Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Tragedy Of The Common

My dad retired at age 65, after 40 years of work as a carpenter. He was union, working mostly for contractors hired by the city. The term was "journeyman".
Some years, he worked all the time, except in inclement weather (a hazard of outdoor work with heavy machinery and power tools). Some years, he barely worked and had to subsist on unemployment benefits and the occasional cabinetry job he could scarf together out of the neighborhood.
Every year, tho, the union made sure he had money put away towards his retirement. A defined benefit pension, it was called. That meant that he was guaranteed a certain payout based on his income averaged over all those years. That, Social Security, and what little money he could sock away by living sparely (he didn't have a colour TV until long after I moved out, as an example) stood him well. He lived to nearly see his ninetieth birthday, and my mom is living on the residual.
His generation was the last who could promise themselves a future:

Older workers who lose their jobs could pose a policy problem if they lose their ability to be self-sufficient. “That’s what we should be worrying about,” said Carl E. Van Horn, professor of public policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, “what it means to this class of the new unemployables, people who have been cast adrift at a very vulnerable part of their career and their life.”

Forced early retirement imposes an intense financial strain, particularly for those at lower incomes. The recession and its aftermath have already pushed down some older workers. In figures released last week by the Census Bureau, the poverty rate among those 55 to 64 increased to 9.4 percent in 2009, from 8.6 percent in 2007.

But even middle-class people who might skate by on savings or a spouse’s income are jarred by an abrupt end to working life and to a secure retirement.

“That’s what I spent my whole life in pursuit of, was security,” Ms. [Patricia] Reid said. “Until the last few years, I felt very secure in my job.”

Back story. For more than fifteen years, Reid worked as an auditor for Boeing. She's 57, college educated, and has been unemployed for four years.

She could conceivably never work again. Worse, she could conceivably be bankrupt before she can officially "retire" at age 62 1/2. With no job, and no pension, and likely a 401(k) wiped out by the recession, she is in very serious danger of falling into and then through the safety net.

Social Security was designed to protect the elderly, among the most vulnerable of us when they are not seen to. Yes, it was a back up plan, meant to supplement a pension. Before we had SSI, we had elderly folks dying in our cities and towns for want of income. Literally. The elderly were the poorest citizens in society up to the 30s and 40s. After the advent of SSI (and Medicare) the elderly actually saw their life spans increase after they turned 65. And they could survive life. 

Retirement, which should be the end of stress, is suddenly now the largest stressor in many people's lives. Retirement is a very delicate balance of health and money. Destabilize one, and you end up pulling the whole house down. 

It's not uncommon now to work past 65. Hell, it's practically encouraged! If one is healthy enough and can manage to summon up the energy to perform, a person over 65 bring a boatload of experience to a job. 

Now, it may become mandatory. Not just because we've allowed the corporatocracy to do away with pensions, but also because Social Security itself is under attack, from enemies external and internal. Republicans want to privatize it, to move that much more profit into the hands of the greedy rich. And people are living longer, contributing less (fewer young workers and well, see above), and the system is draining money faster than its putting it away. 

The balanced system, pension with the supplemental insurance, is in danger of collapsing. People who have worked all their lives, have wanted to support themselves in retirement, cannot and will not be able to. 

All for want of some vision on the part of our national leaders. All for the sake of boosting the bottom line each quarter for companies that are already embarrassingly rich.

Shame on us.