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Pushing the retirement age to 70?

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Pick a number, any number.

How about 67? Perhaps 68? Does 70 sound right?

See also: Live to 120? No thanks

This isn’t some trick. This is all about figuring out what the official retirement age should be in present-day America.

It’s a seemingly perennial parlor game that is now being played again amid a push by Republicans to reduce the deficit and rein in entitlement spending, in part by raising the age at which Americans can begin to collect their Social Security.

The trustees who oversee Social Security say the trust funds that support the retirement and disability program will run out of money in 2033, unless Congress acts. At that point, payroll taxes would generate only enough money to pay about three-fourths of benefits. 

There are lots of factors to consider in any potential solution, not the least of which is nailing down the question of when retirement should begin

Consider a poll conducted by Gallup in April that asked respondents at what age they retired. The answer was 61, up from 59 when the same question was asked in 2003 and 57 in 1993.

That might seem like a straightforward answer to the question at hand, but the question is more nuanced than that. For instance, a married spouse might stop working at 62 while the partner continues to draw a paycheck.

Regardless, the image of enjoying the post-working years on the beach or golf course often doesn’t match the reality of retirement, not any longer. In fact, many who describe themselves as “retired” still hold jobs, thanks in large part to the ravages on their retirement savings brought on by the Great Recession.

If “retirees” can’t agree on a definition of the term, pulling off the trick of finding the current retirement age becomes that much more difficult.

“It’s one of those numbers that’s hard to get a handle on,” said Sara Rix, strategic policy advisor with the economics team of the AARP Public Policy Institute. “People re-enter the labor force, some change careers.”

“What a lot of people use as the (true) retirement age is the age at which half the population is out of the work force,” she said.

For women, that age is 62. For men it’s 64.

Both of those figures are likely to rise since younger workers eventually won’t be able to draw full Social Security benefits until they reach age 67. That’s up from the 65 and 66 of years past, of course.

And now, if some have their way, the Social Security age will rise again.

Workers today can begin receiving benefits at age 62, but their benefit are greater if they wait until full retirement age (at the moment, that happens at age 66) or later. 

The Business Roundtable last week sent a letter to Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, in response to a solicitation for comments on proposed changes to programs like Medicare and Social Security. The Business Roundtable is an association of CEOs of some of the largest U.S. companies. Member companies account for nearly a third of the total value of the U.S. stock market, according to the group.

Gary Loveman
Its letter, signed by Caesar’s Entertainment Chairman and CEO Gary Loveman, right, and AT&T Chairman 
To preserve those benefits, the committee proposes raising the full-benefit Social Security age to 70.and CEO Randall Stephenson, co-chairmen of the Roundtable’s Health and Retirement Committee, said:

“Our proposals would gradually bring Social Security and Medicare into alignment with America’s fiscal and demographic realities, while fully protecting current retirees and those near retirement. Our overriding goal in this effort is to preserve the safety net for future generations.”

It notes that life expectancy has grown since the program began and that 65 at that point equates to 71 now.

Various projections, they noted, show that benefits would have to be slashed by 2033 if changes aren’t made.

The AARP’s Rix notes that three decades ago a much higher percentage of workers left the workaday world for good when they hit 65. In 1985, for instance, 18.4 percent of those between 65 and 69 were working. The percentage now is 32.4.

The reasons given for the rise can be found in the economy and the mental state of the newly “retired.”

“It was a mix,” Rix said. “The recession and stock market losses were cited as reasons many said they were postponing retirement. Equally mentioned was the socialization” people get at work.

Still, when pressed for the main reason retirees seek work, it was money.

With Gallup finding that 61 percent of people 18 and older are worried about funded their retirement, and with experts bemoaning the low savings rate among Americans, it’s little wonder that so many keep working even as they describe themselves as “retired.”

“It’s not like in the glory days,” Rix said, “when you could retire with a defined benefit plan after 30 years on the job and get a really decent benefit.” 

Business Roundtable has also endorsed proposals to charge wealthier seniors a higher premium for certain Medicare benefits. The business group also supports raising the eligibility age for Medicare benefits — a proposal President Obama floated as part of a “grand bargain” but has since disavowed.

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