The developing social contract of a new generation

This is my Sunday column for the Aug. 4, 2013 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The developing social contract of a new generation
By Aaron J. Brown

When I graduated from high school in 1998, my classmates and I walked out of the Cherry High School gym and formed a receiving line to shake hands with our families, teachers and friends. At one point during the proceeding my best friend Joe leaned over to me and whispered, with laser-guided earnestness, “Only four years of college and about 30 more years until retirement now.”

At the time I was flabbergasted and suppose I still am, although for different reasons. At the time I couldn’t fathom thinking about retirement. Now, I look at the concept of retiring after 30 years as a novelty whose time, rightly or wrongly, has passed.

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For one thing, the health care costs associated with retiring early are simply too great — especially under our current privately delivered health care system. Fewer employers offer pensions. Pensions are less stable. Fewer people stay in one job or even one vocation for 30 years. And not everyone bothers to invest for retirement on their own. Some do. Some don’t. Some can’t.

The kinds of retirement benefits won by the collective bargaining process after WWII are being thrown away by voters and politicians all over the country in the winds of contemporary politics. We could argue about whether that’s good or bad, but there’s no use. It’s already done. We’ll salvage what we can, but we are nonetheless entering the age of the Independent Contractor. Good luck to us, we’ll need it.

Further, we are starting to see a big divide in the kinds of work people do. Some careers are easier to do well into the lives of healthy 60-somethings or even 70-somethings. Others break backs, wear out people’s bodies, and leave them ready for a well-earned rest at a younger age.

Case in point, I started teaching at a community college when I was just 24. I was full time by the time I was 25. That means I’ll log 30 years at age 55 if I stick with it. Now, there are ways for me to “retire” at that age, but is that really what I imagine doing? Honestly, no. I might leave teaching, though I wouldn’t have to and might not. I’ll work well into my 60s and probably need to, if my health holds up.

How does the current generation of workers see retirement? Well, retirement will be a possibility, but making it work across the entire system of American government and private economy will require the development of a new understanding of retirement.

That’s the argument found in a July 21, 2013 piece from the European Voice, “The next social contract” by Turkish economist Kermal Davis. His concepts include indoctrinating the idea of life-long learning and re-training. He also advocates the widespread adoption of gradual retirement as workers age. Workers phasing out of work, rather than just walking out the door with a watch, holds many benefits both to the employer, but also to the taxpayers, and — perhaps — to the worker themselves.

The overall objective should be a society in which, health permitting, citizens work and pay taxes until close to the age of 70, but less intensively with advancing age and in a flexible manner that reflects individual circumstances. In fact, gradual and flexible retirement would in many cases benefit not only employers and governments, but also workers themselves, because continued occupational engagement is often a source of personal satisfaction and emotionally enriching social interaction.

It’s an idea that’s gained a lot of momentum already in some fields. Several faculty members I know are choosing phased retirements from teaching instead of hard exits. I know millwrights who do the same at the local power plant, and others who pick up consulting work in their field after a career in mining. It could become the norm.

The next generation of workers is still developing its consciousness about what a career means. Both my friend Joe and I have changed our careers since graduating college. Him even more often than me. Other friends of mine now in their 20s and 30s approach jobs as individual, specific opportunities that might not last long.

Life can easily become a string of such jobs, so what lies at the end? I think we need to accept the idea that we don’t know yet, and it could get bumpy.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and instructor at Hibbing Community College. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio (KAXE.org).

Comments

  1. Retirement is a relatively new concept. It’s beginning can be traced to a desire to push older workers out. People are more different as they age, aging in different ways at different rates.

  2. Retirement is a relatively new concept. It’s beginning can be traced to a desire to push older workers out. People are more different as they age, aging in different ways at different rates.

  3. We are living what you are speaking of. His employer stopped putting into pensions some years ago. Job got to be too many hours/week as he aged [often more than 80/week.] So he changed jobs. This worked out for 7 years, but contract ended, job over. Now paying COBRA insurance (yikes!!!) Chance for new job, part time, but must pay insurance. Oh well. But need some income.

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