Those in the know — academics, policy makers, the Business Roundtable — all seem to know that people have to work longer.
The new “working-longer consensus” is reminiscent of the deeply flawed and now largely-discredited “Washington Consensus” that crystallized around aid to developing countries in the 1980s. Both are based on the demands of neo-liberal policy makers, not the needs of working people.
The Economist recently endorsed the findings of the 2019 OECD report “Working Better With Age.” The OECD concluded that the “employment of older workers is vital if prosperity is to be maintained.” Like earlier advocates of working longer, the authors of the OECD report argue that current pension systems enable a “gerontocracy” to feather its nest at the expense of younger workers. In this way, working longer becomes a matter of generational justice, as well as fiscal common sense: Stability and growth are in hand, but only if seniors work longer.
What the latest Washington consensus glosses over is the sacrifices it asks older workers to make of their hard-won retirement benefits. A longer working life is presented as a relatively painless policy solution. For most workers, it is not: longer working times shrink paid-retirement time, especially for those workers in the middle and lower half of the income distribution
Pensions are at the heart of current struggles over the wisdom of working longer. Most occupational pensions are based on payroll taxes. When rosy assumptions about employment and wage growth prove unfounded, or when longevity rates are higher than expected, pension financing can collapse.
Consider Italy: The high cost of that country’s aging economy, including pensions, coupled with Italy’s sluggish economy and fiscal strain, is causing a near constitutional crisis as I write this in October 2019. The Five Star and National Front movements owe much of their popularity to reversing the 2011 pension cuts that raised the age of full retirement age to age 67.
Such cuts had been widely praised by champions of the working-longer consensus, who argue that the system needs to be paid for by older people working longer. The problem was that these cuts ignored the persistent inability of the Italian economy to fully employ prime-aged adults, never mind its senior citizens.
Or take the case of Japan. It too faces a rapidly aging society. But the dissonance in the “working-longer message” in Japan is that older workers already have the highest effective retirementage in the G7 at 67.9. Nevertheless, the OECD has advised Japanese policymakers to take action to reduce older workers’ wages, and to ease their protective treatment for older Japanese, in order to make it more profitable for employers to hire them.
In the end, the working-longer consensus suggests that problems with financing pension plans should be solved by asking older workers to work longer, and often for less income. As the Economist put it “The over 55s should take it upon themselves to keep up with technological changes. Become a silver surfer” — as if a Marvel Comics humanoid alien is a plausible role model for senior: “Your livelihood may depend on it.” The graphic accompanying the article is a man with a long grey beard leaping out from behind his walker donning a tie, off the ground, presumably flying to a new job.
It is a fact that people, on average, are living longer around the world. It is also a fact that averages hide class differences in longevity. Almost all the gains to longevity in the U.S have gone to those in the top half of the income distribution; for white women at the bottom, longevity is actually decreasing. Class-based longevity gaps are showing up across the OECD.
It is a fact that the populations of most (though not all) countries are aging. But it is not a fact that seniors need to work longer as a result. That is a political choice — not some kind of economic inevitability
No economy — whether socialist or capitalist — faces an iron law of a “proper” worker to non-worker ratio. Arrangements among capital, the state, and labor create the circumstances in which a person can lay claim to income without working. The dynamics of those historically-contingent arrangements were at the heart of the creation of generous social provisions in the mid-twentieth century, and remain at the center of debates over the emerging “working-longer” consensus.
The OECD and the U.S. have cut pensions by raising the age to collect full benefits. In the EU, women have been impacted the most. In the OECD as a whole, private pensions have spread. In the U.S., a decline in union membership and the dramatic move away from defined benefit pensions and the financialization of pension provision has caused a retirement income security crises.
The vast majority of the 10,000 American baby boomers turning 65 every day do not have enough income to maintain their standard of living. As a result, many of them will turn to work, any kind of work. Almost half of middle-class workers over 50 will be poor, or near poor, when they are eligible to retire in 2030.
The sheer size of the boomer cohort, coupled with the insecure pensions most of them have, may well mean that by 2026, over half of the 11.4 million jobs expected to be added to the U.S. economy will be filled by workers over 55. By working longer, older workers will inevitably affect the strength of workers’ bargaining power for all American workers, both young and old.
Working longer is not a substitute for safe and reliable pensions. And working longer will not, by itself, insure that every adult who wants a job has one, in an environment where every worker has a secure pension, so that older workers have enjoy a real freedom to choose: to retire, or to keep working.
Not everyone is living longer and job quality is eroding. It’s time to reject the flawed reasoning of policy makers and advisors and meet the real needs of working people, both young and old.