Proposals from Washington to raise the age of Medicare eligibility to 67 and make cuts in Social Security
A profusion of articles and books stating that traditional retirement is out and that Baby Boomers are happily planning to work until age 70 or beyond, some at fabulous "encore" careers with retirement deferred until Boomers become too frail and ill to work or until sudden death intervenes.
It makes me want to scream.
The reality these days (and, actually, for quite some time) is that many thousands of older workers are being fired, not hired. If they find themselves unemployed, they face the longest period of unemployment of all job-seekers. And a number of employers are stating these days that the unemployed need not apply for available jobs. Even if older workers are employed, they may be discriminated against on the job and when seeking a new position.
When I read articles and books advocating foregoing retirement for the joys of working until dotage or death, I wonder about the age and circumstances of the writer. I remember being 25, a staff writer on a national magazine and scoffing at a newly established pension plan. "I'm never going to retire," I would say to anyone who would stand still long enough to listen. "Retirement is horrible. It's just sitting around waiting to die. Who would want to do that?"
What a difference time and experience makes. At 66, after 42 years of full-time work, I can well understand the allure of retirement. And having spent more than half of those years working full-time in a career I loved and am still pursuing, I understand why some people who find satisfaction and joy in their work wouldn't want to stop just because they reach a certain age.
Working beyond the typical retirement age is fine for people who want to, most likely people who own their own businesses or have careers they love and find meaningful. There are a number of people who would gladly work into their seventies or beyond.
There are people who have to work longer than they expected due to financial problems or uncertainties or late in life children needing help with college.
And there are some people who would love to work longer, but they can't.
Some of these older workers who have been downsized out of their jobs long before they planned to stop working, would love to have the opportunity to work beyond typical retirement age if only they could get a job.
Being a throwaway in the job market can be a singular pain.
I'll never forget my Father's anguish when he lost his executive level job in a corporate merger when he was only 44. Although I always suspected that his drinking was a factor in his job loss and continuing unemployment, his spirit was destroyed by having a successful career cut short.
A dear friend's husband, with a Wharton MBA and 30 years of international corporate experience, also lost his job in a corporate merger when he was 57. Despite the fact that he had no negative traits -- didn't drink and had a solid professional reputation -- he also remained unemployed despite making job-hunting a full-time career. Although he never lost faith, and worked happily at temporary and part-time positions that paid a fraction of what he had once earned, the incredible value of his vast experience was overlooked time and time again.
Another dear friend, an award-winning journalist, was forced out of his job on the staff of a prestigious national newspaper after more than 30 years of outstanding work there because it was cheaper to hire someone younger, with less experience, to replace him.
Another journalist friend complained of the "creeping intern syndrome" where underpaid interns, working with no insurance on two year contracts, were slowly but steadily replacing seasoned reporters and editors at his newspaper. It was an arrangement that may have helped the financial bottom line -- but was a terrible thing for veteran reporters and young interns alike. My friend eventually retired early -- and hasn't looked back.
A particularly poignant workplace throwaway was Angie, who came to me as a patient when I was working at a psychiatric clinic in Los Angeles. Angie was 76 and until a few weeks before I first met her, had been working as a waitress at a popular upscale steakhouse. This was a job she loved, and she had worked at this restaurant for 45 years. She knew several generations of customers' families. She was lively, fit, attractive and looked many years younger than her age. But when new owners took over the restaurant, they decided they wanted a Hooters style waitstaff and fired Angie. She had a lawsuit pending. But, in the meantime, she was seized by financial fears and grief at losing a job she truly loved. "I feel like I've been thrown away like a piece of trash," she told me, alternately wiping tears and wringing the Kleenex in her hands. "I don't have a husband. I don't have a family. My customers were my family."
The stories go on and on. I see neighbors here who were forced into retirement and who still mourn the loss of their careers. One man recently told me that his retirement happened when he arrived to clock in at work and found that his card didn't work. A security guard arrived to direct him to Human Resources and the news that his job was history.
If Boomers are going to be expected to wait until age 67 for Medicare and to work, quite routinely, to age 70 or beyond, something needs to change in the marketplace, and in society. Employers need to hire and retain older workers. Employers and society in general need to value the wisdom and knowledge of older people with their vast collective experience.
I'm not holding my breath waiting for this to happen. These are rough times for jobseekers and workers of any age.
The job market at the moment is squeezed at the entry level with young people having great difficulty finding permanent, full-time jobs and is squeezed at the other end as people over 50 have difficulty holding onto their jobs in the face of layoffs, downsizing and off-shoring.
In the current economy, jobs are at a premium. This is not the time to demand that Baby Boomers linger in the work place when, for some, that already is not an option and when young people are having such difficulty getting their careers established.
If the expectations for aging Boomers are changing, we need real options: jobs for older people who want or need to continue working, adequate retirement benefits for those who want or need to retire. And older people need to be valued by society whatever their choices.
The labels need to stop. Retired people are not "greedy geezers." For the most part, they are people who worked very hard for 30 or 40 years or more and who are now living on a fraction of what they once earned. Most happily embrace their downsized lives for the freedom to do as they wish -- and quite often what they wish to do is to give back to society in a variety of ways, from caring for grandchildren to doing volunteer work in a number of venues -- schools, hospitals, libraries, animal rescue organizations, foster grandparenting and more.
And older workers are not, for the most part, obsolete. They're a valuable resource with a wealth of knowledge that can only come from experience. As a cohort, Baby Boomers are the most educated elders ever -- and are still young enough to have embraced technology. They deserve a chance to show all they can do.
In the meantime, expectations need to parallel the reality of aging Boomers' lives.