Working in Old Age Can’t Be the Only Answer to the Retirement Crisis

Teresa Ghilarducci, a labor economist, begins her new book with a story about an 82-year-old cashier at Walmart who was able to retire — finally — after a customer started a GoFundMe campaign for him that blew up on social media. “Is this what America’s retirement system has come to?” she asks. “Are we heading for a TikTok pension system?”

Ghilarducci argues that working longer is not the solution to America’s retirement crisis, in which millions of people don’t have enough money for a comfortable old age. The most important fix, she says, is to shore up Social Security and complement it with a new automatic-enrollment pension plan for workers who lack access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan. Low- and moderate-income workers would get matching contributions from the government. (People could opt out of contributing, but then they wouldn’t get the match.)

I’ve been arguing that working longer kind of is the solution for the retirement crisis, or at least part of the solution. Now that I’ve read her book I’m more sympathetic to her point of view, even if I’m not all the way over to her side.

The book is “Work, Retire, Repeat: The Uncertainty of Retirement in the New Economy.” Ghilarducci is a professor of economics and policy analysis at the New School for Social Research in New York. She frequently testifies before Congress on retirement insecurity. The book sums up decades of research in a fiery style. “Yes, Granny deserves a good job if she wants one,” she writes, “but working until you drop is not a civilized plan for a civilized society.”

I’ll start with a chart that shows why I’ve always thought that working longer makes sense as a partial solution to the retirement crisis. It shows the average number of years Americans spend in retirement rising from around 13 in 1970 to nearly 20 in 2010 before declining a bit in the following decade.

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