I’m turning 50 in a few weeks, but I’m not Anywhere Approaching Retirement Plans (AARP). In fact, I’m an optimist and think I’m only about halfway through my life, as well as only about halfway through my working career. And “quality adjusted” for how much wiser I have gotten over the years, that means I’ve really got most of my life and most of my working career still ahead of me. That’s why I am having a hard time accepting my invitation to join the organization formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP)–now just known as AARP–even with all their nice discounts and although their mission statement certainly sounds right up my (nearly-50-year-old) alley:
AARP is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a membership that helps people age 50 and over have independence, choice and control in ways that are beneficial and affordable to them and society as a whole, ways that help people 50 and over improve their lives. Since 1958, AARP has been leading a revolution in the way people view and live life.
The AARP now emphasizes a broader notion of “quality of life”–rather than just “quality of retired life.” They just happen to focus on those people who are 50 and over, not necessarily retired people, but just “older” or more “mature” people. (I personally prefer the term “mature” to “senior,” although true confession time: As some indication that I at least subconsciously have started identifying myself as a “senior,” the other day when I came across this CNN story’s headline which began “Senior’s Photo Deemed Too Sexy…”, I must confess I immediately clicked onto the article out of curiosity, expecting to see someone my age in the photo, and not the high school “senior” it turned out to be. LOL. I hadn’t even read far enough into the headline to notice the “yearbook” reference.)
If today’s AARP is really about helping those “50 and over [to] improve their lives” but also to encourage in the 50+ crowd the kind of “independence, choice and control” that could be “beneficial and affordable” to “society as a whole,” then AARP needs to break out of their old habit of automatically demanding that the retirement-age federal benefit programs not be modified to reflect the new characteristics of their no-longer-so-retired membership. (The latest example was their unfortunate ad campaign designed to bully the supercommittee out of recommending any reforms to Social Security–which I was not too happy about.)
When AARP was founded in 1958, life expectancy at age 65 was about 5-6 years less than it is today, as shown in the chart above, which comes from a recent issue brief by the Congressional Budget Office. In the report, CBO explains how raising the eligibility age for Medicare and Social Security benefits–in ways that would only partially catch up to increases in longevity that have taken place over the years–would reduce the costs of the programs.
With my impending AARP eligibility and my dad’s very recent retirement at an age far exceeding the “normal” retirement age, I decided to write about this issue in a column for the Christian Science Monitor. I explained that raising the “retirement age”–shorthand for the eligibility age for receiving full retirement benefits–seems to be just common sense, but I also acknowledged that given how we all age differently and work different types of jobs, any reduction of retirement benefits can’t be done in just an across-the-board, one-size-fits-all, way. I concluded that:
Just as with any federal budget issue, this is a hard choice. If lawmakers are going to cut spending and deficits, they will have to cut overall benefits on average. There’s no way around that.
But cutting benefits for those who can afford to work longer, both financially and physically, can spare – and perhaps even strengthen – the benefits for those who cannot easily work longer.
And those fortunate enough to be the ones who can “afford it,” like me and my dad, may hardly be upset about this common-sense policy change. That’s because we are also the ones most likely to choose to work longer for reasons that have little to do with money.
Then last Thursday I spoke on this topic on Patt Morrison’s radio show on southern California’s NPR station, KPCC, where we heard a variety of perspectives from the listeners who called in. The podcast recording is available here on the show’s website.
Bottom line is that with all of us living longer, at least some of us will choose to work longer. As tough as it is to generalize with one-size-fits-all eligibility rules, does it really make sense to keep our rules fixed at where they were decades ago, back when 50 or 65 was a lot closer to being “almost old” or “old” than it is now? I know many AARP members view their roles as parents or grandparents as their proudest achievements, and their kids’ and grandkids’ well being as what they care most about. That makes me wonder if the AARP leadership even recognizes that and knows what the organization is doing when it simultaneously claims to have a mission to benefit “people age 50 and over” and “society as a whole” and opposes reforms to benefit programs that would raise eligibility ages.