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Public workers can retire too early

Since I turned 50 last summer, I have received several letters from AARP urging me to join. The solicitations even include a little membership card with my name on it.

They always go straight into the recycle bin.

It's not that I'm sensitive about my age, or have anything against the retiree advocacy organization. Besides, I know the AARP is just trying to increase its political clout and sell its insurance, travel and investment products.

I throw the letters away because I think 50 is too young for any healthy person to retire — at least in the familiar play golf, go fishing, putter around the house image of retirement. Slowing down too young is bad for individuals and even worse for society.

Of course, most of us will have no choice but to work more years than the previous generation. People are living longer. Health care costs are soaring. Defined-benefits pension plans are disappearing. And, if you haven't looked at your 401k or other investments lately, don't — your aging heart might not survive the shock.

Public employees have been shielded from some of these market forces, but taxpayers are demanding that change. Generous government retirement plans are no longer affordable.

The General Assembly met in special session last summer to shore up Kentucky's state employee pension system. But the economy has slid so much since then that legislative leaders say more changes are needed. The system faces a $30 billion unfunded liability, both because of the system's rich benefits and two decades of legislative underfunding.

Part of the problem is that the system has allowed many state employees to retire at 50, as a childhood friend of mine did last year. During the special session, the full retirement age for newly hired employees was raised to 57.

State Sen. Charlie Borders, a Grayson Republican who frequently speaks about pension reform, thinks the full retirement age should be 62. "Life expectancy is increasing," he said. "For people age 50 and 55 to be able to retire, I just don't think that's acceptable."

Retirement at 50 or 55 might make sense for people in dangerous public safety jobs or those whose work involves strenuous manual labor. But for most state employees, who work in offices and use their brains more than their backs, it's hard to justify.

One justification has been that state jobs sometimes pay less than similar positions in private industry. Borders and others would like to see public employees' pay and benefits, including pensions, more closely aligned with those in private industry.

Almost everyone agrees that any significant changes should affect only future hires, not current state employees.

Borders said young retirement has contributed to a "brain drain" in state government — although that's more a management failure than anything else. Proper training and succession planning could lessen the problem, plus give young state workers clear paths to advancement.

Still, taxpayers should be getting the benefit of public employees' training and experience for more years than they often do.

Likewise, society should be making the most of everyone's training and experience. Some retirees devote their golden years to community service and volunteer work. But a life of retirement leisure is a common dream, even though some studies show it can be bad for your health.

A 2005 study of Shell Oil employees, published in the British Medical Journal, found those who retired at age 55 were 89 percent more likely to die within 10 years after retirement than those who retired at 65. The results didn't vary significantly by gender or socioeconomic status.

If people are going to be working longer, we need to get serious about devising more flexible retirement options and creative opportunities for part-time work that is fulfilling, both economically and emotionally. Good examples include phased retirement for university faculty, the state and federal senior judge programs and programs that train professionals to teach.

One critical piece of this will be fixing the nation's health care system. In most other industrialized nations, health care coverage is the responsibility of government rather than business. Those centralized systems cover more of the population, give workers more flexibility to change jobs and make companies more competitive in the global economy.

Opponents of change like to complain about "socialized medicine." But if there is a better market solution, somebody needs to figure it out soon.

Although it makes sense to bring the retirement benefits of government workers more in line with private industry, we must avoid a race to the bottom that risks diminishing everyone's quality of life.

Rather, let's use this economic crisis as an opportunity to rethink retirement and find creative, entrepreneurial ways to keep our most experienced workers active and contributing. It will be good for them, and good for the rest of us.

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