The Hammer and Anvil: Older Workers Pressured to Retire Despite 401(k) Crisis

In “Easing Out the Gray-Haired,” Nelson D. Schwartz (New York Times, May 28, 2011) describes the problem that law firms and other businesses have when older  workers resist retiring after their productivity has begun to decline.  It is in the interest of the firms, according to the article, to replace them with younger, more productive workers.

Aside from the ageism and age discrimination assumptions that infuse such arguments, a central problem is that Schwartz neglected to examine fully one of the major reasons why older workers are working past normal retirement age:  they can’t afford to retire without suffering serious plunges in their standards of living due to the 401(k) crisis.  The reader is left with the impression, rather, that these workers are simply stubborn or addicted to their professions.

Schwartz only in passing notes that 401(k) balances declined precipitously as a result of the 2008 recession, and that that may have something to do with older workers trying to hang on to their jobs.  These workers are doing precisely what financial experts are advising them to do when their 401(k) balances come up short.

The problem is not how to “ease them out.”  It is rather how to address the 401(k) crisis so that workers are not forced to involuntarily prolong participation in the active labor force. 

It is also a problem of how the failure of 401(k)s to provide adequate retirement security is aggravating unemployment since older workers cannot retire and make way for younger workers to replace them.

James W. Russell

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