Opponents of a national retirement program, commonly referred to simply as “Social Security,” tend to take the view that each person is responsible for their own costs of living and that a secure retirement is something to be enjoyed by those fortunate enough to have earned enough money throughout one’s lifetime to sustain themselves for 20 or more years without gainful employment. Such an attitude completely ignores the concept of gratitude and indebtedness we owe to our predecessors, assuming, incorrectly, that their own successes are completely independent of any other factors and are simply due to their own superior capabilities. According to these folks, each person is fully capable of planning for their retirement, and shouldn’t need to depend on government subsidies to enjoy their golden years. Indeed, their “why should I pay for you” comments show how little they appreciate the hard work that was put into their own upbringing and how little they understand the sacrifices made by preceding generations who created the progress this country has enjoyed.

You can believe what you want to, but I’m here to tell you that any success you may personally have is the result of many different people over many years and extends far beyond the powers of your own mind or capabilities. In order for society to function and progress, the combined efforts of all of its members are required, and as such, we all owe each other a debt of gratitude to some degree. Were it not for the care of our parents, we’d never make it into the world as responsible, productive adults. Were it not for our teachers, we would never learn the skills with which we support ourselves. Were it not for the desires or needs of individuals, we would not have jobs to support ourselves and would instead be a nation of subsistence farmers, scraping by just what we need to survive. We are all responsible to each other in this sense, and as such, we have a responsibility for each other too. One of those responsibilities is to assure that no one is left behind in poverty once their most productive years are behind them. As such, any national retirement program must have at its center this concept of shared responsibility, shared gratitude, and shared respect.

Like other tax-supported programs, the national retirement plan exists as a compact between the people and our government. The agreement has been that when you work, you deposit some of your wages into a social insurance fund. Your employer deposits a like amount as well. When you retire, you will receive a monthly stipend until you die. The government, who is entrusted to safeguarding the funds for their intended purpose, administers this fund. In theory, the number of workers paying into the fund at any one time would exceed the number of retirees withdrawing from the fund, keeping the fund solvent in perpetuity. But the theory has not held, and as a result, our national retirement program will be unable to hold up its end of the deal. The compact between citizens and government has been broken and the time has come to fix things up.

Although today’s retirees are receiving their promised returns, the rules for future retirees have been shifting over the years, raising the retirement age and preparing people for decreased returns. The reasons for this decline are fairly simple: there are more people retiring and drawing from the fund than there are to replace them, even in this age of dual income families, and wages haven’t kept pace to make up the difference. The other reason for the eventual collapse of the current system lies in the betrayal of government and their unwillingness to protect the funds for their intended purpose. Like so many other supposedly devoted taxes, our politicians have consistently raided the retirement funds over the years, replacing the actual money with worthless I.O.U.’s. Today’s workers have been told as much, the administration saying in effect that there will be no money for you when you retire. But go ahead and keep paying in anyway, because that’s how the system works.

Even without these major problems, the system itself fails to offer retirement security to all of our citizens equally, something that any tax based program should strive to do. The most glaring example would be for stay-at-home moms, who because of their absence in the business world have no earnings per se. But their indispensable tasks of rearing our young is worth its weight in gold and should be recognized as the valuable service that it is. Any national retirement program must be offered to all legal citizens equally.

Reform must occur in two separate phases. We must stabilize they existing system to the point that it will meet most, if not all, of its obligations to the citizens who are nearing or are in retirement now. Further, it must figure out a way to make amends to the workers who have and will continue to pay in, knowing full well that they will be getting the short end of the stick. But rather than try to patch a clearly breaking system, we need to let it phase out in favor of a more equal, and arguably more efficient national retirement program.

Retirement programs exist so that we don’t have to work until we die. But for most of our working years, we are either obsessed with saving enough money to retire on or are completely oblivious to what we will actually require once we do retire or how we plan to get it. In today’s business climate, private pensions (which are designed to supplement the national retirement program using your own dollars) are shaky for many, with companies going bankrupt and fleecing employees out of years of built up retirement funds. The relationship between employees and employers has also drastically changed, with the lifetime employee almost being unheard of. The result is any number of smaller 401k plans without the ability to achieve compound growth. It is painfully obvious to many that their best source of income in retirement is likely to be social security funds. This is the reality we live in, and so if we endeavor to continue to offer a national retirement plan, we must think of completely new ways of designing it.

While keeping the existing program on life support is important, first I’m going to propose a national retirement plan for future generations of workers. I think that even though we need to try to fulfill the promises to the people of today, it is also our duty to create a more lasting system than we have now. For any reform of the current system would naturally have to include plans for continuation of some sort, and I believe that our current system is too screwed up to rebuild. Sometimes you really do need to start fresh.

I had originally planned to present my plan for an entirely new retirement program for future generations of workers in this essay, but that will now have to wait until next time. I felt that I needed to defend the concept of a national retirement plan once more before I could go on to explain my ideas. For it is essential to understand that a national retirement program is more than just a reshuffling of tax dollars from one person to another. The essence of our working life is the ability to some day kick our feet up and retire. This is one of the promises of America. This is a part of the American dream. It is something the we, as a society, have affirmed over the last 70 years through our continued support of a system that once was good, but now is sinking.