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The `Golden' Years: Will They Tarnish?

ON the bulletin board of a waterfront condominium, a dozen blue cards announce social activities for the coming month:

Jan. 6 - ``The marvelous Pasadena Community Orchestra will be here.''

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Jan. 9 - ``Sewing classes will begin.''

Jan. 13 - ``Come and participate in a free demonstration of tai chi.''

Jan. 29 - ``Come join us at our great Super Bowl party.''

Other events include a New Year's Eve dance, a program on wading birds, a theatrical production, and an afternoon of line dancing. All attest to the active schedules the retired residents here maintain.

Yet for their adult children visiting for the holidays, a question hangs in the balmy Florida air: Will this seemingly idyllic life be an option when their own retirement approaches? Will baby boomers have the time and money someday to pursue leisure activities after a lifetime of answering to alarm clocks and bosses?

The latest answer from Washington and elsewhere is: Maybe not. In the eyes of some futurologists, a combination of reduced finances and changing attitudes could precipitate a massive shift in retirement patterns.

Consider the economics. Experts often liken retirement income to a three-legged stool, with Social Security, pensions, and personal savings each representing a leg. If any income source comes up short, they warn, the stool will be wobbly.

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Now an era is dawning when all three legs may be wobbly. Some politicians are seeking to raise the Social Security age from 65 to 70, noting that the system faces insolvency by 2029.

At the same time, pension coverage is becoming a do-it-yourself enterprise. Traditional employer-paid pensions have declined significantly, leaving employees responsible for maintaining voluntary savings plans such as 401(k), Keogh, and IRA.

Then there are those piggy banks. Individual yearly saving for retirement has dropped 34 percent in the past two years, from an average of $2,688 in 1992 to $1,776 in 1994, according to a new study at Colonial Life and Casualty Co. of Columbia, S.C. Researchers there see ``a very large disconnect'' between people's expectations for a comfortable retirement and the relatively paltry sums they are setting aside for that purpose. If the trend continues, they warn, ``Baby boomers will be forced to work into their 70s or rely on family.''

So significant are these changes that Stephen Pollan and Mark Levine, writing in the current issue of Worth magazine, predict ``the end of retirement as we know it.'' The math, they explain, ``simply doesn't work anymore.'' That leaves people with two choices: working longer or living on less.

Still, the authors see the collapse of retirement as cause for rejoicing, not mourning. Calling it ``a weird social experiment'' and a ``historical blip,'' they point to increased longevity and better health as reasons for Americans to remain productive.

Fair enough. But an enormous gap exists between theory and practice. While the number of Americans who need or want to work longer is growing, so are the ranks of employers intent on delivering golden handshakes to those in their 50s. Until ageist attitudes toward middle-aged employees change, retirement will remain a deeply entrenched institution.

It was wrong to push older workers into early retirement to open up jobs and solve the unemployment problem for the middle-aged and young. It may be equally wrong to pressure older workers to keep working in order to save on Social Security.

Just about everything is up for grabs. Concepts of work and leisure will have to be redefined while government is being reinvented and welfare is being reformed. But it should not be forgotten that any ``Contract with America'' must recognize that a contract with senior America has been promised and delivered for 60 years. That contract may be renegotiated in financial terms, but as a moral responsibility it cannot be annulled.

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