Social security card. This image is a work of the Social Security Administration (SSA), taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain in the United States.

By Lynn Parramore / Institute for New Economic Thinking

Shameful fact: the plight of U.S. retirees is a global exception. In their pursuit of lower taxes, America’s wealthiest individuals support policies that make it extremely difficult for seniors to manage the increasing costs of healthcare, housing, and basic necessities. Not so in other rich countries like Germany, France, and Canada, where robust public pensions and healthcare systems offer retirees stability and dignity. After a lifetime of hard work, older citizens in the U.S. find their reward is merely scraping by, as savings diminish under the weight of soaring medical costs in the most expensive healthcare system in the developed world.

The solution from America’s elites? Suck it up and work longer.

An example of this mindset appeared in a New York Times op-ed by C. Eugene Steuerle of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center and Glenn Kramon, a Stanford Business School lecturer. The two accused older folks of robbing economic resources from the young through Social Security and Medicare—never mind that workers fund these programs with their own lifelong payroll contributions. They paint a picture of 65-year-old Americans jauntily playing “pickleball daily” and jet-setting “far and wide,” proposing to increase the age to collect Social Security and Medicare benefits, essentially forcing future retirees to work longer. (Curiously, they overlook how this move robs young people—too young to vote—of future retirement years. This echoes 1983, when the Reagan administration and Congress pushed the Social Security age from 65 to 67, impacting Gen X before they could even vote on it).

Steuerle and Kramon prop up their plan with studies that extol the health and wellbeing perks of working into old age, adding that “each generation lives longer” and therefore, it’s a patriotic duty for the elderly to stay on the job.

Are we all really living longer? Let’s first point out that Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton, noted for their research in health and economics, recently showed that many Americans are not, in fact, enjoying extended lives. As they stated in their own New York Times op-ed, those without college degrees are “scarred by death and a staggeringly shorter life span.” According to their investigation, the expected lifespan for this group has been falling since 2010. By 2021, people without college degrees were expected to live to about 75, nearly 8.5 years shorter than their college-educated counterparts.

Overall life expectancy in America dropped in 2020 and 2021, with increases in mortality across the leading causes of death and among all ages, not just due to COVID-19. In August 2022, data confirmed that Americans are dying younger across all demographics. Again, the U.S. is an outlier. It was one of two developed countries where life expectancy did not bounce back in the second year of the pandemic.

So the argument that everyone is living longer greatly stretches the truth—unless, of course, you happen to be rich: A Harvard study revealed that the wealthiest Americans enjoy a life expectancy over a decade longer than their poorest counterparts.

Could the idea that working into our seventies and beyond boosts our health and well-being hold true? Obviously, for those in physically demanding roles, such as construction or mining, prolonged work is likely to lead to a higher risk of injury, accidents, and wearing down health-wise. But what about everybody else? What if you have a desk job? Wouldn’t it be great to get out there, do something meaningful, and interact with people, too?

Perhaps it’s easy for people like Steuerle and Kramon to imagine older people working in secure, dignified positions that might offer health benefits into old age – after all, those are the types of positions they know best.

But the reality is different. Economist Teresa Ghilarducci, a professor at the New School for Social Research, focuses on the economic security of older workers and flaws in U.S. retirement systems in her new book, Work, Retire, Repeat: The Uncertainty of Retirement in the New Economy. She calls those praising the health perks of working longer “oddballs” – those fortunate folks in cushy positions who have a lot of autonomy and purpose. Like lawmakers or tenured professors, for example.

She points out that academic researchers often base their theories about the benefits of working longer on a hypothetical person who just tacked on a few extra years in the same position, noting that researchers often make the faulty assumption that people are not only living longer, but can also easily choose to work longer, keep their jobs without facing pay cuts, and continue stacking up savings into later life.

That’s not really how it plays out in real life for most folks. Ghilarducci found that most people don’t actually get to decide when they retire, noting that “the verb ‘retire’ isn’t a verb that really belongs to the agency of the worker – it’s the employers’ choice.” Retirement often means somebody above you telling you it’s time to go. You’re ousted—laid off or pushed out because your productivity’s slipping or your skills are aging like last year’s tech. Or simply because of biases against older workers. Age discrimination is a huge issue, with two-thirds of job seekers aged 45 to 74 reporting it. In fact, people trying to find a job say they encounter significant biases as early as age 35. For the high-tech and entertainment industries, this is particularly true.

So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that continuing to work in an unfulfilling job might be hazardous to your health. The reality is, a lot of us are grinding in jobs that are stressful and insecure, and that constant stress ties into a whole host of health issues — hypertension, heart problems, messed up digestion, and a weaker immune system, not to mention it can kickstart or worsen mental health troubles like depression and anxiety.

Many are stuck in what anthropologist David Graeber memorably dubbed “bullshit jobs” — roles that feel meaningless and draining. Graeber described these jobs as a form of ‘spiritual violence,’ and found them linked to heightened anxiety, depression, and overall misery among workers. His research found strong evidence that seeing your job as useless deeply impacts your psychological well-being.

The link between job dissatisfaction and poor health has been found to be significant in study after study. Unrewarding work can demotivate people from staying active, eating well, or sleeping regularly, potentially leading to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other health issues. In contrast, retiring from such a job could free up time and energy for wellness activities, enjoyable hobbies, and a healthier lifestyle overall.

Ghilarducci points out that reward-to-effort ratios, crucial for job satisfaction, are declining due to factors like stagnant real wages. She also highlights the problem of subordination, explaining that it can be “lethal” to remain in a job where you lack control over the content or pace of your work. According to her, such factors can lead to higher morbidity and lower mortality rates.

Okay, what about social engagement? That’s crucial for seniors, right? True, but demanding or unfulfilling jobs can make it hard to find the time and energy to socialize, leading to isolation and loneliness, which are major factors in declining mental health and quality of life for the elderly.

Also, when talking about delaying retirement, we can’t ignore cognitive decline. Sure, working longer might keep your mind sharp if the job is stimulating. However, research indicates the opposite for dull jobs. Florida State University researchers found that not only can tedious work accelerate cognitive decline, leading to increased stress and reduced life satisfaction, but “dirty” work does as well. They show that jobs in unclean environments with exposure to chemicals, mold, lead, or loud noises significantly impact brain health as we age.

Even university professors can suffer the effects of dirty jobs: North Carolina State University has recently come under fire for knowingly keeping faculty and staff working for decades in a building contaminated with PCBs, resulting in dire health consequences, including nearly 200 cases of cancer among those exposed.

Finally, it’s not a coincidence that those talking about raising the age for Social Security and Medicare are usually white men. They would suffer less from it than women, especially women of color. Women typically outlive men but earn less over their lifetimes, which already means smaller Social Security checks. It’s even tougher for Black women who often earn way less than their white peers and are more likely to have unstable jobs with skimpy benefits. Plus, women frequently take breaks from their careers for caregiving, shaving off years of paid work and further slicing their Social Security benefits. Pushing the retirement age higher forces women, especially Black women, to either toil longer in poor-quality jobs or retire without enough funds, making them more vulnerable to poverty and health problems as they get older.

Ghilarducci observes that for women in low-paying jobs with little control and agency, “working longer can really hasten their death, and the flip side of that is that retirement for these women really helps them.”

Bottom line: The whole “work longer, live healthier” spiel doesn’t fly for most. In the U.S., the well-off might be milking the joys of extended careers, but lower-income folks, particularly women and people of color, often endure the slog of thankless jobs that negatively impact their health and well-being. Elites shout from their comfortable positions that we need to push retirement further back as if it’s the magic fix to all economic woes. But when such people fantasize about happy seniors thriving at work, they’re missing the harsh reality many face—painful, boring, insecure jobs that speed death.

The myth that we’re all living longer and healthier is just that—a myth belied by life expectancy stats showing not everyone’s in the same boat. What America desperately needs is a beefed-up, fair Social Security and Medicare system that serves all Americans, not just the ones who can afford to retire without a worry. No one should be stuck choosing between a crappy job and retiring into penury.

Yet Republicans are on the warpath against Social Security and Medicare. Senator Mike Lee has explicitly stated his goal to completely eliminate Social Security, aiming to “pull it up by the roots, and get rid of it.” His fellow Republicans are enthusiastically getting the ball rolling: House Republicans have released a new proposal to weaken Social Security by raising the retirement age. For his part, former and possible future president Donald Trump indicates a willingness to consider cuts to Medicare and Social Security, despite previously criticizing his primary rivals on the issue, who were almost wall to wall demanding drastic cutbacks.

Democratic lawmakers typically show more support for Social Security and Medicare in public, though their track record has not fully alleviated concerns about the present and future vulnerability of these programs. In his recent State of the Union speech, President Biden advocated for the expansion and enhancement of Social Security and Medicare, declaring that “If anyone here tries to cut Social Security or Medicare or raise the retirement age, I will stop them!” But it’s important to keep in mind that he supported raising the retirement age during the 1980s and again in 2005.

Polling shows that voters, whether Democrats or Republicans, do not want to cut these programs. Actually, they want to expand Social Security and Medicare. That’s because those who face the realities of daily life understand that working endlessly is a cruel and unreasonable – not to mention unhealthy — expectation that no society should endorse. The idea that America can’t afford to do this is outlandish when the evidence is so clear that American billionaires pay historically low tax rates that are now lower than those for ordinary workers.

What America can’t afford is the super-wealthy and their paid representatives working the rest of us to death. 

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Lynn Parramore

Lynn Parramore is Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. A cultural theorist who studies the intersection of culture and economics, she is Contributing Editor at AlterNet, where she received the Bill Moyers/Schumann Foundation fellowship in journalism for 2012. She is also a frequent contributor to Reuters, Al Jazeera, Salon, Huffington Post, and other outlets. Her first book of cultural history, Reading the Sphinx (Palgrave Macmillan) was named a “Notable Scholarly Book for 2008” by the Chronicle of Higher Education. A web entrepreneur, Parramore is co-founder of the Next New Deal (formerly New Deal 2.0) blog of the Roosevelt Institute, where she served as media fellow from 2009-2011, and she is also co-founder of Recessionwire.com, and founding editor of IgoUgo.com. Parramore received her doctorate from New York University in 2007. She has taught writing and semiotics at NYU and has collaborated with some of the country’s leading economists her ebooks, including “Corporations for the 99%” with William Lazonick and “New Economic Visions” with Gar Alperovitz. In 2011, she co-edited a key documentary book on the Occupy movement: The 99%: How the Occupy Movement is Changing America.

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