Social Security: Fixed!

As an admirer of the great Megan McArdle I definitely want to come back to the post where she responded to my earlier post on democracy and capitalism, but it’ll have to wait.

Before that I want to address this great post where she explains that the various pensions systems are basically, equally unsustainable:

Everyone is very good at picking out the flaws in the pension systems they don’t like. Basically, there are three entities who can save for your future: You, Some company, The government


There is no entity that is capable of ensuring that everyone can consume a serene twenty or thirty years of leisure at the end of their lives.

But, there’s an easy fix.

Here’s my modest proposal for Social Security: abolish it.

Retirement is one of these social institutions that most people can’t imagine society doing without and that I firmly believe should be simply abolished.

By the way, this isn’t some free-market crank thing. It’s not about the government and government spending. I would be equally (ok, perhaps slightly less) uncomfortable with a fully privatized pensions system.

The reason why I am against retirement is basically as a public health issue.

Old age is a period of long, gradual, inevitable decay, but I think it is self-evident that the more active you are, the more these effects are postponed and mitigated. I don’t have many statistics to quote on this but I think it’s out there and this is one of the cases where anecdotal evidence convinces me. I think we all know at least one elderly person whom, once settled into retirement, has gradually but markedly become less alert, in the broadest meaning of the word. Any doctor will tell you that the best way to postpone the effects of aging is to remain active.

Of course one can do that with hobbies but, again, I think we know retired people who intended to do plenty of things once they retired but instead pretty much opted for staying at home and lounging around. And while I have no doubt that doing the NYT crossword puzzle is great for your brain, I don’t think a hobby can replace the constraints of work when it comes to jogging your brain. There are counterexamples of course, great people for whom retirement is a tremendous opportunity to travel, explore, try new things, and these people are awesome, but I’m pretty convinced they’re a small minority. For most people retirement is slow motion implosion.

This is a tremendous waste, both for society at large and for the people concerned.

Retirement is a dated institution based on ancient, obsolete premises that will be replaced by new ones:

Old premise: lifespans are short and there will always be many more workers to support the pensioners. New premise: (this one is obvious) lifespans are only getting longer and there is little way to predict how/if future generations will be able to support growing ranks of pensioners. Postponing the retirement age and/or reducing benefits, on top of being more dishonest than simply switching to a new paradigm, only addresses these structural flaws on a short-term basis.

Old premise: work sucks, and after decades of toil, one has “earned the right” to get paid to do nothing. New premise: work is self-defined, self-led and empowering. Small-scale and global-reach entrepreneurship is a reality and this will make work a joy rather than a painful necessity.

Old premise: most work out there is physically taxing, shortens our lifespans, and can’t be performed well after a certain age. New premise: most work out there is/will increasingly be intellectually engaging, will lengthen our lifespans, and can be performed on a part-time and/or at-home basis.

Old premise: the baby-boomers own the world, and we will shower ourselves with privileges on our grandchildren’s dime. New premise: the grandchildren are coming, and we believe in solidarity but also in earning your way.

The concept of retirement rests on assumptions about the nature of work and life that are less and less true, and will soon no longer be true at all. Most people in the commentariat favor postponing the retirement age and/or reducing benefits to “save” pensions systems, but I believe this is only a short-term fix and, more importantly, is dishonest, since it keeps essentially dangling the carrot of retirement in front of our eyes even though it is an outdated, patronizing concept.

Two things I want to add as an answer to potential objections:

1- No, I don’t want to force people to work for their entire lives. (I want people to choose to work for their entire lives.) Today, many people can and do save to go on extended sabbaticals and take time off work, and having this kind of “gap” on one’s resume (here’s another obsolete concept) is less and less viewed as a bad thing, justifiably.

2- Yes, some old people are just unable to work due to age and/or disease. However, Megan has the answer here:

Perhaps instead of looking for a magic system, we could seek a more flexible and ad-hoc approach—abolishing state pensions, say, and rolling them into a more generous disability benefit.

Yep. Of course society should support those who can’t work, but I don’t see why old people should be a separate category within those — except to create a discriminatory, patronizing category for them.

Everyone repeat after me: retirement is soma.

EDIT: TAS commenters make me better. Two things.

When I make grand pronouncements about how work is going to be radically different in the 21st century you should read this, this and this to see where I’m coming from. You may disagree, but from where I stand (or sit, rather) it’s obvious we’re at the start of a large scale economic shift that will transform the nature of work and make us more productive, empowered and happy.

Also, the reason I’m so one-sided against retirement is that the reality of retirement today is having your kids plop you off in a retirement home where the mind rots to the lowest common denominator of the place and one awaits death. The only way to prevent this is for the elderly to maintain their independence and stay enmeshed into social life as much as possible. If we’re going to stick to a nuclear (fissile or not) family where the elderly generations are not kept and cared for in the family home the only way to keep the elderly truly enmeshed into social life is through actual productive work.