Pensions Unzipped

In protesting their lost company pensions, United Airlines calendar
In protesting their lost company pensions, United Airlines calendar "girls" don't hide their anger -- or much else. (Bruce Baker)
By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, November 29, 2005

'Tis the season for calendars, and the grabber this holiday season is the "Stewardesses Stripped (of their Pension?)" calendar for 2006.

It features five gorgeous 50-plus women in the buff, covered with enough feathers to permit display in the kitchen but showing enough skin to get public attention.

These current and former flight attendants for United Airlines are protesting the loss of their company-funded pensions and they make Diane Keaton, the menopausal chick icon of the movie "Something's Gotta Give," seem like a Victorian prude.

Something has definitely got to give, according to the Stews, as they call themselves. When United Airlines went bankrupt in December 2002, the company turned its pension obligations over to the federal government.

The Stews have just started to receive their monthly checks from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC). But the government agency that covers pension defaults is running a deficit of $23.5 billion, and the Stews worry that their checks may be reduced in the future. They are also angry at getting dumped by their employer. Taking off their clothes was a way to expose "the naked truth that no retirement fund is completely secure," their mission statement says. Instead of "coffee, tea, or me," they are asking: "Are your butts covered? We thought ours were, too!" ( )

Welcome to the conundrum of funding the "retirement" years. The question is framed as a math problem: Can the country afford to grow old? The fear is that as people live longer, they will outlive their private resources (savings, 401(k) plans) and exhaust public resources (Social Security and Medicare). Poverty in old age threatens to turn the golden years into decades of lead.

As profound as any research tome, the Stewardesses Stripped calendar captures the three trends that are coming together to create the perfect crash of the American Dream.

Most obvious is the turmoil in corporate America. Pensions, once as certain as a gold watch, are endangered. Last month, the U.S. auto-parts giant, Delphi Corp., filed for bankruptcy, throwing pensions and other benefits in doubt. Meanwhile, the number of companies that offer pensions has dwindled as employers shift to personal retirement accounts such as 401(k)s, which put the financial responsibility and risk on the individual. The meltdown of traditional pensions already has the media spotlight with headlines like "The Great Retirement Ripoff." Or as Ms. February puts it in the calendar: "If your pension is terminated, will you be left with only a wing and a prayer?"

Rarely mentioned in connection with pensions is the second trend: improved health. The Stews, who range in age from 55 to 64, embody Ultra Health. Fit and sexy, they give new meaning to an AARP magazine headline that "60 is the new 30." Researchers estimate that Americans have on average gained 10 biological years over their grandparents at the same age. This expanded "health span" -- additional years of healthy life -- is the driving force behind the longevity boom. The emergence of a very healthy older population has the potential to change the economic and political structure of the country -- for the better. Indeed, the Stews are too "young" to "retire."

But the main obstacle to fulfilling that potential is the third trend: Ageism in the workplace. Where are the jobs for people who officially retire and need to work because they don't have the resources to support themselves for another 20, 30, 40 years? Political leaders blithely suggest that the long-term solution to sustaining Social Security and private retirement benefits is for men and women to work longer.

"Who's going to hire me at 60 years old when they can hire a 30-year old or a 40-year old?" asks Connie Baker (Ms. August), who turns 60 next month. "Do I want to be a greeter at Wal-Mart? I don't know about that one." Her husband, who took the photos of the Stews for the calendar, was a realtor. "How do we secure jobs in this age bracket? It's a dilemma," continues Baker, a grandmother.

Congress is working on legislation to strengthen the private pension system. But it also needs to deal with age discrimination and the lack of job opportunities for older Americans. Last week AARP expanded its list of "geezer-friendly" companies that are committed to recruiting, hiring and retaining workers aged 50 and over. The employers range from CVS to Cingular Wireless.

But the private sector alone can't solve the financial problems of living longer. The government needs to take the lead in fighting ageism and designing programs to enable the healthy to remain productive. Apart from Medicare and Social Security, issues of aging are not high on the political agenda.

Meanwhile, Connie Baker finds that she is already on to her next job: creating the Stewardesses Stripped calendar for 2007.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company