Maybe it was what they call a "senior moment," an itty-bitty lapse.
On Monday the Supreme Court let stand a rule that forces commercial airplane pilots to retire at 60. On Tuesday a commission on Social Security came out in favor of raising the age of retirement to 70.On the one hand, the airlines can go on clearing out the 60-year-old "deadwood." On the other hand, pension reformers want strong and vital citizens laboring up to the biblical threescore and ten.
It's nice to know that the branches of government are still separate. But does the right hand of social policymaking know what the left is doing?
This country has embarked on a haphazard, lopsided, confused re-evaluation of aging - when it occurs and what it means. In the culture, we are embracing face lifts, Viagra, Ensure and the cult of "positive aging." In the workplace, we are experiencing forced retirement, age discrimination and what Brandeis' Margaret Gullette calls "premature superannuation."
There is nothing that typifies this muddled moment more than the debate about raising the age at which we'll be able to retire with full benefits. This is a debate, I might add, conducted largely by politicians who love their work so much that they spend a fortune every two or six years to avoid retirement.
Every discussion about "reforming" or "saving" Social Security is a math lesson. We count how much faster the population of senior citizens is growing than the population of junior citizens. We add up the extra years on the life span from 63 in 1940 to 76 now. We conclude - ergo! - that if we are living longer we are going to have to work longer.
Congress has already voted to raise the age of full retirement benefits to 67 over the next decades, although this seems to be something of a state secret. Now, the current proposal by the bipartisan National Commission on Retirement Policy would raise the age to 70 by 2029. Even early retirement would be raised to 65 by 2017.
This would keep Social Security robust by, in essence, reducing the benefits of a generation who will be working longer than their parents. But there are some missing persons in the numbers. And I don't just mean 60-year-old pilots.
We are talking about a wholesale shift in attitudes toward and by older workers.
Today the typical age for retirement is 62. In large companies, it's even lower. The early retirement plans that corporations offer aren't just a corporate benefit. They're a way the employer says we want you to leave so we can hire younger workers.
In focus groups, the people leaving early say they are not looking for retirement itself but for a change, to have more control over their lives. As John Rother of the AARP says, "The people who made this recommendation have interesting jobs they want to keep, but people who live under this rule may be looking for chances to escape."
As for those who are shown the door? Even in this good-as-it-gets economy, workers who lose their jobs at 50, or 60, find that it takes longer to get another one. What would happen in a downturn while they wait those extra years for Social Security?
What happens, for that matter, to those workers in physically demanding jobs? I'm not just talking about construction workers. Do we expect nurses or waitresses to work full time on their feet until they are 70? How does our image of a healthy 60-something worker jell with real-life disabilities?
Today when people take Social Security at 62, they accept a 20 percent lifetime cut in benefits as a trade-off. In 2027, if they take early retirement at 65, they'd get about a third less.
I think this proposal is, well, premature. It adds too many years too quickly. It has begun to sound like elder workfare.
But if we want people to stay on the job longer, if we are going to require them to retire later, we have to respect them as workers longer. As Rother says, "We're not just talking about a change in law but a change in behavior." He offers up a short laundry list of changes, from enforcing age discrimination laws, to increasing disability, to retraining rather than replacing older workers.
For the moment, however - the senior moment - you don't need bifocals to read the double message. We want an older generation to stop flying for the sake of safety and to keep working for the sake of Social Security. That's a pretty turbulent flight pattern.
The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.