What, Me Retire?

Nobody under 40 will ever see a cent of Social Security.

Boomers who are frustrated that they can't afford to retire may turn out to be lucky compared to their kids.

A new survey shows that more than two-thirds of Generation X don't think they'll be able to retire at all.  Unlike their parents - the 78 million boomers who are planning to retire and receive income from Social Security - nearly half of those born between 1965 and 1981 have no such hope, according to the 2008 American Retirement Study.

The American dream has long had many components.  The pretty house, the picket fence and grassy yard, the car in the garage - or SUV, nowadays - they've been part of the middle-class ideal for generations.

The 1950s and early 1960s are seen as an economic golden age because almost anybody who was willing to work hard was able to reach at least that level of middle-class comfort.  With a high-school diploma - or, in many cases, even without one - you could get a decent factory job that, over time, allowed home-ownership, car-ownership, and someday, a reasonably comfortable retirement in a cabin somewhere.

Until the turn of the 19th century, the average life expectancy was so low that most people never even had retirement.  People worked until the day they died.  Those few who lived on into old age could probably find a spare room with their children or grandchildren, surrounded by young'uns as they rocked away the twilight years.

Thanks to modern medicine, though, life expectancies have gone up tremendously.  Now, it's almost assumed that you'll see 70, 80, 90, or even more.  Yet "retirement age" is generally somewhere in the 60s, or even the 50s.

In the days of lifetime employment for the same company and pensions which pay out a certain sum every year that you live, this wasn't a real problem, at least not for the individual.  Retire from General Motors or Boeing, and you would know that, each and every month until your breathed your last breath, that check would arrive as regular as the dawn.

But when retirement plans were created fifty years before, people didn't live as long.  When the time came to pay out, as the retirees persisted in continuing to live to greater and greater ages collecting all the while, there wasn't enough money.  At the same time, the great industrial companies that employed millions were dying, unable to pay their current workers much less yesterday's retirees.

The longevity crisis started to hit the fan in the 70s and 80s with the steel companies declaring bankruptcy and dumping their pension obligations.  A man who thought he could comfortably retire next year, suddenly found that he would have to work an additional ten years to receive barely half of what he'd expected.  This problem has worked its way all through the big-company economy, most recently with the airlines treading the same sad path.

The same demographics have long been apparent with our national Social Security system.  However, as it has become the "third rail" of American politics, efforts to reform it have been few and far between.  Most recently, George W. Bush made Social Security reform a major campaign and rhetorical issue, and his efforts went exactly nowhere.

Well, when something cannot continue, it doesn't.  Contrary to the views of our politicians, Americans are not complete idiots - most particularly not the current young generation who can clearly see that something is badly wrong.

A Zogby poll found that 22% - that's less than one fourth - of voters aged 18-29 - believe that Social Security will be able to pay them when they reach retirement age.  By comparison, the National Science Foundation poll found that 30% of Americans believe we've been visited by extraterrestrial aliens.  Think of it - more people expect to see E.T. round the corner than their Social Security check in the mailbox 40 years from now.

I have a friend whose father taught at the University of Chicago.  He started teaching at about age 30 after getting his PhD.  He retired at 60 and started collecting his pension.

He's now well over 90 and still collecting.  He ended up working for roughly 1/3 of his life.  There is simply no way that we can support our present lifestyle if people work for only 1/3 of their lives.

Private pensions have died and Social Security is clearly dying too.  What's left?  Well, if the survey is correct, two-thirds of the relatively young have all but given up hope - they'll be like their great-great-grandparents, working to pay their bills until they drop dead on the job.

The problem is that young workers not only pay taxes to cover today's retirees, they also have to cover the costs of our bloated and incompetent national bureaucracy.  When our major cities spend more than $15,000 per student per year to generate kids who can't read their own diplomas, today's parents are left having to pay for education twice - once for the worthless government, and again for an actual education in a private school, homeschool, or tutoring.  The same truth extends all throughout what once was the responsibility of government.

We pay taxes for road repairs, and we pay for car repairs caused by unfixed potholes.

We pay taxes for "homeland security" and we waste countless hours in line for a worthless and intrusive "security check" at the airport.

We pay taxes for mass transit and end up being stuck in commuter traffic every day anyway because the mass transit takes more than a lifetime to still not get built.

And, of course, we pay taxes for sundry other boondoggles and onerous intrusions.

Our leaders have absolutely no incentive to address these issues.  Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, and Senator McCain need not fear for their own pensions; they are guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury.  Their pensions and health care will surely be the last thing to go come the Apocalypse.

Why are we looking to politicians to solve problems?  What was the last problem actually fixed by the government?  Anyone?  Anyone at all....

No, if Americans want to retire, they need to do it the old-fashioned way: by providing for themselves.  All government needs to do is to get out of the way, and give back all the money it's been stealing for worthless programs.

Various economists have proposed allowing individuals to choose to opt out of Social Security entirely - they keep their tax dollars, and waive any right to collect at retirement.  If this poll is right, two-thirds of our young people would jump at the chance.

After all, if you invested in Enron, some people made money.  With Social Security, none of us contributing now will get squat unless you're just about to start collecting.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
Reader Comments
Part of the problem with people not being "able" to retire is that their standard of living is way too high, their "needs" are too great. But that's another story.....

My own father, who is 90, retired in his late 50s and has been drawing a pension longer than he actually was working for a paycheck.

The liberals (and the government) are not going to "let go" of our Social Security and other retirement deductions without a fight. In their defence, there are many people out there who would never save the money for retirement on their own and the government would then "have" to bail them out with yet another welfare plan.

It's a mess.......
April 30, 2008 9:12 AM
As much as I would like to dump SS it isn't possible to just discontinue payments. There are people on it now that paid into the system and were given a promise by the government. We can't simply let them starve. Neither can we expect that SS will continue to function indefinitely.

It seems to me that social security should reduce benefits for younger people in some form of linear method. In other words, if you're 57 you get full benefits. If you're 56 you get 29/30 of full benefits, 55 -- 28/30, 54 27/30 ect. Down to 28 year olds that get 1/30 of full benefits. While this does nothing in the short term to help social security problem it does help in both the mid and long term and leads to its eventual removal.

Sure it'll suck to pay into something that I will receive no benefit from but at least my children won't have to bear the weight and its not like I get much back for what I pay into the government anyway.
April 30, 2008 6:08 PM
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