Ready, Set . . . Retire?

By Stan Hinden
Sunday, December 25, 2005

I'm glad I'm not a baby boomer. Not that I wouldn't like to be 58 again, instead of 78. It would take me back to the days before I had to learn about heart surgery, arthritis and hearing aids. But the truth is, I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of any one of those 78 million baby boomers who are fast approaching retirement.

I know several boomers well -- my three children, aged 51, 49 and 45. From what I can see, they and their peers are not going to have an easy time when they retire. The seeds of their distress are already planted. As my kids look ahead, they see an uncertain future for Social Security, soaring health and Medicare costs, broken pension promises and the loss of many of their investment dollars to corporate corruption.

When the oldest boomers retire, the federal government, with its huge deficits, will be gushing red ink. That, in turn, will put the squeeze on social programs that aid many older Americans, especially low-income individuals. Worse yet, many boomers will go into retirement with only modest savings. According to a recent study , half of American workers over the age of 55 have saved less than $50,000.

I encountered these concerns -- and others -- at the recent White House Conference on Aging , which is held every 10 years. The goal of the 2005 conference was developing policy recommendations to help the country prepare for what's been called a "demographic tidal wave." I went to the conference to see whether I could discern any sign of a master plan for coping with the vast health and social needs of the boomers -- those born between 1946 and 1964. On Jan. 1, the first of the boomers will turn 60 -- bringing them within two years of retirement, since they can start taking Social Security at 62.

I did not find a master plan. If there was one, it was in a thousand pieces waiting to be stapled together. I watched as the 1,200 delegates -- men and women from all over the country and all walks of life -- attached individual recommendations to 50 resolutions. Among the key topics addressed were Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Older Americans Act (OAA), long-term care, medical education, transportation and senior centers.

Not surprisingly, many of the delegates' recommendations called for additional federal spending for existing programs and included ideas for new services and programs. There were no price tags attached to the wish lists. But it was clear that delegates were asking for a considerable amount of new money at a time when Congress is cutting some $40 billion from the federal budget by reducing spending on Medicare, Medicaid, student loans and other programs. So there was a curious disparity between what was happening at the conference and what was taking place on Capitol Hill.

On the second day of the conference, Congress eliminated $31.5 million in funding for three programs to train doctors and health care workers in geriatrics -- just as delegates were voting in favor of two resolutions to expand geriatric education. A chagrined Robert N. Butler, a physician who is president of the International Longevity Center USA in New York, broke the bad news. A pioneer in the field of aging, Butler believes that doctors who treat older people should have special training because the symptoms that older patients display often cloak their real conditions. "Just as we have pediatrics," Butler said, "we must have geriatrics."

Unfortunately, most doctors aren't interested in geriatrics, which requires extra training but offers no extra money. We currently have only 6,600 certified geriatricians, or less than 1 percent of the approximately 700,000 physicians in the country; by 2030, it's estimated that we'll need 36,000. A boost in Medicare reimbursements for geriatric specialists would be a good start in attracting more people to the field. A national effort to train geriatricians should follow.

Beyond the question of whether boomers will have enough doctors is the question of what will happen to Medicare. The key question is: Can the country afford to put 78 million boomers on Medicare -- even if it happens over an 18-year-period?

I thought U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker came close to answering that unasked question when he described the deep financial hole in which we find ourselves. Walker, a 54-year-old boomer himself, left no doubt in my mind that Medicare is not going to be affordable in the future unless it is revamped. More bad news for the boomers. "If there is one thing that could bankrupt America," he said, "it is health care. And it is out of control."

The nation, it seems, is also unprepared for the boomers on another front: finding jobs for older workers. Falling birth rates are causing a steady decline in the size of the U.S. workforce, and experts predict that the shortage of workers will cause employers to keep older workers on the job or bring them back after retirement.

But up to now, Walker noted, the drive to hire older workers has been mostly talk. Among the reasons he cited for why Americans don't work longer: Social Security and many private pensions permit retirement at 62; few older workers feel they have opportunities for part-time employment or phased retirement; few employers, while saying they are willing to recruit and retain older workers, do so, citing barriers such as federal pension rules. Age discrimination may be another factor. From 2000 through 2004, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received more than 90,000 complaints of age discrimination in the workplace.

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