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What would Americans do if the retirement age were increased?

Image: French gendarmes charge to unblock the entrance of the Grandpuits oil refinery southeast of Paris
French police clash with demonstrators at the entrance of the Grandpuits oil refinery near Paris as they try to end a blockade by workers striking over a planned reform of the nation’s pensions system.BENOIT TESSIER / Reuters

There were riots last week in France over a plan to boost the national retirement age, but a similar move in the United Kingdom was met with only grumbles.

What would Americans do if the retirement age were increased? The answer may depend on what individual Americans do — for a job, that is.

Steven Elliott, a 53-year-old tax director for Schwartz & Co. in Bellmore, N.Y., has two four-year-old twins and figures he’ll have to work until he’s in his 70s to cover the cost of college for his kids.

“Aside from winning the lottery, retirement isn’t on my horizon,” he said. “And it shouldn’t be a problem with me working. It’s not like I’m an auto mechanic or a construction worker, or do something physically demanding.”

On the flip side is David Montano, a 61-year old plumbing and pipefitting training coordinator in Albuquerque, N.M., who has spent about 40 years doing everything from fieldwork to a job as plumbing inspector for the City of Albuquerque. He’s planning on taking early retirement next year.

“I don’t want to work anymore. I really feel tired,” he said. In his field, he continued, you rarely see anyone over 65 years old.

“The welders can’t see anymore, the pipefitters can’t carry the heavy equipment, and the plumbers’ knees and backs are pretty bad,” Montano said.

Even though medical advances make us feel that 60 is the new 30, there are certain jobs and professions that will be harder for older workers to keep grinding away at if the retirement age keeps creeping up.

“There are a lot of occupations out there where the physical demands of the job are just simply tough for someone to keep working beyond 65,” said Bill Even, a professor economics with the Farmer School of Business at Miami University in Ohio. “Police officers, auto workers, a lot of those people plan on retiring in their 50s.”

But the decline of pensions and the rise in the retirement age, he continued, will make it difficult for workers to bridge the economic gap.

“We may see workers having to switch careers late in life,” he said. “If you switch employers late in life in most cases you’ll see a significant wage cut.”

Today, the retirement age is 67 for those born in 1960 or later, but workers are also eligible to take early retirement at 62 with reduced Social Security payments. Some lawmakers have called for an increase to 70 as a way to shore up the Social Security system that some believe will otherwise go bankrupt.

“Raising the retirement age would be disastrous,” said Sandra Nathan, senior vice president for economic security for the National Council on Aging, who does not believe the Social Security system is on the brink of financial ruin.

“For individuals with higher incomes and education that could be viable solution,” she added about raising the age. “But for the vast majority of older individuals, retiring later is simply not an option.”

Already, she said, a record number of older workers are filing for early retirement because of health and economic reasons.

Earlier this year, the Social Security Administration released a report that found:

  • 72 percent of men who filed for Social Security benefits did so early in 2009, up from 58 percent the previous year.
  • 75 percent of women filed early in 2009 compared with 64 percent the prior year.

Whether an older worker can keep punching the clock past 65 will depend on a host of factors, most importantly their own health, said Sandra Timmermann, director of the MetLife Mature Market Institute. The key question, she said, is “how much physical labor would be required to do it? Do you want a job where you’re standing all day? Some people don’t want a really busy job and they’re expected to keep up the pace with nights, weekends, and travel. That could be difficult.”

For some employees, working until 70 won’t be a major issue.

“In most white collar industries it makes sense to try and retain your most experienced workers for as long as practical,” Manny Avramidis, senior vice president for global resources for the American Management Association. “It is often the case that experience and age run parallel throughout one’s career. Therefore, many older workers would be amongst the most desirable to retain.”

By contrast, he added, “many blue collar or physical labor jobs do not lend themselves to long careers. In this case, it often makes sense for retirement age workers to take on leadership responsibilities that do not require physical labor. Instead, they are in a position to share their wisdom with other up and coming employees.”

There are shortages in some industries when it comes to skilled workers, and 65-plus employees may be able to fill the void.

“We love to have older guys,” said Jeff Owens, president of Advanced Technology Solutions, a consulting firm for manufacturers that created a program for retirement ready workers to train young apprentices. “We pair them with the guys that are younger and have this knowledge transfer.”

Unfortunately, such choices may not be available to all workers.

“The reality is, many jobs have simply gone away and we don’t know what workforce opportunities are going to look like in future,” said the Council on Aging’s Nathan.

“Where are the employers willing to sign up to transition these older workers into their workforce system?” she asked. “It’s a stretch to say you can take individuals in retail and construction, or some of these more labor-focused positions, and suddenly you’re going to reengineer them into managers for companies that aren’t even hiring.”

For high-level white collar jobs, however the story may be different, said Bill Frank, managing director for Stanton Chase in Miami, Fla.

“C level executives would likely stay longer. Many companies have a mandatory retirement at age 65, as 65 today is no longer ‘old’,” he noted.

And, he added, raising the retirement age by two years for everyone “would provide two more years for those who did not prepare financially for retirement to save. Many people procrastinate and aren't prepared when all of a sudden they are sixty.”

There are also physical and emotional benefits of working longer, said Carol Goldberg, a New York psychologist specializing in workplace issues.

“There is no reason older people in good health cannot work,” she said. “Working keeps them healthier and more alert.”

What was considered old when the retirement age of 65 was adopted in 1935, was something very different than it is today, pointed out Robert Laura, author of the “Naked Retirement” and co-founder of “At the time, the life expectancy was 61.3,” he said, adding that life expectancy has grown by more than 16 years since then.

But wanting to work and finding work may be the biggest challenge of all for the 60-plus crowd in the years ahead, he contended. “Right now the danger zone is 50 to 65. They have experience but it’s very difficult for people in that age range to find work.”

So, even if you want to bypass the rocking chair, your options may be limited.