While President Bush is still hustling his private investment account assault on Social Security, other conservative politicians, headed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), are attacking the retirement system and American workers from another direction.
These faux “saviors” of the system are calling for a further raising of the retirement age, from the current 67, which is how old those born after 1960 already will have to be in order to retire, to 69.
I remember back in my 20s, staying in the home of a family where the father worked for General Electric, up in western Massachusetts. He had been at his job as a production worker for some 35 years, and by then was about 60. A powerful guy with bulging forearms who loved farming, he had problems with his weight, his legs and his blood pressure, all of which conditions were clearly at least in part a result of the type of job he had at the GE plant, which required a lot of intermittent heavy lifting, but also a lot of sitting around.
He had already had one minor heart attack and also suffered from joint ailments and a back condition, and was always saying that even if he made it through to retirement, he would probably be too sick to enjoy it.
Sadly, this is the lot of many American workers.
It’s true that the life expectancy of Americans has been rising, and that many people-especially those who take care of their health through exercise, adequate sleep, timely medical care and good diet-can expect to live not just into their 80s but even into their 90s and on to 100. It’s also true that some of those people can expect to lead active, productive lives right up until the day they die. But the statistics on aging are deceptive. Life-expectancy figures are grossly misleading, for example, because they rise not just when people live longer, but when fewer children or infants die-which is the area where the biggest health gains have been made.
Besides, while people are indeed living longer in America, they aren’t necessarily staying healthy. Many of those who live long enough to collect a retirement check will by that time be crippled by strokes, heart conditions, joint ailments, cancers, etc.–often the result of working conditions they’ve been forced to put up with for years by their employers.
For these workers to have to wait past 65 to start collecting their retirement checks is a travesty and a betrayal, particularly when they’ve already been paying into a system that was promising them an earlier release from their indenture.
There is, let’s face it, no logic or virtue in an economic system which, having produced the richest society in the history of the human race, now tells us we have to work harder and longer, instead of having more time to relax and enjoy our lives, or to do something creative and life-affirming.
Just recently I was with a group of people and the conversation turned to France. When one guy mentioned how proud the French are of their culture, another immediately blurted out, “Yeah-they’re so proud of their 32-hour week. They have a doomed economy.”
Just what is so bad about a 32-hour week? Or a 4-day week? People used to say the same thing about reformers who were demanding a 40-hour, 5-day week, too, a century ago. And what’s so bad about early retirement? If productivity is rising, as the economists insist it is always doing, which means each worker is producing more goods and services, then shouldn’t the workweek be shortening, and the retirement age be moving forward, not back?
Besides, if parents retire earlier, that means more jobs for their kids, which should be a good thing.
As usual, the dominant conservative power structure has it backwards. It is wrong to be making Americans spend more hours per week and more years of their lives on the job. No one’s saying that a person who wants to work should be forced out of a job, but we should be making it possible for people to retire earlier, not later-especially those who have the backbreaking or body-poisoning jobs that are threatening their chance to have a retirement at all.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: email@example.com