BOSTON - As if it weren't bad enough to see the image of "senior citizens" transformed into "greedy geezers," now they're morphing into "lazy geezers." It seems that Social Security recipients are gradually being redefined as members of the leisure class.
The plan to reform Social Security by partially privatizing accounts is going nowhere, but another idea is creeping into the public consciousness: Raise the age of retirement.
This notion recently came up in the Senate, where the average age is 60 and heavy lifting consists of dialing for dollars. The 71-year-old chairman of the Finance Committee, Charles E. Grassley, talked about lifting the age for full benefits to 69.
I understand the math behind the madness. Americans are living longer and retiring earlier. A 65-year-old can expect to live to 83, 4 1/2 years longer than in 1940. In 1950, 46 percent of men 65 and older were working. That went down to 16 percent in 1985 and has barely crept back up to 20 percent. Today, more than three-quarters of Americans take their reduced benefits before they are 65. And - alarms, please - the baby boomers are coming!
But the image remakers are also counting on the bifocal vision of aging. These days, along with the stories about burgeoning nursing homes, we have musician Les Paul celebrating his 90th birthday by performing at Carnegie Hall. While we know 60 percent of workers retire at 62, we see 62-year-old Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. gearing up for a promotion to president. If, as the trendies love to say, 40 is the new 30, we fondly hope that 65 is the new 55.
This dual vision is why folks such as C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban Institute say that Social Security is becoming a "middle-age retirement system." It's why retired Americans are being quietly reframed as the leisure class living off the younger generation.
Well, I am someone whose greatest occupational hazard is a computer crash. I have no more reason to stop writing than I have to stop talking. But if 65 is the new 55, tell it to folks who work on their feet or with their backs all day. Today, 38 percent of those who retire early were forcibly retired by illness or downsizing. It's harder and takes longer to get another job after 55. Early retirement can be just another word for unemployment.
A recent survey done by Civic Ventures says that baby boomers want to continue working at jobs that do "good work." But when a huge proportion of the working population takes a reduced benefit to get out of work earlier, we can assume that they are leaving jobs they don't like. Or jobs where they aren't valued.
One of the best-kept secrets is that we have already raised the age of full retirement to 65 1/2 . It's increasing by two months a year until 2027, when it will be 67. Raising the retirement age further is nothing but an attempt, in economist Alicia Munnell's phrase, "to find a socially acceptable way of cutting benefits." Before this gets out of hand, we have to ask whether this is the best reform. We also have to ask why it's becoming more socially acceptable to target older Americans than richer Americans.
Want to talk about age and class? Try two other proposals for Social Security reform. The first is to raise the ceiling on earnings over $90,000. The second and most elegant idea comes from nonagenarian and former Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball: Designate the estate tax to shore up Social Security.
Under current law, the tax will only apply to estates worth more than $3.5 million by 2009. But two months ago, the House voted to permanently repeal the entire estate tax, and the Senate is fiddling with compromise efforts.
A tax repeal on the richest 2 percent of Americans would cost $745 billion in the first 10 years. Using that money to support Social Security instead of an oligarchy would make up a third of the shortfall.
All in all, it's likely that healthy Americans will be working longer. It's a matter of disappearing pensions and dicey 401(k)s, as well as longer lives. Many of us expect to and/or want to work. We are already hearing buzzwords such as "phased retirement," and economists are hopeful that employers will make work more attractive to older workers as they run short of younger ones.
But the worst thing we can do is raise the retirement age - What's next, Medicare? Private pensions? - before we figure out how to deal with able and willing elders. This is the time to remain conscientious objectors in the leisure class warfare.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.