Government policymakers in -- Congress and the White House -- tend to view the Social Security crisis as a choice between two equally unpalatable alternatives: higher taxes and lower benefits.
But the crisis really presents an opportunity, even if politicians aren't imaginative enough to see it that way. It is an opportunity not only to bring government spending on Social Security into line with revenues, but also to solve a lot of problems created, for businesses and for people, by the way we now go about rewarding and retiring people in this country.
Our reward and retirement policies proceed from the mistaken notion that the U.S. worker operates on a curve of increasing talent and productivity until age 65, when he or she suddenly becomes completely useless, leaves the company, and begins drawing Social Security.
Just about everything is wrong with this system.
First, it is going to bankrupt the government. People are retiring faster than they are entering the work force. In 1950, there were 16 taxpaying workers to support each retiree. Today there are only 3.2. By the early part of the next century, there will be only 2 workers paying taxes to finance the benefits paid to each Social Security recipient.
Second, and maybe more important, the system is not fair to employees, and it is terrible for business. I am suggesting that we scrap it. Not immediately. We are used to our current system, even if we don't like it. But over time, we could get used to a new system that better serves companies and employees.
The current system is unfair to employers because it institutionalizes the Peter Principle. When you go to a retirement party, you never see the honored guest smiling. It is always his boss who is smiling, happy to jettison -- under honorable circumstances-- an employee who has been earning increasingly more than he is worth.
It is true that most people perform better as they spend more time in their careers; they acquire both knowledge and experience. We reward them with more responsibility, more prestige, and more money.
But it is also true that most people reach the peak of their performance well before they reach their 65th birthday. They don't suddenly become useless, but their effectiveness and contribution to the company gradually trail off. By the time they actually retire, they are overbearing, overtitled, and overpaid, and we are anxious to see them leave.
Among other things, the practice is cruel. Every year we traumutize millions of retirees with a sense of worthlessness that is tragic and generally unjustified. While most people at age 65 are no longer at their peak, most are certainly able -- and usually eager -- to continue making a contribution. I would like to open my next plant in some location like Miami or San Diego, where hundreds of thousands of retirees are desperate for the chance to work a couple of hours a day. They would probably pay me for the privilege of enhancing their own self-esteem.
The notion of mandatory retirement at age 65 has thrown millions of Americans into geriatric depression. It has also cost U.S. industry the talents of many experienced workers, contributed to the imbalance between employees entering and leaving the work force, and overwhelmed the Social Security system.
There must be a better way, a system that abandons the expensive myths of the past and compensates employees in accordance with reality. We need a system -- call it Potential Lifetime Employment -- that reinforces the employee as he travels up the curve to his performance peak but also recognizes when he begins to slide down the other side. Responsibilities, titles, and wages could all begin a slow deceleration, one that involved no loss of face.
The question of who decides when a worker -- either in the executive suite or on the production line -- has reached his or her peak is obviously troublesome. It would be less so if each of us were not culturally indoctrinated to believe that someone is less of a man (or woman) at 64 than he or she was at 34. There is no reason, other than cultural conditioning, to label a failure the person who, at 55 or 59 or 63, decides he no longer wants to carry the responsibilities of vice-president or shift foreman.
An easy system to design and put into place? Of course not. It flies in the face of much of what we have been taught to expect throughout our lives. It demands new criteria of success, security, and accomplishment.
But I would bet that millions of Amerieans would jump at the opportunity to remain useful, contributing members of society well into their seventies and beyond. They would love to trade their Social Security checks for a paycheck and a chance to remain involved.
Can we design -- and market -- a system that recognizes that people, even after peaking, can still contribute? Can we find a way to bring them down slowly, in a culturally acceptable deceleration of working hours, responsibilities, pay, and prestige? Can we do it all without causing loss of self-respect?
We could try. The results couldn't be much more damaging than the effects of our current retirement system.