Every election season brings out voices for and against changes to Social Security as politicians advocate reforms to the system that has provided a safety net to seniors since its inception. One of the recurring themes is the suggestion to raise the retirement age from 65 to 69 or 70. However, that modification could result in some unintended consequences that should be considered carefully before proceeding.
Seniors in good health with self-supporting financial resources constitute a valuable force of volunteers, available to donate their time and energy to other seniors, their children, and the community. Look around your town: Active seniors between the ages of 65 and 75 organize and staff the Senior Centers; they drive less able seniors to medical appointments, staff the local food pantries and thrift shops for the less financially fortunate, and provide Meals on Wheels to shut-ins; they visibly participate in school libraries and classrooms, giving helpful support to children in reading, math and science programs.
The need to be useful motivates many seniors to take on baby-sitting for family and friends and to devote time to charitable fund-raising activities. Inquisitive minds lead them to become voluntary docents in local museums and art galleries, where they love sharing biographical anecdotes and history with delighted visitors. And when they can, they like to travel. The money they spend is valuable and necessary to the regions of this country and throughout the world that survive on their tourist dollars.
When retirees can afford to eat in local restaurants, they usually choose the breakfast, brunch, and early dinner dining hours, before the majority of other restaurant customers finish their day’s work and are ready for a meal. Without seniors, the restaurants suffer. They may bolster the government’s economic statistics, too, when they’re able to offer financial help to their unemployed children or assist with education funds for their grandchildren.
All of this financial and emotional support could be lost with a policy that forces seniors to work until age 69 before retiring with a modest income. For one thing, that policy is based on the availability of jobs for our seniors. In economic downturns, older workers are apt to be laid off and unable to find a replacement with sufficient wages. If retraining is available, new skills could be difficult to master because of common age-induced problems of arthritis, physical strength, and diminished vision or hearing. Without a sustaining income, more seniors will be forced to turn to the community for survival resources such as food stamps, public housing, transportation assistance and medical care. A valuable community asset—self-supporting seniors—could become a substantial liability.
Raising the retirement age could be an experiment that provokes dire consequences—and it’s a step that the government should not take without a thorough analysis of what those costs could be.