The Free Press, Mankato, MN

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June 9, 2012

Krohn: Working all the way to 80 doesn't seem right

— Robert Benmosche is evidence that astounding success in business doesn’t mean you’re not a half-wit.

Benmosche is the CEO of AIG, the international insurance and financial services company. He took over in 2009 after the U.S. government bailed out AIG.

In a recent interview, Benmosche said Europe’s debt crisis shows governments worldwide must accept that people will have to work more years as life expectancies increase.

“Retirement ages will have to move to 70, 80 years old,” he said. “That would make pensions, medical services more affordable. They will keep people working longer and will take that burden off of the youth.”

Of course, if all of us geezers work until we’re 80, the youth — who are already having a tough time finding jobs — will have even less luck landing one.

Yes, more people are working longer because they have to. And some work longer because they like to. But it’s doubtful Benmosche’s idea will get much traction. People already revolt anytime someone suggest raising the Social Security retirement age into even the mid or upper 60s.

And for good reason. After 45 years or more of punching in and out, doing heavy lifting (literally or figuratively), and taking orders from people who they may or may not respect — most people figure they have every right to enjoy the fruits of their lifelong labor.

And besides, life expectancy hasn’t gone up that much.

Life expectancy is 78-82 years old in most of North America and Europe. Which means, that if you work to 80, your retirement party will include a gold watch, a cake that says “Thanks for 60 years of service” and voucher for a pre-paid cemetery plot.

Benmosche can’t, however, be accused of hypocrisy. Not at this point anyway. He’s 68 years old — past the traditional age of retirement — and still working.

I guess he’s good at what he does and you can’t begrudge someone for becoming successful.

But there are big differences in working longer in life when you have his job versus, say, taking late-night calls in a customer service center or loading trucks at a warehouse for $35,000 a year.  

Benmosche makes $10 million a year. An amount he thinks is inadequate (he threatened to quit at AIG because the government was restricting pay for top executives).

His work life is pretty good. He has been criticized for spending too much time at his massive Croatian villa overlooking the Adriatic Sea where he oversees his winemaking operation instead of being at the office in New York. (Benmosche wanted AIG to let him use the corporate jet for his personal commutes, but the board of directors said no.)  

But Benmosche’s choice to keep working and be handsomely rewarded isn’t anything like forcing people to work ’til the near end of their lives.   

You can’t assail his premise, though. If everyone works until they die, without collecting the benefits they’ve earned, programs such as Social Security and Medicare would be loaded with money.

But you can come up with lots of suggestions that would work but be just as boneheaded as Benmosche’s idea. We could, for example, encourage kids to start smoking at an early age. They’d die young.

It would save tons of money that wouldn’t have to be paid out in benefits to an aging population.

Tim Krohn is a Free Press staff writer. He can be contacted at 344-6383 or tkrohn@mankatofreepress.com.

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