Skip to content

A reporter asked Pope Francis to name the single biggest evil in the world. Secularism? No. Abortion? Not even. Here’s what he said: “Youth unemployment—and the abandonment of the elderly.” OK, that’s two evils. But aren’t they really one thing? Unable to get a start, boomerang kids move back home—while their grandparents hang on to their jobs. Why hang on? They fear being abandoned. They didn’t save. The young have always had to wait for the old to retire in order to move up a notch, but in the twenty-first century, that wait is getting longer, increasing the competition for scarce jobs. For the state to shrink, the old must work more. It’s a neoliberal axiom. Call it the New Old Deal.

As a labor lawyer, let me defend my clients. The working-class people I represent are dying sooner, not mucking up the labor market by living too long. Alcohol and heroin are partially to blame, and trending stories on epidemics afflicting the white working class make easy fodder for TV newsmagazines. But let me tell you what I more often see happening to non-college whites: those who do hard physical labor for an hourly wage go lame. By age fifty-five, or certainly sixty, many are just done. And when they go lame, they have no options. They have no union-bargained pensions anymore. They certainly have no 401(k) retirement accounts. Maybe the country should be grateful; to the extent that they die prematurely, they help shore up Social Security. And hey, should the GOP make it harder for them to receive workers’ comp or disability, these high school grads may die even younger.

You Still Here?

No, let’s not accuse the high school grads and hourly workers of standing in the way of youth employment. Accuse instead the older, college-educated crowd. In 1994, only 17 percent of Americans between the ages of 65 to 74 were in the workforce. But by 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it will be 30 percent, or almost a third. And since college grads with desk jobs are slower to go lame, an even larger percentage of them will still be working at that age.

“Look out for China.” “Look out for robots.” Robots? The robots have yet to appear, as Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute has pointed out. (If they were here, productivity would be accelerating, he has said, but that isn’t happening.) Toe-to-toe, it’s the elderly and not the robots who are taking jobs from the young. Too many workers are showing up. In a sense, millions of new elderly workers are gushing into the workforce—simply by staying put.

Should it be such a surprise? The more we shrink the welfare state—I mean cut back on private pensions, Social Security, and Medicare so that older Americans must stay in the workforce—the harder it is for a young person to land a job. D.C. think tanks love to tell the elderly that we’re really in fine shape and that it is our duty to keep on working. To an audience of older college grads, like me, they say, “Hang on to those college-type jobs.” At the same time, they push more young people into college. Isn’t this a contradiction? It seems that the one hand does not know what the other hand is doing. That’s the problem with neoliberalism.

It’s fine to fight for fifteen dollars an hour, but also, get the old out of the way. Fight to raise Social Security. You may pay more in taxes, but you will raise wages too. Fight to bring back the defined-benefit plans, for which unions used to bargain. Bring back the kind of plans that now exist only for teachers and cops—and even then exist in fewer and fewer states. Bring back a welfare state for older people, and fight for infrastructure to employ the young. It’s better than getting bloated on craft beer in your parents’ basement and bitching that all the good jobs have disappeared.

In D.C. it is common to say, lifting a term from Cass Sunstein, “Older people today didn’t have the right nudges.” What good would a nudge have done? My generation had to go into debt just to keep up consumer spending. If we had held back and saved, the whole economy would have collapsed. And in this country, where the Pilgrims went into debt as soon as they hit the rock and half of the Georgia colony came straight from an English debtors’ jail, when did anyone ever save? Back in the old days of defined-benefit plans, the AFL-CIO unions didn’t use nudges—they chose handcuffs and clubs. They would stash money away whether members liked it or not. Had it been peeled out in higher cash wages, all of it would have been gone. After Ronald Reagan trounced the unions, no one saved.

The average balance at retirement now is just $100,000. It’s like that old gag about New York on 5 Dollars a Day. It’s supposedly blank except for one page: “Have breakfast and die.” But New York today on five hundred a month? “Have a Starbucks and die.” Things are better here in Chicago: “Have a Starbucks latte and die.”

Work More, Save Less!

Some will demur. “If everyone is so busted, why have old people gotten, on paper, so much wealthier?” It’s easy to explain. It’s an accounting trick. While the money in 401(k) retirement accounts is counted as “wealth,” the legal “right” to a defined benefit, like a cop or fireman has, is not. So we look wealthier, but in the end, most of us do not make up for the real value of the defined-benefit plans that used to be standard in every industry. These plans are harder and harder to find in the private sector; even companies like General Electric are phasing them out. Of course, there is a lot of aggregate wealth in 401(k)s, but that’s because the CEOs and the 1 percent have 401(k)s that are much, much bigger than ever. Thomas Piketty or Scrooge McDuck could explain how all that works.

Uncle Sam wants you to work until age seventy—that’s the new sixty-five.

Indeed, by the same logic, we will be “wealthier” still when we get rid of public-sector unions, terminate their defined benefit plans, and push the money into 401(k)s. Remember, this is how Wisconsin governor Scott Walker became a momentary darling of the right, and though he flopped last year on the national stage, his signature move is still a favorite of faux populists. I cringe to hear Democrats unexpectedly say, “Oh, how can these teachers retire at age fifty-five?” Thank God they retire at fifty-five. At least it gives some of the young a chance for some college-level jobs.

Others will raise another objection: it’s better to have all this extra labor. An economist friend of mine put it this way: “From an economic point of view, it’s better to have more people and not fewer people working.”

In a sense, that’s true. More labor means more GDP. But there is a deeper truth underneath. Better than “more labor” is more productivity. Better is more innovation. If we deny the young their turn at the wheel, we may end up missing out on a whole new alternative to the car. By making them wait, we block their access to skills at the very time when they are most adept at acquiring and using them.

Remember: Hamilton and Madison, when they wrote The Federalist Papers, were in their thirties. By the time he was about forty, Einstein was done. It’s bad for the human species to make the young wait: in a dynamic world, where everything including the climate is changing, we may be slowing up the ability of the species to adapt.

There’s yet another objection: “This is all misleading—it’s not like any particular old person is keeping any particular young person out of work. The economy is more complex.”

Sure, the economy is more complex. But when we increase the supply of labor, in the aggregate—by shoving more old people into the workforce—we lower the demand for labor, in the aggregate. That means lower wages (remember supply and demand?). The more we old people work, the more income inequality there is, and the bigger the payday for our CEOs. But the effect of all this extra labor is not only to lower wages. When we get lower wages, we change the mix of jobs. We affect where the rich put their money. If there is a bigger return from investing in low wages, we get more low-wage jobs, and that also limits the future of the young. It’s not just that we old people hold down the wages of the young: our very presence in the labor market has a tendency to push capital into lower-skilled types of work—the very work we give to the young while they wait for us to retire.

That’s why in the old days the unions were always trying to get members out of the labor market. In the building trades it had a kind of family logic—let junior take dad’s job as a pipefitter. It almost was “one-to-one” replacement. But there was a bigger reason, too—when early retirement kept the supply of skilled labor in check, it was much easier to push up wages. Of course, it was great for the young. Nor did the old suffer. Remember, there really were big, fat, juicy defined-benefit plans. And in 1965, labor also got Medicare.

Now the safety net is gone. The pensions are gone. And we have been cutting Social Security, by sleight of hand: not by cutting benefits but by raising the “normal” retirement age to sixty-six, then sixty-seven. It’s effectively a cut. Besides, to get a decent benefit—to get, say, $2,500 a month instead of $2,000—you now have to hold off until age seventy. (“That’s a no-brainer,” my accountant said.) Uncle Sam wants you to work until age seventy—that’s the new sixty-five. Do you doubt there’s an active policy? If you do, remember this: the out-of-pocket costs of Medicare are rising. Wasn’t Medicare supposed to be like single-payer? It’s not single-payer anymore.

Well, in my own old age I like to tell stories to the young of how different it was back when the New Deal was still relatively new. When I got out of law school, some of my first clients were Teamster retirees. As I recall, there were always one or two grouching about the pension rules. These were rules that kept them from doing certain odd jobs on the side, like hauling jobs for a nephew, if it was arguably “Teamster-type” work.

I can see the look on this guy’s face. “Oh, it’s just part time, on the side. How can it hurt?”

“Of course it can hurt,” I said. “Stop working!” Wasn’t it the obvious way to get up wages? Force even your nephew to use a Teamster for that job.

Death in the Afternoon

OK then, I should get out of the way. I have had to pull this argument out of myself with forceps. Every paragraph hurt.

It’s not just a question of money. I also don’t want to get out of the way—at least until I really achieve something in my life. Wouldn’t it be great to still do something great? But in my practice, I can barely handle a day-long arbitration, much less a three-day trial, and it is not just the energy of the young, but also the wiliness of the elderly that I feel draining away. Late at night I keep picking up a book by Ronald Rolheiser, Sacred Fire, and while I’m really too tired to get through more than a page, I know that he is arguing that our culture does not prepare us to die. We won’t know how to get out of the way until we learn “to give our deaths away.” In the Hindu religion, there is a late stage of life when people my age recognize it is time to go off and be the “forest dwellers.”

It’s that for which I lack the nerve. Of course, I’m not talking about going off into the forest. In my case, the destination would be a cafe in Berlin. But to sit there would be as frightening as going into the forest. I’d feel abandoned if I abandoned what I do.

The other day I had lunch with a criminal defense lawyer a bit older than I am who is still working full blast. “So . . . how much are you still practicing?” he said.

How much? It is not an insulting question, but it unnerves me every time. “I’m . . . still practicing,” I said.

He nodded. “So am I. I look around and see people like us who have retired. I don’t like what I see.”

He’s right. Neither do I. Many of them look happy, and that’s part of what I don’t like. With some, I get them on their cellphones during the day, and they say, “Oh, I’ll call you back between the nines.” Yes, they are out there on the links. In a certain way, they have become forest dwellers. They have let the young move up a notch.

Yet I can’t bring myself to do it. Imagine, on a weekday, having lunch at home! Besides, if I’m not up for trial work, there must be something I can keep doing. Draft wills for my friends? And if I retired, how would I feel picking up the newspaper in my pajamas and reading how Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, older than I, are still striding the world? The Pope himself, with just one lung at nearly eighty, is remaking it.

Before some of us can get out of the way, we’ll have to get out of our own.