Frontlines

The retirement conundrum

Dorothy Sangster,Julianne Labreche March 26 1979
Frontlines

The retirement conundrum

Dorothy Sangster,Julianne Labreche March 26 1979

The retirement conundrum

Frontlines

CLOSEUP

"Retire?” says Senator David Croll. “I couldn’t retire. I can’t even take a three-day holiday.”

At 79, as chairman of the Special Senate Committee on Retirement Age Policies, Croll works a full day—up at 5 a.m. for a little exercise, then off to the Senate Chamber at 8:00 for a 12-hour stint spent pondering the topic of retirement. At an age when most Canadians are either twiddling their thumbs in an old folks home, riding adult tricycles down the sunny streets of Flamingo Manor, Florida, or worrying about how a static pension will stay abreast of hell-bent inflation, Croll is still on the job—and he sees no reason why other Canadians, when the clock strikes 65, should be forced to retire if they don’t want to.

In January, the U.S. government abolished mandatory retirement in the public sector and raised the age limit to 70 in the private sector. In Canada, Croll and his committee of 20 representatives (studiously chosen to include one Inuit member from the Yukon and a B.C. Indian delegate) have been holding public hearings since November, several times a week. Slowly, its members have been scaling alp upon alp of opinion-loaded briefs: reports from the Canadian Medical Association, Statis-

tics Canada, the Royal Bank of Canada, the CNR and dozens of other organizations, arguing the wisdom of early retirement, late retirement, or work unto death. Croll had hopes that a decision would be ready by summer; a spring

election, though, will postpone the outcome until the fall. But the senator is confident that Canadians will soon be measuring their working lives with a new, improved hourglass. “It must happen,” says Croll. “There is a whole new breed of ‘young-old’ in this country and they demand recognition.”

If it were up to Croll, Canadians would have the answer tomorrow, since the Toronto-based senator—who directed a major Senate study into the problems of the aged in 1966, and chaired the Senate Committee on Poverty in Canada in 1971—is personally in favor of a flexible retirement age, depending on the nature of the job and the ability and wishes of the person doing it.

In the United States, where there are 23 million senior citizens, the new retirement legislation was introduced to Congress by 77-year-old Democrat Claude Pepper of (where else?) Florida. Ten thousand Grey Panthers, from 73year-old Maggie Kuhn’s militant organization of “wrinkled radicals,” see it as a solid victory for Grey Power.

Croll would be happy if more good, grey Canadians showed the same kind of spitfire. “Today’s generation of older Canadians have bought society’s insulting stereotype of themselves lock, stock

and barrel,” he says. “They believe they’re weak, sexless and incompetent; they don’t know how to fight for their rights. Well, now we’ve walked in, and they’ve got somebody to fight for them.”

Although Croll’s committee has so far considered reports from a spectrum that includes business, labor, farm organizations, insurance companies and psychiatrists, the arguments fall into two basic camps: those who, like Croll, see the opportunity to keep on working as a lease on life itself (for them, forced retirement amounts to a legislated exile from society) and others who are dying to quit and go fishing.

For non-piscine reasons, the Canadian Labor Congress is on the fishing side of the retirement issue. The CLC, representing 2.3 million Canadians, has no plans to submit a brief to Croll’s committee, but its president, Dennis McDermott, has stated that the organization is “emphatically opposed” to abolishing the present mandatory retirement age.

What the CLC position amounts to, according to the business point of view, is earlier retirement with bigger pensions, supported by the public purse if necessary. “They want employment for younger people and more young people in the unions,” says one prominent Toronto businessman who prefers not to be identified. “Fewer union members means less money in union coffers, and less money for effective strikes. Insurance companies will go for a later retirement age because if workers pay into the pension funds, the insurance companies will have larger funds to manage, on which they can make larger profits. Most big companies will probably agree to keep people on, provided that management has the right to terminate employment if a worker is inefficient or sick. Firing may present a problem. There may have to be some sort of job evaluation committee that will listen to the evidence and decide if a worker is being unjustly fired.”

Not all workers, however, find their jobs so life-enhancing. Many unions, including the United Steelworkers of America, are actively bargaining for an earlier retirement age. Representing Canadian workers in mining, smelting, steelmaking and other heavy industries, this union, in a brief to the Ontario Royal Commission on Pensions, made it clear why workers subjected to dust, heat, fumes and vibration all day show little interest in the current retirement debate.

About 98 per cent of the United Auto Workers assembly-line workers retire before 65, a result of the “30 and out”

(30 years of service) contracts negotiated since 1970. Says Sam Gindin, a UAW researcher: “If you give them the incentive to leave, they’ll leave. It’s not much fun working in an auto factory.”

And what esteemed council of experts arrived at 65 as the appropriate age to retire? The unlikely answer is: Otto von Bismarck, in 1884. On the advice of his financial advisers, the German chancellor calculated that since only four per cent of the country’s population at that time could be expected to survive to the age of 65, the First Reich could afford to pay a small stipend to this elderly minority. This is hardly the case in Canada, in 1979.

In the mid-19th century, old age and retirement coincided; except for the rich, upper classes, the people worked as long as they could, or until they dropped. When they became too weak or sick, they “retired” and were thereafter “old.” But these days, an estimated 60 per cent of North Americans over the age of 65 are still healthy; statistics indicate that a 65-year-old man can now expect to live another 13 years; a 65year-old woman, another 18. Gerontologists, in fact, now talk about two species of the elderly: the “old-old” people at the far end of the life spectrum, and the“young-old”-those who are radically different from previous elderly people in terms of health, energy, education and interests.

The most pressing issue for Croll’s committee however, is not the role of work in a satisfying life, but something more salient: who can afford to quit a job with a salary in these inflated times? And who can afford to pay the pensions for a growing segment of the population? In Canada, most traditional pension plans are tied into the life-span of the family wage earner, and when he dies, his widow is left with nothing. Says Croll: “Between the ages of 50 and 64, the big sufferers are women. The deserted, the divorced, the disabled, the widows, many of them never in the labor force—they’re the forgotten people. If those women’s organizations were smart, they’d go out into the community and help these people.”

Roughly nine per cent (2.1 million) of Canada’s population is over 65 today. By the year 2031, that percentage may double. According to a paper by the Canadian Council on Social Development, a private research group based in Ottawa, slightly over 50 per cent of retired Canadians in 1975 required an income supplement to bring their income up to the poverty level.

The council’s recommendations were sensible: the government should develop policies that would offer greater freedom of choice to workers for retirement between 60 and 70; discourage compulsory retirement; develop special manpower programs for retirementage people who want to go on working; develop volunteer programs for the retired. But the next question is this: if Croll’s committee recommends that mandatory retirement at 65 be legally abolished, who will quit and who will choose to stay on? Surveys in the U.S. indicate so far that most employees phase themselves out at 67 or 68. Will the best people leave and the worst ones linger on, as nervous employers now fear? Will younger personnel wither on the management vine if expected promotions are not open? What will the outlook be then for unemployed young people?

Public interest is beginning to catch up with Croll’s concern. When he talked to Maclean ’s (“I think it’s a terrible mistake to throw people in the ash can. . .”) a radio interviewer had just come and gone and a “TV fellow” was due any minute. “Right now, the law is telling people that when they turn 65, they’re supposed to suddenly feel old. An awful lot of them are saying, ‘Nuts to that—I feel more like 50.’ We have to make provision for these people.”

Dorothy Sangster

Julianne Labreche