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My Time by Abigail Trafford

We Ain't Heavy . . .

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page HE01

I am sick of being blamed for bankrupting the country's future. The coming collapse of Social Security, soaring drug costs in Medicare, the breakdown of Medicaid -- all my fault! Because I and millions of others are growing older and are about to become eligible for these giant public programs.

As the politicians draw swords on Social Security, they picture me as a bloated do-nothing lump being carried on the backs of three struggling workers. Once there were 16 hardy workers to support a single beneficiary, the president explained to the nation. Soon there'll be only two poor devils for the task, straining and groaning under my increasing bulk, until one day their backs break and the country crashes.

Meanwhile I'm snatching food from the mouths of my grandchildren. The experts weigh in with weapons of generational destruction. "The question is whether we can support the elderly with a decent standard of living without imposing a crushing burden on the young," Richard Jackson, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told The Post.

In short, I'm a social menace. No wonder young people fear aging. At this point, you'd think I'd be pretty depressed. Instead, I'm angry. The politicians and pundits don't get it. They don't see the potential in an older, healthier population. Rather than a burden, I am an asset. I can help meet the challenge of creating a safe and healthy environment for future generations. If I'm given the chance.

"It's time to cut the doom and gloom," quipped AARP CEO William D. Novelli. Last week at a press conference in Washington, he laid out an alternative vision for the future entitled "How America Can Afford to Grow Older."

The organization, with more than 35 million members over age 50, is focusing on Social Security. (AARP is mounting a campaign against using payroll taxes for private investment accounts, while supporting efforts to increase savings, including a universal 401(k) plan for all workers.) But the battle over Social Security should lead to a much broader debate on economic security in an aging society.

What really needs a radical overhaul is the notion of retirement. Surveys suggest that the majority of boomers plan to work in their so-called retirement years. But this will involve a redefinition of work. Some will work full time, others part time. Some will stay in the jobs they have. Most want to go on to new kinds of jobs. The buzzwords are "bridge jobs," "partial retirement" and "flexible work."

Having a job would allow men and women to supplement their income from Social Security and other sources such as pensions and savings, reducing the risk of poverty. A second benefit is psychological. People need a purpose and meaningful activity. With work, "they stay engaged and productive," explained Novelli. And third, those who stay in the labor force will continue to pay taxes, which help fund government programs -- from national defense to education -- that benefit people of all ages.

In this vision of the future, instead of being a burden, the Social Security beneficiary is walking side by side with younger workers, contributing to the economy.

But where are the jobs for those who officially retire -- or are eased out of the workforce? That's the real long-term financial challenge to the country.

Age discrimination in the workplace begins around the age of 40. "We need to educate employers about the ability and affordability of older workers," he said. "We must inform older people about the opportunities and advantages of work. And we need government policies for employers to hire older workers and for individuals to keep working." Where necessary, that would include legislation and litigation to overcome age discrimination.

President Bush doesn't go far enough when he talks about Social Security. As he said in the State of the Union address: "Our society has changed in ways the founders of Social Security could not have foreseen. In today's world, people are living longer and therefore drawing benefits longer. . . ." The first part of that statement is right. A demographic revolution has occurred, creating an unprecedented generation of older men and women, and the majority of them are in good health.

So, here's what I wish the president had said: "In today's world, people are living longer, and therefore we need to find ways to tap the potential of this bonus generation. We shall never lose sight of our responsibility to care for the sick and the frail -- of any age. But we must create new programs to take advantage of the talents and experience of our older citizens. . . ." •

Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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