By timestaff
July 8, 2009

I recently read a somewhat depressing article in The Economist about the “end” of retirement.

The article begins with a bit of history: When pensions began in Germany over a hundred years ago, they were for people who lived to 70 — twice as long as the average person. When Social Security was introduced in 1935, 65 was three years more than the American life expectancy. Essentially, retirement was created for those who lived an abnormally long life. (The Social Security Administration acknowledges that average life expectancy at birth back then was 58 for men and 62 for women, though it also points out that 54% of men and 61% of women who survived childhood made it to age 65.)

The author then goes on to say that nowadays, Americans are living much, much longer, trying to retire earlier, and saving less. There’s no way Social Security can cover this, and the 401(k) isn’t working either, as both individuals and employers stop contributing.

Relatively few people today can remember the days before retirement, and I’m sure none of us want to imagine a future without it, either. But The Economist’s argument overlooks one big problem: Even if you do want to work for the rest of your life, you can’t guarantee that your job will be around that long.
A McKinsey study from last month showed that 71 percent of US workers have jobs unfavorable to income growth – jobs for which demand is decreasing or supply of workers in increasing.

The study gave an example of how a traditional job likely requires new skills:

“[A] purchasing manager in a US manufacturing multinational might be tasked with buying the best value inputs from anywhere in the world to supply factories in Asia. To do that job well, she would need advanced skills in a host of information technologies, the ability to coordinate the activities of colleagues and business partners in a global network, and very likely have a formal education in foreign languages.”

If you’re an adult who has been working for years, building your human capital may seem daunting; learning new skills is difficult, time-consuming and often expensive. The study concludes by saying that America has seen redevelopment challenges like this before, and we have risen to the occasion. In the late 19th century we quickly morphed from a farm-based economy into the leaders of the industrial age. During World War II American women valiantly became skilled factory workers to fill the void left by men. It may be time for another nationwide re-education.

The recession may be the catalyst in the transformation. When the economy recovers, jobs may return — but don’t assume they’ll be the same jobs that were lost. Beware the catch-all term “growth.” According to McKinsey, “Unless the mass of America’s human capital can be developed fast, the nation risks another period in which growth resumes but income dispersion persists, with Americans in the bottom and middle-earning income clusters never really benefiting from the recovery.”

So, readers, when (if at all) are you planning to retire? If you are like our average subscriber, you have almost 20 years to go before you can collect Social Security benefits. In the meantime, what do you plan to do to ensure that your job will be around that long?

You may be able to imagine yourself working for another 20 years doing exactly the same job you’re doing now — but don’t count on it.

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