Retirement Delayed: Baby Boomers Worry About Benefit Cuts

Deficit panel wants to put off Social Security benefits.

Dec. 6, 2010— -- "I go running in the Gardens every morning," says Ry Southard, Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens on California's northern coast — the only botanical garden in the U.S. with ocean frontage. "The most beautiful time of year, here, probably is late spring, when the rhododendrons bloom." Southard, 56, oversees 47 acres, a paid staff of 22 and 170 volunteers.

How does he feel about the possibility that Congress, searching for ways to cut the deficit, might extend the age by which he could start getting his Social Security benefits? Southard could care less.

"I'm in good health," says he. "I love my job. And anyway, if I'm going to retire the way I'd like, I'm going to have to keep working until I'm 70 anyway."

A few million members of AARP feel differently.

David Certner, legislative policy director for the association, says his members fully support efforts to rein in federal spending, but that upping the age for Social Security eligibility isn't the right way to go about it. Raising the wage cap (currently $106,800) would be better.

Right now most Americans get their full benefits starting at age 62. But under a draft plan floated by the co-chairmen of President Obama's Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the retirement age would rise, indexed to longevity. It would reach 67 by 2050 and 69 by 2075.

Frenchmen have rioted for less.

In fact, social strife in Europe over benefit cuts was one of the factors that prompted Congress to deal finally with Social Security's problems, before they reach a similar crisis stage.

The idea of raising the retirement age was dealt a setback in November when the Government Accountability Office issued a report suggesting that such a move might cause more financial harm than good. By 2050, said GAO, Americans age 65 or older will account for more than 20% of the population, up from 13 percent in 2000. Forcing older people to keep working might lead to an increase in the number applying for disability. And increased disability costs could well exceed the savings from delayed retirement. Oops.

Couldn't some mechanism be devised, though, that would test the vitality of seniors and exempt the frail from toil? The fiscal reform commission's draft proposal already has some words to that effect, but, says Certner, "they're just words." He thinks implementing a vitality test would pose an insuperable hurdle. As things are now, there's already a year-long backlog of applicants waiting to qualify for Social Security's disability benefits.

Certner notes that many older Americans lack the two things essential for employment: good health and a job. "Maybe we should work past age 62," he says, "and AARP supports that. But age discrimination is an issue. For people who are older, it's more difficult to find a job, or, if you've been working and get laid off, to get re-hired." Depending on the type of job, an older man or woman may physically lack the stamina to do it. Hefting girders is obviously a different proposition from tending rhododendrons.

Ed Walsh, 60, is a member of the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers. He's worked construction sites in lower Manhattan, hanging 40 stories above the ground from the skeletons of skyscrapers. How was it?

"Come January or February," he says, "the wind off New York harbor is 10 degrees. Maybe you're carrying an impact gun to tighten up the bolts. That's 30 pounds. Maybe you're carrying some reinforcing rods. Those are 20 or 30 pounds each. You bend over a lot." Come one's middle 50s, he says, the charm of it wears off. Walsh was happy in 1992 to move indoors and into union management. He looks forward to retirement.

"You pay into the system all these years," he says, "thinking you're going to retire at 62. And then they make it 66 or 67? That's going to change a lot of people's lives."