The freedom to retire when you want to

Dreams of a satisfying retirement take many forms. Some workers, anticipating the years after 65, imagine a golden world without alarm clocks, offering time for golf, tennis, or a stroll around the block. Others harbor wanderlust fantasies: Have passport, will travel. Still others dream of languid days devoted to reading, volunteering, tracing a family tree, or playing with grandchildren.

These traditional activities all have their appeal.

But wait. Did anyone mention working longer? Increasingly, that's an option governments on both sides of the Atlantic are promoting as a way to scale back the mounting cost of retirement benefits. Already in the United States, the age for full Social Security benefits is gradually creeping up to 67. And across Europe, the issue is heating up as workers try to protect their right to early retirement.

Last week nearly 1 million people in France took to the streets to protest the government's proposed pension reforms. Public-sector workers would have to contribute to the state pension system for 40 years, instead of the current 37-1/2 years. "Non, non," protested the strikers.

When to retire? That question promises to loom large in the coming decade as conflicting messages float through the air. Paradoxes abound. While governments are saying, Work longer, companies are saying, Leave earlier.

At a time when many Americans need to work until 65, employees in their 50s remain prime targets in corporate downsizings. The phrase "taking early retirement" has become a euphemism for being laid off, making it sound voluntary and welcome when often it is not. Displaced 50-somethings, many of them in the prime of their careers, must typically search longer for another job and settle for lower pay when they finally find one. But age discrimination is subtle and hard to prove.

By 2010, American employers will face a shortage of 10 million workers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts. One solution, futurists say, will be for companies to attract and retain older workers.

Already heartening examples exist. A group called Experience Works gives annual awards to Americans who draw a paycheck long after most people have collected their proverbial gold watch and gone home. Last year's oldest employee is a 102-year-old visiting professor of environmental science. Other recipients include an 89-year-old hotel personnel manager, a 92-year-old custodian, a 75-year-old veterinarian, and an 85-year-old nurse.

Such extreme examples challenge entrenched stereotypes of aging. Yet some gerontologists caution that images of "Superfolks" in their 70s and 80s could lead policymakers to argue that older people can get along with reduced Social Security and Medicare benefits, because they can work. Most of those who work past 70 want only part-time schedules.

Retirement ages can be arbitrary. Commercial airline pilots must retire at 60. In Vermont, a former state police officer is suing the state for age discrimination because it forced him to retire at 55, the mandatory retirement age for that post. In Massachusetts, state police must bow out at 50.

At its best, a job is a treasure, a source of satisfaction and fulfillment. At its worst, work is little more than a means to an essential end, a paycheck.

As life spans lengthen and retirement costs escalate, CEOs and politicians face several challenges. First, they'll need to counter subtle ageist attitudes and make room for those who want to work beyond a normal retirement age. And second, they'll need to create policies acknowledging that not all older workers are able to stay on the job years longer to collect the benefits they thought they had earned.

Whatever the outcome of the French protests against pension reform, they serve as a dual reminder: Work counts, but there's also more to life than work.

A walk on the beach, anyone?

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