Ball and chain: the human cost of raising the retirement age

Original Reporting | By Diana Jean Schemo |

January 11, 2011 — In Kristin Barrett’s retirement dream, she finally gets to travel, and gradually ratchets down her work as a consultant helping non-profit groups apply for grants. Her children have grown up, and her house is paid off. She and her husband rent an apartment in Paris, using it as a base to explore the French countryside.

Strikingly, these kind of proposals for “reinventing” Social Security tend to be debated in terms of their impact on the financial health of the system itself, not in terms of their impact on the overall well-being of the people the system is supposed to serve.

How might that dream look if she had to continue working full-time until she was 69 or 70 to collect Social Security? Barrett paused a moment. She is 30 years old, and had never thought about the possibility of having to work another 40 years to retirement. She has not yet built her family, or even met the husband whom she pictures at her side when she retires. “To me,” Barrett said, “it’s far away.”

Many of the prescriptions to “fix” Social Security — like the plan supported by several members of the Deficit Reduction Commission chaired by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles — recommend reducing payments to some workers and gradually delaying the age at which senior workers can collect benefits.

Strikingly, these kind of proposals for “reinventing” Social Security tend to be debated in terms of their impact on the financial health of the system itself, not in terms of their impact on the overall well-being of the people the system is supposed to serve.

And continuation down the path set by a 1983 Social Security Reform law — a law that was supposed to provide a long-term fix for Social Security — is taken as a given. That law began a process which gradually raises the eligibility age for collecting full benefits from 65 to 67 over the 20-year period that begin in 1998.

work and retirement experiences vary

There are, of course, people who desire to continue working past age 65, and more who might want to do so if there were more options in terms of the structure of work or if older workers were treated better in the workplace than they often are today. But Remapping Debate believed that it was important to focus on one under-reported aspect of the story: the emotional and other costs of having to spend what are typically the most robust years of retirement still on the job, even when one is quite ready to leave. 

The slow pace of change in the 1983 legislation averted a sudden shock to workers in their 50s and 60s when the legislation passed. That is, those who were closest to retirement — and who would have likely been most vigorous in fighting the change — were still allowed to retire at age 65.

Similarly, a majority of members of the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Commission want to raise the minimum age for collecting full benefits to 69 by 2075. The people who would absorb its final impact are in kindergarten now, and no one is evaluating whether withholding full benefits from them until age 69 (or, perhaps, later, if another “Deficit Reduction Commission” explains that further restrictions are the only way to proceed), furthers or undermines the public good.

In considering Social Security, policy makers and the public seem almost intent on averting their eyes from “the big picture” said Stephen Scheinthal, a geriatric psychiatrist who is associate director of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s School of Osteopathic Medicine. “There’s an idea that, ‘We’re going to do this, we’re going to do this, and be damned with what the realities are.’ And the realities are significant.”

“There needs to be a way,” Scheinthal added, “to assess it beyond the finances.”


A school teacher’s journey

For most of her 40 years as a teacher, Hene Kelly looked forward to leaving home for school every morning. She taught English to middle and high school students in Chicago, Oakland and San Francisco, relishing the sense of discovery she could spark. So absorbed was she in her work, she often neglected to collect her paycheck, and ultimately had to sign up for direct deposit. “It was never about the money for me,” she said.

Friends and co-workers considered Kelly perky and creative as a teacher. She seldom sat behind a desk, which struck her as a barrier between her and her students, preferring instead to teach standing by the board and walking through the room. But 40 years on her feet, day after day, carried a toll. By 60, Kelly’s feet and back ached, and she found she had bladder issues — the result, her doctor advised her, of years of postponing trips to the bathroom when she taught for several periods straight. Those last years teaching, the energy she put into her students no longer fueled Kelly, but flattened her. “I would come home and have to lie down,” she said. “When I went to bed my feet hurt all the way up to my shoulders.”

Kelly retired at 62, collecting smaller monthly benefits in Social Security as a result. She relished her newfound freedom, joining a gym, hiking and reconnecting with friends. “I loved it,” she recalled. “I got a chance to read books. I started walking and exercising.”

She has used her retirement to travel extensively, especially in those early years, visiting Vietnam, Japan and China. She took a trans-Atlantic cruise to Europe. She even got to see Peru with her daughter.

But with each year, Kelly said, she can enjoy less and less of the places she visits. When she and her daughter got to Machu Pichu, the ancient Inca site in the mountains of Peru, she didn’t have the energy to climb its stone steps. Instead, she and her daughter stayed at the base, gazing up at Machu Pichu from a café.

A few years ago, Kelly underwent surgery to ease the suffering of spinal stenosis, but Kelly — now 68 — can no longer walk long distances. Her husband is 67, and just retiring now. Even in these few years since her own retirement, her possibilities for seeing the world with him or exploring new interests have diminished measurably.

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