In March of 1999, a U.S. News and World Report cover story was "The World Turns Gray: How Global Aging Will Challenge the World's Economic Well-being". As fertility rates plummet internationally, the aging revolution will ironically occur much faster in developing than in developed nations, compounding their problems in modernizing. Whereas, for instance, it took 140 years for the proportion of France's aged population to double, it will take 34 years in China and 22 years in Venezuela.
For prognostications about the social implications of this demographic revolution see Chapter 3 of the 1998 Report of the President's Council of Economic Advisors, "Economic Challenges of an Aging Population" (pdf format), and The Retirement Project of the Urban Institute. A hopeful message comes from the International Longevity Center-USA in its "`Retirees' Well-Suited to Emerging Economy" news release of March 2001.
There is a growing capitalist bias against older workers. Until the 1980s, the contract between workers and corporate America was that the longer salaried employees worked for a company the more they were paid. But with international competition, corporate downsizing (coupled with the fact that "mature workers" are disproportionately represented in aging industries), and how with rampant change lifetimes of experience decreasingly lead to the accumulation of valued social knowledge, seniority has increasingly been replaced with meritocracy. Younger, supposedly better educated, workers are cheaper. They pose fewer problems of authority, as younger managers can feel threatened by older and more experienced subordinates. Further, a 1993 Supreme Court decision, involving a 62-year-old employee who was discharged from Hazen Paper Company a few weeks before he qualified for full pension benefits, held that employers could look at factors associated with employee age--such as the length of service with the company--in deciding whether or not to fire workers without violating the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967.
As a result, the old have come to serve as a balance between the supply and demand for labor in a highly differentiated, specialized, and interdependent market system. Their employment opportunities in such a system have become a function of the population age structure, with openings varying indirectly with the rate of young persons reaching working age, and a function of corporate intervention in the marketplace, whether through law (i.e., the Older Americans Act) or war.
This brings us to the issue of mandatory retirement. The policy of "requiring all employees to retire at age 65" and "encouraging some employees to retire at an even earlier age" began during the 1960s. Over the objections of business, unions and academia during the late seventies, the mandatory retirement age was changed from 65 to 70 in 1979 (exceptions: employees of businesses or organizations that have fewer than 20 on payroll; executives or others in high policymaking positions whose private pensions will amount to more than $27,000 a year; and tenured college professors). The mandatory retirement age of 70 for federal workers was wiped out completely in 1979 and was eliminated for college professors in 1993.
It is in this context that we receive varying images of the impacts of older workers on the workplace. For example:
|clogged promotion channels||65%|
|lower morale among co-workers
|lower overall productivity of
department or unit
|hurt relationships with customers
The processes of "modernization" have regularized the structural unemployment of the older cohorts of workers. Corresponding with this development has been the emergence of ideological justifications which have, in turn, modified the very meaningfulness of old age as a status attribute. "Retirement" is supposedly is the old age status that individuals earn in exchange for their lifetimes of social contributions--a time for leisure, individualism, and self- fulfillment. But there are other ways of perceiving this new life-cycle stage wherein individuals are no longer expected to be social contributors:
Up through the early 1990s, the trend for men was increasingly early retirement. According to a Census Bureau report, 19% of men older than 65 were in the workforce in 2003, up from 16.4% in 1990 but significantly less than the 45.8% in 1950. But many--perhaps as many as one in five--"unretire" within three years. See Leora Friedberg's "The Recent Trend Towards Later Retirement" (March 2007).
The new century found Americans financially ill-prepared for retirement, even though they believed otherwise. The 2006 annual Retirement Confidence Survey, "Will More of Us Work Forever?," conducted by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found one-half of workers 55 and older have less than $50,000 saved. Phantom benefits contribute to the illusion of retirement security. Of those workers 55 and older, 44 percent believe that they will be eligible for full Social Security benefits one to four years before they actually are.
Corporate bankruptcies and takeovers have led to collapsed pension funds.
To remain competitive, some companies simply did not set aside enough money for
their plans. Others miscalculated when their people would retire,
expecting them to retire later than they did; others underestimated how long
their retirees would live. Bankrupt airlines, such as United in 2004,
simply said that they would no longer be contributing to its pension
plans--while seeking ways to get out of their pension obligations. Sensing
such breakdowns, many retire early to protect themselves against future pension
losses. Left with the IOUs is the federal government, the
Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to be
In late 2004, Big Blue, IBM, announced that it would no longer offer future employees a fixed pension, offering a 401(k) pension plan instead. As the 1980s will be remembered for its two-tier pay systems--such as the Postal Service hiring new workers at 80% of the salaries of their predecessors in 1984 and, in 1985, United Air hiring new pilots at 70% of what they paid to their predecessors--so the beginning of the new millennium, just before the first wave of Boomer retirements, will be remembered for its two-tier pension schemes. (Not to deny that the former continues. The 2004 settlement of the strike by southern California grocery workers, for instance, featured the concession by the United Food and Commercial Workers for employers to pay the newly-hired a dollar less an hour than current workers--while contributing only 35% for their pensions, versus the 100% contribution for current employees.) The consequence: worker resentment, older workers' fears of job loss, and demands for generational equity.
Sociologists and gerontologists of work should consider the number of careers and job opportunities created because of the aging revolution. Consider what institutions have "gained" because of the "problem" of old age: legal, medical, academic, all levels of government, social scientists and social service providers, and architects. As the service sector of the economy expands, commodifying all aspects of family life, the older population is increasingly being appreciated as the next market frontier. Consider this caricature: the contribution of the aging population to the political economy derives from its employment of younger, working class individuals to attend to their needs. Certainly a latent consequence of such service sector interventions has been the reification of a new life stage.
Given our cultural attraction to and faith in technological innovations, it was inevitable that the last life stage would attract inventers and entrepreneurs. From Japan's Sanyo Electric Company, for instance, comes a human washing machine. To keep an eye on elderly parents, there's Mitsubushi's Wakamaru, a mobile speaking robot with television camera eyes. From Carnegie Mellon comes the Hug, a robotic pillow that allows grandparents to send squeezes and pats to their grandchildren when similarly equipped with their own special pillow. In addition, of course, are all of the new medical technologies, from electronic medicine dispensers to insulin pumps.
An increasing number of firms are customizing products and services for the "mature market." To sell, however, geriatric connotations often must be downplayed (the failure of H.J. Heinze to sell "Senior Foods" in 1955 comes to mind, as does Johnson & Johnson's 1983 introduction of Affinity shampoo, "made for hair that time has changed") and product lines made to appeal to younger age-groups. Examples include easy-to-load cameras, pump-style toothpaste dispensers, lever-operated faucets, and watches with large numbers.
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