Whatever Happened to Retirement?

At some point during my reading of “Work, Retire, Repeat: The Uncertainty of Retirement in the New Economy,” I realized I was engaging with the content through three intertwined lenses—as a 68-year-old who works, as an ardent student of the topic of aging and as the founder of a group called Aging While Black.

Written by Teresa Ghilarducci, the Bernard L. and Irene Schwartz professor of economics at the New School for Social Research, director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis and the New School’s Retirement Equity Lab, “Work, Retire, Repeat” (University of Chicago Press, 2024) examines the wide array of realities older adults face as they retire or find themselves working later in life. It’s a meaningful, engaging and accessible book that deals with subject matter that will only increase in importance.

Here are my three takeaways from “Work, Retire, Repeat.”

Older Americans’ experience in later life can be vastly different, depending upon finances.

Ghilarducci passionately argues there are two retirements and two older age work environments happening in America today—one for those with resources and one for those without.

She shares a powerful story of an 82-year-old U.S. Navy veteran facing involuntary retirement from his job at a familiar name big box store, with insufficient pension or savings to survive. A younger coworker posts about him on TiKTok and GoFundMe and raises $100,000 to give the veteran some hope of survival.

Are people expected to work until someone offers “a random act of kindness,” Ghilarducci asks, or are we heading for “a TikTok pension system”?

My experience is, thankfully, different from the Navy veteran’s. Because of the many roles I have occupied in my 50-plus years of work, some good advice and a lot of good fortune, I have resources to support me in my older years. Through my life in government, private business and the nonprofit sector, I am able to access a pension, Social Security and personal retirement savings.

This is not the norm in America.

Ghilarducci cites research from 2019 showing “over 40 percent of older middle-class workers were on the path to becoming poor or near-poor retirees.” The realities are even more stark for low-income older adults. Not only are they not experiencing the joys of longer, healthier lives, they face deep struggles to find work, even to survive.

The book raises critical questions: Who deserves to retire? How long should people work before they retire? And who is responsible for the resources needed to retire with dignity?

I was left with an abiding sense of appreciation for my good fortune and a sense of obligation to do something to improve the lives of others.

The systems that support aging and work in America need immediate attention.

Right now, Ghilarducci says the “working-longer consensus”—a group of actors and actions that advance the ideas of reduced pensions and longer working lives—is “exacerbating inequality,” creating “bad retirement policy,” and “pushing older people to work longer out of sheer necessity.”

Of course, no conversation on systems that support aging in America would be complete without an examination of Social Security and Medicare. Ghilarducci points to the 1983 cut in benefits and revenue increases agreed to by President Reagan and Congress as a pivotal moment. She argues that the distinctions made at that time between “full retirement age,” “full benefit,” and “maximum benefit” are more than nuance. They fundamentally changed retirement and working into old age in America.

The demise of defined pensions also is a key driver of later-life struggles. Again, in the 1980s, Congress, with help from employers, shifted from “defined benefits” to “defined contributions,” effectively redefining the pension system in America. For Ghilarducci this represents a seismic shift with aftershocks still being experienced by older people today.

‘Are we heading for “a TikTok pension system”?’

Academics and journalists contribute to the “working-longer consensus,” Ghilarducci contends. For example, a 2012 report by the National Research Council offered the “regrettable view that U.S. retirement policy is overly generous because healthier Americans are not working longer than they were in the past.”

Another example: The “Economist” magazine “uncritically” covered a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that concluded “employment of older workers is vital if prosperity is to be maintained.” Even AARP puts out stories about “super seniors” climbing mountains at 100, the author writes, all contributing to the “working-longer consensus,” all putting their thumbs on the scales.

Together, the book concludes, journalists, researchers and others have conspired to effectively undermine the very systems that were designed to provide economic security, quality of life and a period of rest after working for older Americans. I am not certain all of actors mentioned are knowing participants in Ghilarducci’s conspiracy, but the impact of their actions is undeniable.

The good news: Ghilarducci puts forth a clear strategy to turn things around in her Gray New Deal, including calls for establishing an Older Workers Bureau at the Department of Labor, revamping worker training and programs, and enforcing anti-discrimination laws, along with a campaign to end stereotypes of older people. I found myself wrestling with some of her ideas, but they are thoughtful, supported by copious research, and worthy of consideration.

The realities of aging and race are largely overlooked.

I was largely impressed with Ghilarducci’s work, but she almost completely ignores the intersection of aging and race.

I have spent the last few years of my life building a movement known as Aging While Black. At the very core of this movement is lifting up the experiences, perspectives and voices of Black elders in America. These were missing in action.

There is aging in America. And then, there is aging while Black in America. For many older Black Americans, Social Security is not just a safety net; it is their sole source of income. In fact, for half of Black Americans, Social Security constitutes a staggering 90% of their total income. The reasons behind this reliance are multifaceted and include limited access to workplace-based saving opportunities, occupational segregation, and historical wage gaps and employment discrimination.

Moreover, higher rates of disability and shorter life expectancies in the Black community result in a greater reliance on disability insurance and survivor benefits. This is particularly significant for older Black women, who are often disproportionately affected due to longer lifespans and caregiving duties across generations.

I share this information for a couple of reasons. First, it matters greatly to me. Second, I sincerely believe that it serves to bolster the vitally important case that Ghilarducci puts forth on this vitally important issue.

“Work, Retire, Repeat” is written with passion, precision and prescription. It has valuable insights, and I strongly encourage you to read it. Just be clear on what’s here—and what isn’t.

Raymond A. Jetson is the president and CEO of the nonprofit MetroMorphosis in Baton Rouge, La., has served as a state legislator in Louisiana, is a board secretary at CoGenerate and founder of Aging While Black.

Photo credit: Shutterstock/Kleber Cordeiro