Retirement is a tricky subject in the U.S., for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the work ethic is central. Basically, time spent not working is a sin against God, or against The Economy. It’s also taken as proof that your poverty is your own fault, and if you’re working 80 hours and still struggling, well then you should “work smarter, not harder”. It’s hard not to feel that this leads a lot of people to feel that it’s virtuous of them to keep working past retirement age, and that one “shouldn’t” retire until physically unable to keep working.
The first time I thought about this was probably a few years back when a co-worker told me they were looking at other jobs not because the place we were at wasn’t good to work for, but because the retirement-age folks higher up in that person’s branch of the organization simply didn’t seem interested in retiring. For my co-worker, there wasn’t any reasonable prospect of advancement, because jobs weren’t opening up due to retirement.
Beyond the work ethic issue, I think an awful lot of people rely on their workplace for a significant portion of their social interaction, which makes leaving all the more difficult.
All of that, however, is about people who have the ability to retire, but don’t want to for one reason or another. All things being equal, there shouldn’t be any problem with people not retiring for a great many professions (I don’t know that it’s good to have folks in their 70s or 80s writing laws and setting policies, for example). The reality is that for a great many older Americans, retirement is increasingly not an option.
Media reports of older workers have often been framed as feel-good stories, such as a viral news report of an 89-year-old pizza delivery man who received a $12,000 tip raised by a customer out of remorse, as he works 30 hours a week because he can’t afford to retire on social security benefits alone. Or an 84-year-old woman who started a new job as a motel housekeeper in Maine in July 2020. Or an 81-year-old woman in Ohio who volunteered to start working at her favorite restaurant in November 2021 because it shut down temporarily due to an inability to hire and retain enough staff.
But the grim reality is millions of Americans are working into their senior years because they can’t afford not to have a job.
Over the next decade, the number of workers ages 75 and older is expected to increase in the US by 96.5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with their labor force participation rate projected to rise from 8.9% in 2020 to 11.7% by 2030, a rate that has steadily increased from 4.7% in 1996.
This is a problem that’s only going to get worse, as millennials are poorer across the board than our elders were at our age. For a lot of us, retirement is a pipe dream. Even if we still have a functional society in 30 years, the leadership of the United States seems committed to the neoliberal obsession with turning everything into a for-profit enterprise, no matter how much misery and death that causes:
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I think our best path towards a better life for our elderly population is the same kind of organizing I advocate for most other things. Building a society that values life will only happen through collective effort to overcome those who want the current trends to continue, and have the power to make that happen, absent real opposition. The reality is that the Democratic Party, despite their rhetoric, are as dogmatically committed to the cult of the Free Market as the Republicans. They will mix a little praise into their hatred of the left, but only enough to bolster the “lesser evil” argument at campaign time. When they actually take power, they keep increasing war funding, attack the social safety net (as discussed in the video), continue expanding fossil fuel extraction, and keep talking about how we “need a strong Republican party“.
The United States is also a one-party state but, with typical American extravagance, they have two of them
The ideology of our political leadership, while moving somewhat left on social issues, has been moving to the right on economic policy and “security” policy for all of my life. Electing more Democrats will not solve anything. Our only hope is to organize, build collective power, and change the world despite their opposition.
All we have is us.
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