Pension plans across America are in trouble, and the pain is only just beginning. The problem is simple: too many promises have been made to too many people, and the money is running out. Europe got to this point ahead of us, so we can to some extent see the options laid out for us. The short lesson is that it’s better to be Germany than most of the others. To some extent Germany’s (comparatively) strong economic situation stems from its success in tackling the pension problem head-on. Reforms are hard, but lying about the situation ultimately benefits no one. People need to accept that as life expectancies increase, working lives will also need to be extended. It isn’t realistic to expect that everyone can have twenty or thirty years of comfortable retirement at the end of their lives.
There is a glass-half-full way to see this. More life, more work and more health should be a good thing! Why should we be bemoaning the opportunity to do more things before we die? Now, it’s true that people tend to get tired of their jobs after two or three decades, which is presumably one reason why they fight so hard to keep the retirement age low. The call of shuffleboard may be less powerful than the desire simply to move on to something new. Perhaps what we need, then, is a second-career society, in which it is common for people to move on to a new career at some point in their fifties or early sixties.
There would be some obstacles, of course. New careers will mean retraining and lost experience. There will also be some awkward etiquette issues to resolve, since most jobs tend to move employees from more junior status towards greater seniority (and along with that, greater salary and benefits). People won’t want to start at the very bottom of the ladder when they start their second careers, although, I do have to note that it actually makes sense for older people to accept a cut in salary in exchange for pleasanter, less onerous duties. People need money the most when their children are growing up, so it isn’t really optimal for us to achieve our greatest earning power at 60.
In any event, I think all these problems are soluble. A 2-career working life is already common in some parts of society (e.g. the military) and I think expanding the practice could be enormously beneficial. It would help people to see longer working lives as an opportunity instead of a curse. It would make workplaces diverse in a way that’s actually useful, as people bring skills and expertise from their previous jobs. And, it could be part of a larger movement towards a different kind of workplace, in which less energy is invested in piling up useless educational credentials, and more in showing what you can do.