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<nettime> the end of retirement?
Doug Henwood on Tue, 21 Dec 2004 09:42:35 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> the end of retirement?


[a friend who wishes to remain anonymous asked me to post this - Doug]

Happy Sixty-Fifth Birthday; Now Get Back to Work

by Stanley Morgan
The Brooklyn Rail

One of the most important far-left ideas floating around in the 1980s
was the critique of modern wage-slavery, as articulated by the
Zerowork group and a host of anarchist essayists, most notably Bob
Black, author of "The Abolition of Work." The argument went like
this: While ultra-rationalized production, technological progress,
and general abundance were supposed to have created a society of
leisure and plenitude, the vast majority of people in the West are in
fact still forced to spend half their waking hours chained to a desk,
with their every movement monitored by managers and computers, and
only short measured breaks for lunch, until they're finally set free
at age sixty-five.

Well, all that's changed now--but unfortunately, it's not the
wage-slavery part, it's the age sixty-five part. We now face
something that the most hardened Reagan-era anarch couldn't have
imagined: the abolition of _retirement_. Anyone paying attention to
the government's continued attacks on Social Security, the slow death
of the corporate pension, and the recent million-fold increases in
the cost of medical insurance has to wonder: How in the world will
anyone but the very rich ever be able to stop working? The answer is
simple enough: They won't.

Though this trend may not play out for another decade or two, there
are clear signs that it's already in motion. In a recent speech,
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan suggested that, due to
increasing demands on the system, government programs like Social
Security and Medicare, as well as corporate retirement plans, need to
be "recalibrated"--that is, scaled back. He also recommended that
"policies promoting longer working lives," due to increased lifespans
and better health. Increased lifespans? Better health? Maybe. But one
way or the other, the decision to continue working past the current
retirement age probably won't be a freely made one. The newspapers
are full of stories of seventy-five-year-olds coming out of
retirement to become greeters at Wal-Mart stores--not something a
retiree does for the fun of it. And the number of bankruptcies among
the elderly, a group not especially prone to bankruptcy in the past,
has suddenly skyrocketed in the past few years. In addition, mortgage
and credit card debt have been soaring among retirees.

***

The most common reason given for the downturn in the fortunes of the
elderly is the ever-rising cost of health care. Fair enough: With the
price of drugs climbing faster than shares of Pets.com stock in 1999,
elderly people are obviously going to be particularly hard hit. But
there are other explanations. One is that, with the dismal employment
situation of the past few years, many retirees are suddenly having to
support their grown children who have lost their jobs--not a small
burden for someone living on a modest, fixed income. And the elderly
have plenty of first-hand problems to worry about. One particularly
horrifying example is the recent phenomenon of companies reducing
retirement benefits _for people who are already retired_--that is,
reneging on deals that in many cases were cut decades ago, for people
who have long since left the payroll. This is a step being taken not
only by companies that have gone bankrupt (though, even in these
cases, executives haven't had to give up a dime of _their_ bonuses),
but, more brazenly, by companies that are perfectly solvent. Not
surprisingly, this has become much easier to do recently thanks to
legislation introduced with little fanfare by the Bush administration
(in exchange for some judiciously placed corporate donations).

So what about the next generation of retirees? A recent article in
the Wall Street Journal ("More Firms Look at Two-Tier Plans for
Compensation," Sep. 1, 2004) sheds some light on their possible fate:
Where it may be too difficult or impolitic to pull the rug out from
people who have already been hired, "companies, looking to cut labor
costs without direct layoffs, increasingly are adopting a second
compensation system for new workers to give them lower pay and
benefits." Among the executives quoted in the article is a spokesman
for Caterpillar, Inc., who says the new pay structure "will allow us
to better align with the market--still paying people very fair, very
competitive wages, but wages that are more in line with what it takes
to remain competitive."

Again, this isn't a desperate measure being taken by companies that
are hanging on for dear life. According to a researcher at the
Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations quoted in the same
article, "It's important to emphasize that this isn't necessarily a
function of profits getting squeezed, but of corporate management
taking advantage of a relatively weak situation that labor finds
itself in." In other words--with a rabidly business-friendly group
running the country, and workers in constant terror of losing their
jobs--corporations are slashing or eliminating benefits for future
retirees simply because they can.

***

As for the modest government-provided benefits that American workers
could always count on, regardless of the company pensions they may or
may not have coming, they're looking like less of a sure thing all
the time. The attacks on Social Security that have been underway for
years now have become far more ferocious under the Bush
administration. Thanks in part to the massive tax cuts, primarily for
the very rich, that have been pushed through since 2001, proponents
of "privatization" have finally been able to provoke the funding
crisis that they had been pretending existed all along. The result
will undoubtedly be the "recalibration" of Social Security that Alan
Greenspan longs for, as well as a move toward privately managed
accounts; these will provide a windfall for Wall Street money
managers while making non-market-savvy accountholders dangerously
vulnerable to the kinds of scams that ran rampant in the late
nineties. (Think of the many current retirees that have already lost
their nest eggs in the crash of the over-hyped nineties bull market.)
There's also the non-trivial problem of finding the money to pay the
people who will be retiring in the next few years, a dilemma that
everyone involved seems to be ignoring.

In short, team up a "soft labor market" with an administration
dedicated to wringing every penny out of the middle and lower classes
for redistribution to the corporate elite, and the result is the most
worker-hostile environment seen in this country in many, many years.
Suddenly, the idea of even a moderately well-paid worker building up
enough of a cushion to take it easy for twenty years seems as
implausible as a Horatio Alger fairy tale. Would replacing Bush with
a Democrat change this? Not much, especially with each Democratic
politician desperate to prove that he's more business-friendly than
the next. (And remember that many of the corporation-hugging policies
being pursued by the Bush administration were first floated during
the Clinton years, if somewhat less rapaciously.) Could it be that
what we're seeing now is temporary, just the trough in the normal
fluctuation of the business cycle? Well, if it was at first it isn't
any longer, as the super-rich cleverly scurry to get grossly unfair
policies codified as law in ways that could take a half-century or
more to undo. A popular rebellion against the semi-competent CEOs
making five hundred times as much as the average worker may or may
not be coming soon, but a complete restructuring of Social Security
and the repeal of the estate tax will be a lot harder to roll back.

As for the quasi-paternalistic corporate benefits packages that
became standard fifty years ago, there are few laws safeguarding
those. Times change, and generous corporate pensions' time seems to
have passed. It could take ages to regain that lost ground, and the
next generation--growing up without benefits--may not even think to
complain about it. How many people today remember that
employer-funded medical insurance once meant insurance that was
actually free?

Lower wages, subsidies for the very rich from everyone else,
drastically scaled-back Social Security and Medicare, the end of
corporate pensions, untrammelled (and unprosecuted) executive greed
and corruption, stratospheric medical costs, and massive debt
incurred to pay for it all--put it together and what do you get: more
work, if not from the cradle, then most certainly to the grave.

Stanley Morgan is a writer based on Wall Street.


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