue of the Activities Calendar of Sun City West, Ariz. The front page features a photograph of a bingo party. Row upon row of heads bow over their game cards, strethcing into the distance as far as the eye can see.
As Gordon L. Bultena and Vivian Wood have written in their scholarly study, "The American Retirement Community: Bane or Blessing?": "Prodigious efforts" have been made by the community developers "to legitimize a leisure role for retirees."
The efforts have not been in vain, according to a survey by Bultena and Wood.About 3 out of 4 of those in retirement communities are "very satisfied" with their life, compared with 57 percent of retirees outside retirement communities.
Yet many retirement specialists think these surveys reflect only surface views. To them, a fundamental question remains: Can Americans be driven by the work ethic for 65 years of their lives and then, suddenly -- American Dream II -- be switched to the play ethic?
E. Bentley Lipscomb, minority staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, is skeptical: "We've inculcated in people from childhood on, that work gives value. Then the system is set up so we take that away from them.After six months they've caught every fish known to man. They've played every golf course within 200 miles. After that? . . . ."
A retired teacher in St. Petersburg, enjoying an independent income that allows a private home with a pool -- everything American Dream II could ask for -- speaks so candidly about his discontent that he does not wish to be identified:
"I guess what it comes down to is the fact that I'd still like to be teaching.
"My ham radio gives me a window on the world. I'm active in church work, in civic service. I've found a lot of different things to do -- each one with certain interest. But when added up it doesn't really result in a lot of satisfaction.
"Even though you have a lot to contribute, you feel there isn't a whole lot of interest in the fact that you havem a lot to contribute. I don't feel I'm making a contribution of the dimension I might or could make.
"At the beginning of the day I often ask myself, 'What am I going to do today that's going to advance me or mankind?'
"Then at the end of the day I often ask myself, 'What have I really accomplished today?' Well, I fixed a leaky faucet. I swept the swimming pool. I went to a meeting of the property owners' association. But so what?"m
Assuming 10 hours a day for creative work of whatever kind, the retired teacher -- and others like him -- can count 3,650 hours a year to be filled, or not filled. Time -- a lot of time -- hangs over every new retiree like unspent capital.
Again and again a Sunbelt reporter will hear variations on the remark of a Venice, Fla., resident, delivered with a sense of surprise and self-discovery: "The days go by so fast, and we wonder -- How did we ever live up north and work?m But you do get kind of tired of the palm trees and the lazy life."
But more than ennui is gnawing away at American Dream II. Far from St. Petersburg, far from the bowling balls rolling around in the morning sun, things are happening that make the retirement Edens look like a style of the past, even as new Sun Cities continue to rise. At those bingo tables the plight of the social-security system is becoming as famous as the plight of Chrysler.
From 54 to 74 percent of Americans no longer trust social security, depending upon which poll you read -- New York Times-CBS or Associated Press-ABC. The crux of the crisis is balance of payments. In 1950 there were 16 contributors to the coffers for every beneficiary drawing out. Today the ratio has dropped to 3.2. Annual social security payments by employees have leaped from a maximum of $374.40 in 1970 to $1,975.05 in 1981.
Not surprisingly, the bottom line is red. A system that registered a $5 billion surplus in 1970 when benefit payments were only $32 billion a year, now shows an estimated $6.2 billion deficit, with payments around $150 billion and rising.
The situation is not a lot better in the private sector, despite government regulation under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act [ERISA] of 1974. A Carnegie-Mellon report estimates that the cost of retirement to businesses has jumped 2,000 percent since 1950, even though only about a quarter of those now receiving social-security payments are also receiving benefits from private pensions.
A. Haeworth Robertson, former chief actuary for the Social Security Administration, figures the government's obligation to current workers and retirees is $5.6 trillion -- almost six times the national debt.
The money that gave the American middle class a comparatively affluent retirement in the '60s and '70s is running out. Retirement is becoming something a growing number of individuals cannot afford, any more than the government and the overdrawn pension plans.
Between 1979 and 1980 the average annual budget for an urban retired couple rose to $9,434 -- a 10.2 percent increase, the largest in six years. Even at a comparatively modest inflation rate of 7 percent, the cost of living doubles every ten years. How can fixed incomes keep up with that?
The wealthy are able to live well after 65, as they lived well before. The others, the budget-balancers, are really feeling the squeeze.
In Clearwater, Fla., Yetta Andrews says: "Social security checks arrive the 3 rd of the month. You can't get in the banks or grocery stores on the 4th. Shopping carts are full -- people are buying meat and so on. By the 25th, the stores aren't very full. People are mostly buying bread and milk."
When you leave the condominiums and move into the trailer parks on the outskirts of Florida towns, you have entered a whole different world -- a world that follows the ups and downs of social security the way that other world tracks the Dow Jones indexes.
Back in Washington the politicians are trying to balance the budget, while also balancing an obligation to the vast majority of Americans over 65 who are heavily dependent on social security. The Reagan administration, through Health and Human Services Secretary Richard Schweiker, has expressed "convictions" that , where older Americans are concerned, "the role of government should be minimized, even in the area of income." There should be less "intrusion" -- and less spending -- and more "self-reliance."
Rep. Barney Frank (D) of Massachusetts, a liberal member of the House Select Committee on Aging, addressed himself to some of these issues in an interview with The Christian Science Monitor:
"I don't think it's fair to reduce social-security benefits in the near term. You'll be told, well, social security is just supposed to be a supplement. But there are many people for whom it is not a supplement, but the whole thing. Two reasons for that: One, the private pension system up until recently was really riddled with inefficiency and some deception. That's why the federal government had to pass ERISA. An awful lot of people worked very hard all their lives, and then they found out they had no pension because they'd been off for a year, or they'd worked for two companies. Now that ERISA has been in effect for several years, 20 years from now, a much higher percentage of people will be able to count on a significant pension.
"Secondly, we're doing the Individual Retirement Accounts, and that's another factor that's going to help people prepare for their retirement. So with good government supervision of the private pension system, and with IRAs, 20 years from now social security will be less important to the average retiree than it is today. We will therefore be able to reduce it some in real terms.
"In the private sector I think the single most important step is to make pensions portable. We want to encourage mobility. It's not just important as a matter of equity; it's economically important. A mobile population is important. If you're going to have a rational economic system you need to have a mobile population."
Congressman Frank thinks mandatory retirement is already receding. "I think it's going to recede further," he says. "It's an individual matter. Some people like to work and some people like to retire. At a certain age people should have that option.
"If your jobs are fun, then sure, you want to keep working. A lot of jobs are fun. Staying on an assembly line all day is not fun. Stitching is not fun. Selling perfume to people in a department store is not fun. It has aspects of being fun, but it's not the same as being an actor or a president. What we have to understand is that some of us are luckier than others, some of us have jobs that we enjoy more than others, some of us have jobs that take more out of us than others."
Some scholars are more caustic about the turn of the tide. In "A History of Retirement," published last year, William Graebner of the State University of New York noted that in the 1960s and '70s, when retirement was a "commodity," workers approaching 65 were told it was time to play. Now, with retirement proving "unduly costly," the revised assumption is that people over 65 will be happier working. As Professor Graebner sums it up: "Mandatory retirement was established over the course of the last century because it served real and perceived needs.It is now being dismantled because it is increasingly seen as economically counterproductive."
The question has never really been: Are people over 65 capable, or not capable, of holding down a job? Back in 1956, 1957, and 1960 the Department of Labor ran a series of studies on both factory workers and clerical workers. The findings indicated that clerical workers age 65 and over had the highest performance record of any group. The productivity of factory workers did not vary substantially among age segments. The National Policy Center on Employment and Retirement cites a study of more than 3,000 "retail, industrial, office, and managerial workers" age 60 or older: "In terms of absenteeism, interpersonal relationships, and quality and quantity of work, the majority of these older workers performed as well as or even better than younger workers."
The question is: Do people want to go on working at a regular job? The retired teacher in St. Petersburg would vote yes. There are some "fun" jobs, as Barney Frank remarks -- and, to many people, a lot that aren't.
In Seminole, Fla., John Fair, the former manager of a manufacturing plant, recalled: "When my brother in Georgia retired, people asked him how long it took him to get used to being retired. He would answer, 'About 15 minutes.' I think I beat him. It didn't take me that long.
"You might miss a pat on the back once in a while, but I don't miss work one bit. I was bored. It became an ordeal -- get up, fight the crazy traffic into the city, work all day, then fight the crazy traffic back home."
But about the same time, in Boston, 1,200 miles north of pelicans gliding in cloudless skies over azure-blue bays, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Paul Samuelson gave a signal to a conference on preretirement planning that might well make a lawn-bowling ball wobble. "The time has come," he said, "-- is overdue -- when we need to extend the privilege of working longer."
As that privilege is extended, other privileges must not be withdrawn. The choices of activity ought to be kept as open as possible for as many people as possible: the lawn-bowlers; the people with "fun" jobs, like the teacher retired in St. Petersburg, who want to go on with them; and the people with non-fun jobs , like John Fair, who do not.
Tomorrow: The pluralistic directions retirement is likely to take in the future.m
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