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Yikes! They want to make pensions fit future pensioners

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I am part of the "lump of labour" that critics say would be created if the eligibility for the old age pension is raised from 65 years old to 67.

I know this is true because I saw it on the CBC this week, where one of the "Bottom-Liners" on The National spelled it out in some detail. It seems that every old-timer who clings to her job rather than going home to vegetate or, preferably, from a budgetary point of view, decently die and save the rest of us the health-care costs of her dotage is keeping some young person out of the workplace, thus further upping the costs of senile security.

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It is an odd argument to make, particularly if it comes from a woman. The "lump of labour" was originally advanced as an argument against encouraging women to enter the workforce. Every job that went to a woman, it was reasoned -- unreasoned, actually -- was a job that was not available to a man.

But women entered the workforce anyway and men did not lose their jobs. The workforce expanded, productivity increased, the country benefitted and a new industry -- daycare -- was born, for better or worse. Times changed.

The same thing is likely to happen as more seniors choose to stay at work. Almost 90 per cent of Canadians at or approaching the age of 65 now express a certain attachment to their work. Where once the age 65 was the golden glow at the end of life, today, when people are living far longer than they used to and staying healthier far longer than they were, the age 65 is looking to many like early retirement. That doesn't mean that they don't want their Old Age Security, but it probably means that most of them don't need it just yet, and, if they continue working, the government will claw back most of it anyway.

"Seniors," as we are so patronizingly called -- seniors get a 10 per cent discount in many restaurants for 20 per cent less food because we are so old and cute -- are not what they used to be. For that matter, they may never have been what they used to be except in the eyes of bureaucrats, who are compelled to pigeonhole everybody.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper wondered aloud if Canada could afford to sustain the Old Age Security as it currently exists when the aging baby boomers are swelling the ranks of the old and unproductive and the ranks of the workers who have to support that unproductivity through their taxes are diminishing, he set off a firestorm of fury among the ranks of entitlement on the liberal left.

Rank upon rank -- there's a sort of Dickensian sense of social injustice here, with Oliver Twist (that's me) asking for more and being confronted by Beadle Bumble (that's Stephen Harper) offering less -- but actually, something here just stinks.

There is, as yet at least, no government plan to snatch bread from the frail, thin hands of the ailing elderly. In fact, there is no plan at all that anyone knows of. What does seem certain is that the eligibility needs to be raised gradually, just as it was lowered gradually. When the old age pension was introduced in 1952, one had to be 70 to collect it; life expectancy then was 67 for a man, 72 for a woman. Hardly anyone was likely to get it for long and with a rapidly growing workforce, that was no economic burden.

Between 1965 and 1969, the age of eligibility was reduced from 70 to 65, where it remains today, even though life expectancy now is 79 for a man and 84 for a woman. That's 12 more years of collecting by the largest generation of retirees in history, paid for by an enfeebled workforce.

This economic reality has been recognized in the United States, where eligibility for social security has been slowly redefined for the last 20 years, heading towards age 67, and in Europe, where it is being urgently addressed by European Union nations on the edge of disaster -- Britain, for example, is looking at 68 as the entry point.

No one has suggested, despite allegations from the idolators of entitlement, that impoverished old folks should have their pensions whipped away from them, and people will always be free to stop working when they want to.

The simple truth is, now or in the future when adjustments are made to Old Age Security, your retirement will be what you made it during your working life. My life is my responsibility, even if it is in questionable hands.

Increasingly, people want to keep working. Freedom 55 may be a dream for some, maybe even a dream that comes true, but for others, leaving the workforce, Old Age Security or not, is Freedom Fadeaway. I am too old and cute for that.

tom.oleson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 11, 2012 A17

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