You Say You Want a Revolution
Several stories in this issue address the broader implications of local decisions: the initiative to make California the world’s first jurisdiction to fully legalize marijuana, the coordination of drug enforcement data throughout Europe, and the decisions by aging workers across developed countries to remain in the workforce at higher rates than did their counterparts of preceding generations.
This latter phenomenon became very real to me at dinner a few weeks ago. As I was conversing with the chairman of the English department of a midsized university in Los Angeles, he began describing the turning point that he had reached in life and the difficult decision he faced.
At 66, he could retire, but personal and practical matters kept him working. He had two children in graduate school to support. His wife was busy in her career. Technological advancements in the forms of electronic books and enlargeable computer fonts had made it possible for him to continue reading academic texts and grading papers despite his macular degeneration. Most of all, he truly loved and enjoyed his work, steering bright young minds through literary journeys.
On the other hand, he loved and enjoyed his work only to a point. He didn’t need to manage the petty interdepartmental politics anymore. He would like more free time to explore his own city. He also felt guilty about squatting in a tenured post when so many young would-be professors were unemployed. After all, he confided, they could probably do the job as well as he could for less money, which would benefit the university that had been so good to him for so long.
It would be better for everyone, he proffered, if the university and similar workplaces could institutionalize some kind of optional semi-retirement arrangement that would allow experienced employees like him to continue contributing at reduced levels of responsibility and pay while opening the doors of opportunity for new blood.
The turning point reached by this professor resembles the crossroads that an entire generation, the baby boom generation, is just beginning to encounter, as its eldest members turn 64 this year. Our cover story by Nicole Maestas, Julie Zissimopoulos, Susann Rohwedder, and Linda Martin, coupled with a sidebar from RAND Europe about aging in Europe, assesses the demographic, economic, cognitive, and health care implications of a generation that seems destined to rewrite the rules of retirement, just as it has rewritten the rules of so many other social institutions.