The bipartisan war on American retirement

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
–Julius Nyerere

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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  1. K says

    GenX has had it really bad–they graduated high school and college during the Reagan Recession and came up behind the biggest generation ever–the Boomers–which meant often not even being able to get the foot in the door at companies. Movies like “High Fidelity” mocked the entry-level jobs many strung together; they’d leave their shift at the fast food restaurant to get to their job at the record store and then on the weekends, deliver papers and beg to pick up more fast food shifts. Their entire working lives, they were behind in earnings and seeing all the breathless stories about Boomers who retired at 40 and sailed the world. Now many are the meat in the sandwich, paying to support their Boomer parents in nursing homes and Zoomer kids in college.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    Born just before the first moon landing, in the UK, I feel like I just caught the tail-end of the post-war social justice ladder as the generation behind me were rapidly pulling it up behind them. I got free milk at primary school… for a while. I got free meals at school, for a while (poor single mother). I didn’t pay university fees. If I’d been a year older I’d have been one of the ones who could claim unemployment benefit during uni vacations – they stopped that before I started. As a working class kid from a low income single parent I got a full grant… until the final year, when they were frozen as the first step to replacing them with loans. When I finally got a job post-uni I eventually managed to get into one with a final-salary pension… but those are now history too, with “defined contribution” schemes replacing “defined benefit”, because the fuckers who retired on a final salary pensions are buggering the actuarial algorithms by failing to die on schedule – damn that health service and those health warnings on cigarettes etc. When I started work retirement age – the age at which I’d qualify for a government pension – was 65 (60 if I had been a women, yay equality), but it’s now (I think) 67, possibly 68, and that age is only going up.

    I wouldn’t want to be ten years younger. My wife, who is sixteen years younger than me, is still paying off student loan from her first degree, and may never pay it all off (her second degree was paid for because that’s the only reason there are ANY nurses in the UK (hyperbole, a bit)).

  3. says

    It never made any sense to me. Allegedly conservatives and the wealthy would want to see a hard-working cog in the system get their reward at the end of their life, pour encourager les autres but instead it seems that they want to turn them out in the streets to die, as “non productive.”

    Meanwhile, I am damned if I can think how Henry Kissinger, who is a retired multi-millionaire war criminal, or Dick Cheney or any retired former financier is “productive” and doesn’t belong out living under a bridge next to the former workers.

    The boomers didn’t save for their retirement, either – they assumed that they’d be taken care of by the boss class, for their hard work fucking up the planetary ecosystem. But it turned out that the capitalists (remember the 80s?) learned to loot corporate retirement accounts, and suddenly the boomers had to hang onto their jobs and basically froze out the market. Again, I’m surprised that the conservatives didn’t spin up some “death panels” for all those aging non-producing boomers – but maybe it’s because the conservatives are the aging non-producing boomers.

  4. says

    On the generational stuff, it’s absolutely hitting all generations. The reality is that for all my frustrations with Boomers as a group, most of them had no more power than Millennials do now, and had fewer tools to spot and counter propaganda than are available today. That’s not to say they didn’t drop the ball, but there’s also a degree to which the “greatest” generation had done a LOT to screw everyone over by the time the Boomers came to power.

    But yeah. Everything is allowed for the rich, and nothing is allowed for the poor.

  5. K says

    The Boomers had the advantage of fully-funded public schools with all the bells and whistles. The USA had to beat the Soviets in all things, and nothing was too good for the Boomers, who were being primed to rule the world. What did they do with these advantages? Mostly pulled the ladder up behind them.

    SonofRojBlake; were you affected by Thatcher and her screw-the-poor scheme?

    I lived and worked in the UK from 1989 – 1991, and I seem to recall the UK had only just finished repaying the USA for the aid the USA gave in WWII (I thought it was so wrong to charge for this). “Soul on the dole” was one of the mottos.

  6. says

    GenX americano here. I was raised on the tail end of a lot of programs for public good. “Government cheese” was awesome nourishment for the poor, doesn’t exist now. Bussing to integrate schools ended shortly after my elementary school years. My high school had so much loot right up til when i was supposed to graduate, i stole primo art supplies that were never missed. Next year, budget straight into the garbage. I think everyone in this thread has witnessed multiple forms of neoliberal / capitalist depredations within our lives. Shit is fucked up like a football bat, and has been.

  7. says

    I really am genuinely puzzled by the cruelty of the capitalist masterclass. It’s not enough for them to enjoy the comfortable lifestyle of excess, they have to have ruined people walking around desperate that they can feel superior to? What the hell is wrong with them? I can explain a lot of things as simple sadism but sadism, in theory, brings pleasure to the sadist – the hatred that the rich have for everyone else goes beyond that. It’s something really fucked and senseless.

  8. says

    It really seems like a lot of them just get to a point where they realize they can get away with anything, and they stop seeing other people as people altogether. We’re just the setting for their lives.

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