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A Reluctance To Retire Means Fewer Openings

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To the long list of reasons American companies aren’t hiring — business losses, tight credit, consumer retrenchment — add the fact that many of their older workers are unable, or afraid, to retire.

In other parts of the developed world, people are retiring as planned, because of relatively flush state and corporate pensions that await them. But here in the United States, financial security in old age rests increasingly on private savings, which have taken a beating in the last year. Prospective retirees are clinging to their jobs despite some cherished life plans.

As a result, companies are not only reluctant to create new jobs, but have fewer job openings to fill from attrition. For the 14 million Americans looking for work — a number expected to rise in Friday’s jobs report for August — this lack of turnover has made a tough job market even tougher.

Consider Barbara Petrucci, a dialysis nurse who had expected to stop working soon, or at least scale back to part time. Now that her family savings have been depleted by market declines, she expects to stay on the job for a long, long time.

“Retirement is kind of an elusive dream at this point,†says Ms. Petrucci, 58, who works at an Atlanta hospital while her retired husband, Ned, 61, interviews for jobs (unsuccessfully, so far). “We tease at work about someday having to go around at the hospital with our walkers.â€

The diverted life plans of families like the Petruccis are an unintended economic consequence of the nation’s sprawling 401(k) plans. These private retirement savings vehicles, designed 30 years ago as a supplement to traditional corporate pensions, have somewhat haphazardly replaced the old system, like an innocuous weed that somehow overgrew the garden.

As is apparent in this downturn, the economic effects of such an ad hoc system can be perverse. In boom times, when companies need more workers, the most experienced employees may decide to retire, taking comfort in their bloated 401(k)s, whose values typically fluctuate with the financial markets.

Today, the reverse is happening in the first deep recession since the new accounts became so pervasive. A Pew Research survey scheduled for Thursday release found that nearly four in 10 workers over age 62 say they have delayed their retirement because of the recession. (Though the data omits some people who have retired and includes some who are still working, the Social Security Administration said that about 2.3 million people that age started collecting benefits last year.)

“One unappreciated side effect of the 401(k) system is that it’s a sort of reverse automatic stabilizer,†says Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the New School.

The recent retirement losses have prompted policy makers to discuss whether Americans need a stronger social safety net, not just in health care and unemployment benefits, but in retirement as well.

Economists say there are advantages to reducing the financial risk for individuals. Pooling investments, in some cases, allows workers to switch jobs more easily and helps lower fees associated with investment decisions, for example.

Alternatives include creating incentives for saving and for less risky investments through tax laws or other regulations. The Obama administration has proposed an opt-out retirement savings system, for example. And even before the crisis, some states developed plans for pooling private savings into voluntary, portable retirement accounts.

The pension crisis gathers pace, the natural job turnover may now not be happening because of the losses on stock markets.

The people have been well and truly shafted.

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People working longer is going to have exactly the same effect as immigration: an increase in the number of people looking for work. Without a corresponding increase in the number of jobs in the economy, the result will be higher unemployment.

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