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Conservatives Want to Raise the Retirement Age -- Doing That Now Would Be Stupid and Cruel

Attacks on Social Security -- along with the transition from stable pensions to risky 401k retirement funds -- are the single biggest threat to our long-term economic security.

If House Republican leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, has his way, people will have to wait until age 70 to retire and receive full Social Security benefits. Raising the retirement age has been proposed in recent months by a number of conservative lawmakers, who point to the fact that Americans have been living and working longer than in decades past. But in the midst of an employment crisis that has hit older workers particularly hard, this idea is both ridiculous and cruel.

People who went back to work or kept working past traditional retirement age these days are usually not doing so because they enjoy their jobs; rather decreasing pensions and 401ks have forced them to work just to eke out a living, even if it takes a toll on their health. And since the recession, even those who are willing and able to work through their 60s find there are just no jobs for them. The steep decrease in potential jobs for older workers is not likely to change much even as the economy picks up, experts say, meaning a later retirement age translates to more time facing unemployment without a safety net for people who are supposed to be enjoying their golden years.

Many respected economists are calling for rolling back the retirement age for full Social Security benefits to the former benchmark of 65, or even lowering it temporarily -- or perhaps permanently -- to as low as 60. Noted economist James K. Galbraith has suggested lowering the retirement age to 62 and the Medicare eligibility to 55 for a three-year window, both to help elders survive and also to open up jobs for younger workers during the economic crisis. Similarly, Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist Heidi Shierholz suggested making the full retirement and Medicare eligibility ages 64 for two years.  

Congressman Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, has suggested using $15 billion worth of bailout and stimulus funds to create a six-month window where people could retire with full benefits at age 60 – kind of a federal buyout. He framed it as part of a jobs bill that could open up a million new positions vacated by early retirees.  

Last week, a million French people took to the streets to protest President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposed overhauls of their pension system, which includes raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. But the American public has shown no such organized opposition to proposals to raise the retirement age, despite the fact that a majority already suffer significant penalties for collecting Social Security benefits early.  

EPI economist Monique Morrissey calls attacks on Social Security -- along with the transition from stable pensions to risky 401k retirement funds -- the “single biggest threat to our long-term economic security.” But though the threat affects everyone, she says,“it’s happening with a lot of misinformation and below the radar.” 

Workers 55 and older typically have much lower unemployment than younger workers. But during the current recession, many older workers have lost their jobs as employers shed older, more experienced and often higher-paid employees. An analysis of federal data by AARP's Public Policy Institute found that unemployment among Americans 55 and older increased more than threefold between 2000 and 2009, and unemployment of those 65 and older more than doubled. The number of Americans in each of these age groups who are in the workforce, meaning working or actively looking for work, also increased by about 60 percent in the past decade, as many older Americans are working longer out of financial necessity.  

Unemployment rates for older workers are still lower than the general public, at 7.2 percent for workers 55 and older in August compared to a national average 9.6 percent. But unemployment is often a uniquely distressing and chronic situation for older workers who face a number of barriers in looking for new jobs, and who are likely to more urgently need health insurance. 

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