Well, the ostriches are going to start feeling the thunder as we start hitting the roles of the Medicare and Social Security benefits in record numbers. Those politicians who have been avoiding this for years are going to see the complete lack of planning come back to haunt them.
And those who somehow believe that this generation of folks will quietly accept extreme modifications to the system that they have been paying into for decades will be in for the shock of their lives.
Boomers are about to collect
In 2008, the first wave of a generation 78 million strong will hit the Social Security system
By BILL GLAUBER and BEN POSTON
Posted: Dec. 31, 2007
Greg Witt was born in January 1946, raised on Elvis, served two years in the U.S. Army and retired after 38 years of working for Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee.
Now, he is on the cusp of turning 62 and reaching another milestone - receiving Social Security.
"It's kind of like another step in your life," he says. "It feels kind of good, all these years of working and contributing and I get something back."
Witt is among the first of 78 million baby boomers poised to enter the Social Security retirement system in the coming decades, the beginning of the so-called Silver Tsunami of aging yet energetic Americans. Boomers born from 1946 to 1964 haven't just grown up, they've grown older and are ready to make an imprint on the American way of retirement.
This year, 2008, the oldest boomers will turn 62.
Boomer retirement will also have a profound impact in Wisconsin. About 1 in 4 Wisconsin residents were born during the baby boom years - that's around 1.54 million people.
There's already plenty of discussion and debate about what may or may not happen when large numbers of boomers reach retirement age, forcing the country to grapple with fiscal, social and medical costs.
But the discussion obscures the hidden-in-plain-sight truth about Social Security - the program created during Franklin D. Roosevelt's "New Deal" is already woven into the financial fabric of America and Wisconsin.
"The beauty of Social Security to me is that all the money (that goes to retirees) goes right back into the economy," says Stephanie Sue Stein, director of the Milwaukee County Department on Aging. "It's money that is being spent, which is why we're never going to have another Depression."
Boomers such as Witt may only know of the Depression from books, but Social Security has been in existence all their lives, cushioning the retirements of their parents and grandparents.
Enter the basement of Witt's home in New Berlin, and you're briefly transported back in time, to boomer childhood. The unfinished walls are plastered with old-time sports pennants, faded emblems of teams, such as the Milwaukee Braves, Cincinnati Royals and Montreal Expos.
He has a record collection, actual albums of Elvis Presley and The Beatles.
"We were all referred to as war babies," says Witt, who grew up on Milwaukee's south side and got his first job at 16 at a grocery store. "That kind of evolved into baby boomers."
And now, the boomers themselves are sliding toward retirement.
Social Security currently covers more than 50 million people, and projections are around 84 million will be covered in 2030. The program provides benefits for retired workers, spouses, survivors and those with disabilities. Social Security benefits are the only source of income for one-third of America's elderly households.
In Wisconsin, Social Security provides a financial lifeline for hundreds of thousands of the state's residents, especially in northern and central counties. More than 1 in 6 state residents received Social Security benefits in 2005, placing Wisconsin 21st nationally, according to the Social Security Administration. More than 60% of the state's recipients 65 and older relied on Social Security for 50% or more of their income that year.
Wisconsinites received $10.6 billion in Social Security benefits in 2005, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. Those payments equaled almost 6% of the total personal income in the state. In 12 Wisconsin counties - mostly in the northern and central parts of the state - more than 10% of total income came in the form of a Social Security check.
"Social Security is huge here," says Eric Furtkamp, director of Health and Human Services in Adams County, where Social Security payments account for 12% of total personal income. "We've got a lot of retirees here, and we have a lot of people who have Social Security because of disability."
Carol Johnson, director of the aging unit for Adams County, says those in their 80s are especially reliant on Social Security, often as their only source of income.
"That's pretty scary," she says. "At the age of 80 and up, maybe they're receiving $600 or $800 a month. I'd hate to see any of us try to live on that now."
The boomers yearn to live longer, healthier lives than their parents.
And deciding just when to take Social Security is not a parlor game, it is serious business.
Social Security retirement benefits can begin as early as age 62, although taking it then cuts the monthly payout. For older boomer workers born before 1955, the full retirement age is 66, and waiting to collect yields a larger monthly payout.
F. Michael Arnow, a Milwaukee-area accountant and financial planner, says there is no right or wrong answer on when to collect the benefit, and the decision boils down to very personal factors.
"There are some people. . . I think they should take it early," Arnow says. "Their health history is poor, maybe they don't think they're going to make it until age 77." Others, he says, might want to wait.
Paula Hogan, a financial planner from Milwaukee, says the first question she asks clients is whether they can defer taking the benefits.
"The types of things that indicate you can capture that extra (benefit) bonus from postponing would be, you don't need Social Security for your daily living expenses, you're feeling pretty healthy," she says.
For Witt, of New Berlin, the decision wasn't that difficult. Armed with a full pension after retiring from his job in 2003, he says he always knew he would collect Social Security at 62.
Now, he's living the good life. He is an avid reader, bowls in a weekly league, works out daily and travels with his wife. In the spring, Witt and his wife are headed to Memphis to see Graceland. They'll have plenty of music for the ride. Witt has been transferring his collection of albums to compact discs.
And they'll have some extra spending money, too.
Witt says his first month's Social Security benefit will be directly deposited into his bank account in March.