Working longer ‘not a viable solution’ to US retirement crisis, economists say

Instead of forcing aging employees to delay retirement, lawmakers should ensure that workers have "access to jobs that pay fair wages and provide solid benefits during their prime working years," argues a new report.

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SOURCECommon Dreams

Right-wing lawmakers’ preferred method for dealing with the United States’ looming retirement crisis—telling older workers to keep toiling until they’ve saved enough to stop—is “not a viable solution,” says a report published Wednesday.

“Millions of people are entering their retirement years with insufficient savings to cover basic expenses and medical bills,” the new analysis from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) notes. “In response, some policymakers have proposed that older Americans could delay retirement to increase their savings.”

But this ostensible fix “overlooks the large group of older Americans who work in difficult conditions—ranging from the physically demanding to the outright dangerous,” EPI points out. “If older Americans endure difficult conditions that often force earlier exits from the workplace, proposals to delay retirement make little sense.”

“Americans should… be fighting for more leisure.”

Rather than forcing aging employees to postpone retirement, lawmakers should implement full-employment macroeconomic policies to ensure that workers have “access to jobs that pay fair wages and provide solid benefits during their prime working years,” says the report, calling the latter approach “a more effective way to close the retirement savings gap.”

To make sure “older workers can afford to retire when they need to,” EPI also urges policymakers to bolster “support for workers with caregiving responsibilities, expand Social Security coverage and benefits,” and improve “conditions for all workers through collective bargaining, stronger labor standards, and more effective health and safety protections.”

Those who portray working longer as a legitimate solution for people who cannot afford to retire assume that “as workers age and gain more work experience, they are able to transition into jobs that are less physically demanding, less onerous, and less hazardous—making it possible to extend their working lives,” the report notes. But as it goes on to show, “many workers in fact see little or no improvement in working conditions as they age.”

Based on her analysis of data from the American Working Conditions Survey conducted by the RAND Corporation in 2015 and 2018, EPI researcher and report author Monique Morrissey found that:

  • 50.3% of older workers have physically demanding jobs;
  • 54.2% of older workers are exposed to unhealthy or hazardous conditions;
  • 46.1% of older workers have high-pressure jobs; and
  • 53.7% of older workers have difficult schedules.

Making matters worse, these tough jobs that roughly half of the nation’s workers between the ages of 50 and 70 put up with don’t pay enough to make retirement a possibility.

“Quantifying the large share of older workers with difficult jobs serves as a reality check for policymakers and researchers who view later retirement as an easy way for workers to close retirement income gaps,” the report states.

“It misguided and unrealistic to expect older workers with onerous or hazardous jobs to keep working into advanced old age,” the report continues. “A better way to close the retirement income gap is to support workers’ ability to be fully employed during their prime working years and ensure that all jobs come with benefits that lead to a secure retirement.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Morrissey was joined by U.S. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Siavash Radpour, associate research director of the ReLab at the New School’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, for a discussion moderated by Schwartz Center director and economic professor Teresa Ghilarducci.

Beyer brought up legislation he introduced last year that would establish an Older Workers Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor aimed at improving aging employees’ working conditions through targeted research.

Radpour, meanwhile, stressed that the nation’s lack of retirement security results in lower job quality for all employees, which in turn decreases workers’ ability to fight for a better future.

Workers need more leverage to negotiate for higher pay and better conditions, Radpour emphasized. But due to inadequate retirement funding, many aging employees have no choice but to keep toiling away at low-paying, onerous jobs. The inability of many workers to retire comfortably currently empowers employers, but reversing the present situation would have an inverse effect.

Notably, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which seeks to push U.S. labor law in a more worker-friendly direction and increase workers’ collective bargaining power, has languished in Congress for the past several years.

In February, progressive U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) unveiled the Social Security Expansion Act, which would increase benefits by at least $200 per month and prolong the program’s solvency for decades by finally requiring wealthy Americans to pay their fair share. The bill, which is overwhelmingly popular among voters of all persuasions, stands in stark contrast to Republican lawmakers’ proposals to slash Social Security benefits and postpone eligibility.

Morrissey, for her part, observed that the lack of affordable healthcare—a widespread problem thanks to the for-profit model that plagues the U.S.—also hurts the nation’s entire workforce, especially older employees who may be passed over for jobs by employers looking to avoid higher insurance costs.

On Wednesday, Sanders, joined by U.S. Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) in the House, introduced the Medicare for All Act of 2023, which would guarantee universal healthcare without copays, deductibles, or high out-of-pocket costs. Its sponsors argue the bill would not only save lives but also empower the U.S. working class as a whole.

When asked during the roundtable about French workers’ fight to protect their world-class pension system, Morrissey thanked them and said that “Americans should also be fighting for more leisure.”

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