Out to pasture

From the April 2024 print edition

Much of my work life involves sitting in front of a computer and going back and forth between answering emails from students (my fulltime vocation is that of
a post-secondary teacher) and preparing for class. I am with students approximately 20 hours a week. That gives me a lot of time for solitary work and rather than listening to music, I prefer to listen to thought-provoking podcasters. One of my favourites is the Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro. He’s an American whose views would be branded “conservative” for those who think labels like those are meaningful.

Toronto-based Michael Hlinka is a tenured professor at George Brown College. He hosts a weekly podcast about wagering on professional football. His website is www.michaelhlinka.com.

One of the reasons I enjoy his commentary is that he’s unafraid to take strong stands. He did a podcast this March where he discussed America’s Social Security system and the desirability of retirement. The two themes are linked. By the way, the Canada Pension Plan works very similarly to Social Security in that
it taxes you while you work, then provides a benefit based on annual compensation and number of years worked.

Back to Shapiro. To put it mildly, he’s not a big fan of social security. Allow me to quote him (with intermittent commentary) at length. He started with a bold proposition, intended to pique interest, and generate outrage: “It’s insane that we haven’t raised the retirement age in the United States … No one in the United States should be retiring at 65 years old. Frankly, I think that retirement itself is a stupid idea unless you have some sort of health problem.” Part one of his argument is that retirement is frequently bad for the individual.

Life expectancy
I would have contextualized the issue somewhat differently. The retirement age of 65 was established in 1935 when life expectancy for men at birth was 60 and if you made it to 65 years old, you were expected to live another 13 years. Fast forward to the present. Now, basic life expectancy is 78, and if you’re 65, the median age
of death is 88. Today, if one stops working at the age of 65, it means that there is a very long retirement. It seems reasonable for someone to consider what they will do with themselves for the remaining years of life, and this was Shapiro’s first point, stated more provocatively.

Shapiro has two other issues with Social Security. Those issues are how it is funded and its inherently progressive tax nature. Again, let me cite him: “The problem with entitlement programs is that they are all going to go bankrupt … politicians obviously have an incentive to kick the can down the road … if we don’t raise the retirement age or privatize Social Security over time… we will go insolvent… the government stole your money and paid it to someone else and now they’re stealing someone else’s money and paying it to you … Social Security is a pyramid scheme, it is a Ponzi scheme … You should not have your money taken away from you by the federal government.”

Shapiro is correct to raise the alarm over Social Security’s funding. According to a 2022 report by its trustees, if there are not changes to the program, in 10 years the benefit will have to be slashed by approximately 25 per cent. That duly noted, there are two ways to avoid this: The retirement age could be raised (Shapiro’s preferred solution) or more revenue could be directed into the system.

Then there’s the “stealing” allegation. It is unquestionably true that both Social Security and the Canada Pension Plan are “progressive” in nature. Those who make above-average incomes will pay more than their “fair share.” For that matter, those who live longer than average will receive more than their “fair share.” This presupposes that “fair share” means that the benefit you receive is commensurate with what you personally paid. This is an ideological point and good arguments can be made on both sides of it and this will likely be the topic of my next column.

Retire asap?
I think it’s worth listening to and considering Shapiro’s arguments about the desirability of retiring. Recently, I spent a very pleasant afternoon with several families while our children (aged seven to nine) played together. I was struck by the strong desire of two of the men to retire as soon as possible. I was by far the oldest person in the room (65 years old) and I silently wondered what these vital people would do with their lives if their dream came true.
I’m truly lucky. I love my job and the students (overwhelmingly immigrants) that I spend my time with. And if I could provide a single piece of advice to anyone – including my eight-year-old son – it would be to find a job you love, then you’ll never have to work another day in your life. Retirement will be an inevitability rather than something to look forward to.