The Politics of Retirement

Recently, I met with a 65 year old client. Three years ago he retired, his future made secure by the pension he had earned in 35 years of labor. Then the company went bankrupt and he was left scrambling for ways survive without the money promised all his working life. Increasingly, people who planned well, saved prudently, worked hard and loyally played by the company rules are finding the retirement and medical benefits promised them cannot be counted on.

Even as this column is being written, negotiations are going on between the auto makers and union representatives about contributions to the pension fund. The auto industry is desperate for federal assistance and a condition of that assistance is a reorganization of the companies’ obligations to retired and current auto workers. Politics is weighing in on the issue of long term retirement security, not to protect the benefits of retirees, but to erode them. The expediency of Now is overriding the promises made over a lifetime.

Whatever the financial pressures of the current crisis, it should not be lost on anyone that we can no longer be certain the benefits and pensions promised us will actually be delivered. This should matter to all workers regardless of their ages, for retirees are the canaries in the coal mine. What is happening to them today is the best indication of what will happen to us tomorrow.

It is remarkable that in a society where golden parachutes are the norm for executives and politicians retire with far greater financial security than most of us ever experience in a lifetime, most of us are being cast adrift without the slightest question of responsibility to do right.

To do right. It looks odd on the page and sounds funny to the ear, like a motto from some distant age. But as we pass through the trials which are before us, it is hard to imagine we will not find an abundance of wrong. Is there not a lesson in this for us?

Among the challenges we will be facing in the coming years is the question of retirement and what place it is to have in the lives of American workers. Are we going to return to the years before Roosevelt, when to be old meant to be poor? Is this generation now in retirement going to be the last generation to enjoy that privilege? Or are we going to stand together as a people and fashion a system of retirement benefits which is solid and worthy of trust, so we can look to the future with confidence?

There is no more universal issue in this country than the long term financial security of our citizens. Aging touches everyone. How can any of us believe our future is secure when the security of our parents is being made so tenuous?

At some point we, “the people”, must take ownership of our futures and create something we can believe in. When that day comes, we will be assured of our success by the well-being of the retirees among us.

After all, Aging in Place, it doesn’t happen by accident.

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About the author

Scott Funk has specialized in Home Equity Conversion Mortgage reverse mortgages for over a decade. He is a recognized Aging in Place advocate in his home state of Vermont. His monthly newspaper column Aging in Place has run for 7 years in 24 papers around the state. Scott is brings a lighthearted approach to his talks on Boomers, retirement and aging on purpose.