Turns on the Century

Aging and Retirement

In this occasional feature, Boston College faculty offer their comments on key trends of the 20th century, and how those trends are likely to play out in the 21st century.

Prof. John Williamson (Sociology) has authored Growing Old and Old-Age Security in Comparative Perspective :

"There's concern about how the projected increase of the elderly population will affect distribution of economic and social resources between generations. But projections aren't always accurate: In the 1960s, some widely read authors said that if present trends continued, by the end of the next century world population would increase to the point that there were would be one person per square foot of land.

"Projections can't anticipate how the system will respond to the pressures a population trend creates. It's entirely possible the US might, for example, liberalize immigration policies as a way to build up the working-age population and ease the demand for workers.

"Some see the situation as a problem rather than a catastrophe, because in the 1950s the US also had an unusually large dependent population, the baby boomers. From a political standpoint, there is cause for concern, because families and local authorities tend to provide resources for children, while elderly are supported mainly through the federal government at levels some claim will be hard to sustain."

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Joseph Quinn , an economist, has written extensively on retirement trends and policies:

"As the 20th century closes, we are seeing the end of a trend - one that goes back to the 19th century - toward earlier and earlier retirement. This does not mean the end of early retirement itself, but that people are retiring as early today as they did in 1985, so the trend is flattening out.

"Part of this change may be cyclical, but there have been some fundamental institutional changes that have helped to create a new attitude toward work in life: the end of mandatory retirement and Social Security regulations which penalized those working past 65, as well as longer life expectancy. Many older workers do want to retire completely as soon as they can afford to do, yet many others prefer to remain attached to the labor force, whether full- or part-time, self-employed or in a new line of work.

"I would expect either a continuation of current retirement patterns or a move toward slightly later retirements. If the economy does go bust, it still won't change those institutional factors that are now influencing retirement trends."

Drucker Professor of Management Sciences Alicia Munnell is director of the Boston College Center for Retirement Research:

"People are getting unduly scared by this so-called Social Security 'crisis.' You'd think Social Security actuaries never read newspapers or studied reports. It's been in their forecasts for 25 to 30 years that next century the US will have a large elderly population, which will of course affect Social Security.

"It's not as if there won't be a financing problem for Social Security, but the size of the financing gap is a manageable one, and to close it there's a menu of options from which we can choose.

"Social Security now provides roughly 90 percent of retirement income for 30 percent of elderly households, and more than half for two-thirds of elderly households. Although there's an impression that pension plans have greatly increased, roughly half the workforce is covered by them, and that hasn't changed in 20 years. Social Security is not generous, but it does provide a basis on which retirees can live, and that should continue."

-Sean Smith

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