The End of Retirement as We Know It

More

"I don't know if it's ever going to be realistic that everyone saves enough to spend the last third of their life on vacation."

That quote is from Allison Schrager, and it's my favorite line in my newest column for the magazine. The column is on the equity premium, why it might not be realistic to expect such high returns from the stock market in the future--and what that implies for our retirement savings if this turns out to be the case.

That's what I thought of when I read this, from Jon Cohn:

But ask yourself the same question you should have been asking then: To what extent is the problem that the retirement benefits for unionized public sector workers have become too generous? And to what extent is the problem that retirement benefits for everybody else have become too stingy?

I would suggest it's more the latter than the former. The promise of stable retirement--one not overly dependent on the ups and downs of the stock market--used to be part of the social contract. If you got an education and worked a steady job, then you got to live out the rest of your life comfortably. You might not be rich, but you wouldn't be poor, either.

Unions, whatever their flaws, have delivered on that for their members. (In theory, retirement was supposed to rest on a "three-legged stool" of Social Security, pensions, and private benefits.) But unions have not been able to secure similar benefits for everybody else. That's why the gap exists, although perhaps not for long.

The fact is that local and state goverments have promised a lot more than they can deliver financially, in part because people love public services but hate to pay the taxes for them. In the short term, then, budget cuts are probably inevitable. And, in this political universe, the likely alternative to reducing public employee compensation is cutting essential services for people who are just as worthy and quite likely more needy.

In the long term, though, it seems like we should be looking for ways make sure that all workers have a decent living and a stable retirement, rather than taking away the security that some, albeit too few, have already. But that's a conversation about shared vulnerability and shared prosperity--a conversation we don't seem to be having right now.

It was nice that a combination of rising life expectancy and broader pension coverage allowed a large segment of American workers to take what amounted to a multi-decade vacation.  (Though this was never quite as widespread as people now "remember").  But this was never going to be sustainable.  Retirement experts typically say that retirees should shoot for 75-90% of their working income in retirement (the theory being that some expenses fall, but other expenses rise, and you don't need to save for retirement when you're already retired).

That's fine when the ratio of workers to retirees is 1:12, as it was within the Social Security system in the early years.  But by the time you get to 5:1, it starts to pinch--assuming everyone has the same income, each worker has to toss at least 15% of their own income into the pot to support the retirees.  Once you get to 2:1--which is where we're rapidly headed--33% of your income is going to support someone in retirement.  Woe betide you if you also have kids.

It's important to note that this is true no matter how retirement is funded.  Whether you collect a dividend check, get a corporate pension, or live off your social security, your retirement is funded by real claims on the output of people in the workforce.  Private pensions have a couple of advantages:  the investments that fund them actually help make the economy more productive, unlike transfer payments; and they aren't necessarily indexed to inflation, so over time, as incomes grow, it becomes easier to support the older retirees.  But they don't eliminate the problem; they merely mitigate it.

Mathematically, society simply cannot have a high and growing dependency ratio--at least, not if the retirees expect to be supported in the style to which they have become accustomed.  (I take it that this is what is meant by "a decent living and a stable retirement").  We can warehouse people in spartan old folks homes (or treat them like kids and move them into the spare bedroom), in which case they can enjoy a lengthy retirement.  Or they can retire for less time, and live more lavishly.  But there is no conceivable system that is going to allow the vast majority of the population to spend a full third of their adult life in retirement, at anything like the same standard of living they had when they were working.  Jon Cohn's wish to spread the bounty of pubic sector pensions more broadly seems like, well, wishful thinking.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

Just In