Age & Reason
At 77, Social Security Confronts Its Own Mortality
Friday, August 10, 2012 - 6:03pm
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How odd it is that we have technologies in this current century to help us celebrate the policies of Social Security (which turns 77 next week) and Medicare (which just turned 47), both formed in an earlier century. We have birthday cakes on Facebook pages and tweets from all quarters about both of these entitlement institutions.

And how interesting it is, too, that topics normally left to policy wonks inside the Beltway or among academics from Cambridge to Palo Alto have made their way into social media. Or that we are now being invited to take to the streets by the Alliance for Retired Americans in their summer campaign with the slogan, "Let’s Not Be the Last Generation to Retire." The group's goal seems to be to amass signatures on a petition calling for America to keep Social Security and Medicare far into the future. Not exactly the inspiration of the good old American work ethic and our understanding of virtue. And not anywhere in the vicinity of our current demographic realities which, as we live well into our 80s, hardly square with outdated ideas of retirement.

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Yet the same crowd that so easily adopts this century’s newest communications technology is hopelessly stuck on ideas and institutions that were invented in – and for – an earlier time. And they are not alone, as was so clearly revealed in the groundbreaking AEGON Retirement Readiness Survey, which questioned 9,000 people across eight European countries and the U.S. who believe they’re worse off today and fear they will not be able to retire in 20th century style.

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As we dramatically reduce birthrates across the globe, where there will soon be more of us over age 60 than under 14, it is the reverse that must begin to animate our thinking: What does a working life look like in the 21st century when there are two decades beyond 20th century traditional retirement age?

The campaign for retirement is not only peculiar in light of our longevity – how many people really want to play golf or garden for twenty years or more? Living for decades without an active income is also fiscally unsustainable in light of the dramatic demographic shift of what would be "working to retirement."

Sure, the Social Security and Medicare programs worked when they were invented. But even the vaunted UK National Health Scheme on which U.S. Medicare was modeled is unable to meet the demands of an aging population. And that’s against basic reforms year after year, including a change to the once-uncontested principle that you were either "in" or "out." Today, if you don’t like the health care you’re getting and can afford something on the outside, it’s ok.

In the hotly contested presidential campaign, there’s been barely a word from either of the candidates about these entitlements. Only in newly minted socialist France does there seem to be any public display of keeping 20th century retirement, but the confiscatory taxes that follow underscore the disconnect. Surely the demographic realities of our 21st century demand something more than retread 20th century policies.

Some may not want us to be the "last generation to retire," but the generations of the 21st century know they must reimagine and reinvent how they will live in their century.

Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Executive Director of the Global Coalition on Aging.

Executive director of the Global Coalition on Aging, Michael W. Hodin, Ph.D., is also managing partner at High Lantern Group and a fellow at Oxford University's Harris Manchester College.