June 21, 2005

Don't retire, get demoted.

John Tierney responds to the criticism he received after he dared to suggest raising the age at which people qualify for Social Security benefits. We discussed the original column here, and his new column addresses the criticisms that you came up with.

Tierney's main point seems to be that older workers should be willing to take jobs they now consider beneath them. He calls this the "Adams Principle," in honor of John Quincy Adams, who served in Congress after he was President:
Adams started his new career at age 63, just about when the typical American man now retires. He wasn't especially spry, once calling his body "a weak, frail, decayed tenement battered by the winds and broken in on by the storm." Yet he stayed on the job until his death at age 80.

He accomplished so much in those years that he is remembered as a better congressman than president. You could call him an inverse example of the Peter Principle, someone who succeeded by being demoted below his level of incompetence.

But I prefer to draw a different lesson. Call it the Adams Principle for employees and employers: if the president can flourish after a demotion, so can anyone else.

15 comments:

Dave said...

I don't necessarily think Tierney's proposal is a bad idea, but I can imagine that some of these older workers would blanche at the idea of reporting to people much younger than they.

I've been in a number of situations recently in which older workers report to me (some of whom are 20 years or more older than I). I've thought that some of them were upset at having to report to someone who is only a little older than their kids.

LDM said...

Fie! Let them have at Fido's dog food
the crunch of it e'r shall elevate their mood
verily they'll rue the day they were so rude
expecting feebleness n'er to be booed
it's off to the tread mill they'll soon be shooed
Lo! frailty's dole, a notion coming unscrewed
-Lonely Donut Man (LDM)

Mark Daniels said...

We had dinner last evening with a couple we got to know when our children were classmates in high school.

We had lots to talk about, including the birth of their first grandchild, the impending births of two more grandchildren for them, and the wedding this past weekend of our daughter.

Toward the end of the meal,my friend made a short and unassuming announcement: He's retiring after forty years as an engineer with Ford. While there had been some thought that with all the shuffling happening at Ford, this might be a possibility, my wife and I were a bit taken aback. (I'm at least fourteen years away from "retirement age," by the way. So, it's coming as a bit of a shock when I hear from my friends that they're retiring.)

As we discussed our friend's retirement, happening next week, he made it clear that his plans include taking a job, as well as travel and learning to play the piano.

He's probably a good example of what Tierney calls "The Adams Principle."

Speaking of Adams, he was undoubtedly more temperamentally well-suited to his years as a congressman from Massachusetts, at the end of his life, than he had ever been for the presidency. Adams was always, to put it charitably, a curmudgeon. A man of towering intellect and no mean skills as a writer and lecturer, he would probably have been well-suited to academia. He was by experience and interest, even more gifted as a diplomat, somehow more able to compromise and strike deals with foreign nations than with his own nation's Congress and other political leaders. But from an early age, he was molded for and encouraged to take up a career in politics, especially by his mother.

Some consider him the best and most effective Secretary of State in our country's history, a contention with which I have little argument. It was a post in which he was able, particularly owing to the tenor of the times, to combine his greatest attributes: that of the academic of extraordinary intellect and that of the diplomat.

In terms of legislative accomplishment, Adams' time in Congress is somewhat undistinguished. But it was a good use of his skills as a propagandist.

Perhaps a corollary of Tierney's Adams Principle then, is that often in retirement, people feel the freedom to pursue their passionate interests in ways they had not before. For the Average Jean or Joe, the constraints of mortgages, kids' educations, health care, and insurance often dictate certain career paths which, in the absence of such constraints, they would have left behind. I myself am contemplating doing graduate work and at retirement age, offering my services to a college somewhere. With extended life expectancies, the post-retirement years can be among the most rewarding and useful of our lives.

By the way, Tierney might as well have called his notion, "The Carter Principle," for another man probably ill-suited to the presidency, but who has had a multitude of useful and interesting careers since the people retired him back in 1980.

I realize of course, that some people's options at retirement may be limited. They may have physical limitations or not have the opportunities for training that I have had. I nonetheless feel that an incremental increase in the minimum retirement age is warranted by current and projected life expectancy increases.

Mark Daniels said...

As to Dave's concern that older workers might blanche at taking orders from people younger than themselves, this may be true for some older folks.

But I have a sneaking suspicion that one group of older workers might welcome this scenario: Those who have been leaders themselves.

I have been a leader in my work for more than twenty years. It has suited me psychologically and spiritually, particularly because I don't take myself very seriously and I wear leadership lightly. But because of this experience, I don't feel the need to be in charge that I may have felt when I was a younger person trying to prove myself. I actually enjoy being in situations in which I'm not expected to be the leader.

On top of that, leaders understand how good it is to work with cooperative people and most resolve that if they ever are in situations in which others are in charge, they will cooperate with them.

Those most likely to chafe under the direction of younger supervisors, I think, are those who never had the opportunity or never possessed the facility for leadership themselves.

Still, the experience of employers seems to be that they like older workers, who tend to be much more reliable and surprisingly flexible.

Dave said...

Mark: I'm sure you're right that self-assured, confident people will have no problem reporting to people younger than they.

However, my point was more general: how many people are sufficiently self-assured? Perhaps many more are than I realize.

SippicanCottage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DaveG said...

We'll need to be careful about making idle thoughts into public policy.

Agreed! If I want to continue to work after "retirement age," that should be my decision. Being forced to work because social security changes the rules, in effect reniging on a contract I have been fulfilling from my side for more than 25 years, is wrong.

Ron said...

DaveG: I agree with you, but even if it is wrong, I think this will change as the assumption is that you don't get decide how much work you are assumed to be doing! Won't there be a lot of "productivity" arguments for making us all work longer? Don't we find it difficult to make arguments for leisure? (because of the unspoken assumption that it's 'sloth?')

Sad but true...

jult52 said...

DaveG: what about the younger workers funding your retirement? Do they have any rights?

Dave Schuler said...

Gary Becker and Richard Posner made similar suggestions not long ago. Oddly, neither seems to be rushing to take jobs at McDonalds. I also note that Mr. Tierney is 52 years old. Presumably, he will lead by example.

Historically, companies have been very reluctant to hire older workers i.e. over 50 into jobs that don't seem commensurate with their employment histories and resumes. That age discrimination is hard to prove abets this behavior.

One final observation: what employees will be displaced by the large number of baby boomers who continue to work into their 70's if they take Mr. Tierney's advice? All readers under age 20 repeat after me: “Would you like fries with that?”

Steven said...

DaveG --

Who's the other party in this contract?

Your elected representatives spent your money already, and ran up several trillion dollars in debt to boot. If you want to retire at 65, you can ask your children to fund it . . . but we never signed any contract, so if we don't, don't tell us we're reneging.

Your agents made promises about retirement on your behalf to yourself without bothering to fund them. You had plenty of time to vote them out of office in favor of people who would fund them, and you never bothered. So if you want your "contract" fulfilled, you can ask yourself for the Social Security taxes you already spent over the last 25 years.

Otherwise, you can thank us for such such charity as you're given, which may be much less than what you promised yourselves. After all, we expect Social Security won't be there for us; unlike you or your parents, we have no delusion that giving our parents money in their old age will somehow impose an obligation on our children.

DaveG said...

jult52 -

I will fund my own retirement. I ask nothing from anyone. It is also very doubtful that I will ever make a positive rate of return from my "contributions" to social security, so I will be no burden on younger workers.

Steven -

I only get one vote, same as you. I've cast mine since the day I was legally old enough. I have no idea where you get the idea that I had plenty of time to remove any of the elected representatives that violated their end of the contract, particularly when voting against large blocs of folks on the receiving end of my largesse.

I've been paying into social security since 1976. I'll likely continue paying for another 20 years. I don't need or expect any charity from anyone. I've written off my social security "investment" and will plan accordingly.

Joe said...

I might dibble with the idea that Carter retired in 1980.

Seems that he's been quite busy in the employ of dictators ever since.

Finn Kristiansen said...

I would agree that the age of retirement should slowly be raised, in addition to some privatization efforts and other tinkering (selling the old people to the Sudan as slaves).

However, I disagree with the idea that Adams or Carter can be realistic examples of how an older person can phase into a lesser post-retirement type of occupation.

After all, if you go from the presidency to being a congressman, you are still pretty comfy. Now if Adams had gone from the presidency to dishwasher at Ye Olde New England Ale House, then I would say there are lessons to be learned.

People who are fairly well off always have the tendency to visualize policy through their own navels, as though everyone was in the tax bracket targeted by WSJ, New York Mag or Barrons.

When I go into a Walmart and see someone's granny (okay my granny, but ssssshhhh) in there, or I see some old person coming from work, waiting under the 110 degree heat of Phoenix for the bus, I feel saddened.

(Just so you know, when I see really attractive women waiting for the bus, I am saddened too, wondering what their boyfriends are thinking).

Let's not assume that we are primarily talking about people who will be moving from one office job, to another office job, happily working in comfort till stepping into the company provided coffin on lunch break.

Very few of us will be Jimmy Carter, off writing books, with speaking income and enough leisure time to muck about in third world nations all googly-eyed certifying elections.

We will all get old and our wealth, earnings and potential today, may fade through misfortune into nothing later. Our old people do deserve every consideration, but in a more realistic and financially sound manner. The purpose of life is not to work, but to find meaning, and while these are not mutually exclusive, it would be ashame if we work all our lives only to, well, drop dead.

Kathleen B. said...

"Your elected representatives spent your money already, and ran up several trillion dollars in debt to boot."

yes, definitely all you Republicans do not deserve your Social Security!