Waiting on Retirement
Aging and Economic Insecurity in Low-Wage Work
Mary Gatta

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Contents and Abstracts
1 The New Normal: Economic Insecurity in America
chapter abstract

This chapter introduces the concept of economic security and presents a current overview of the low-wage labor market. While a good deal of attention has been paid to economic security, current discussions are only addressing part of the story. While the task of meeting day-to-day needs is significant, it is not enough to ensure stability. Instead workers have to be prepared for how they are going to make ends meet when they can no longer work. Highlighting demographic data on economic security in the United States, this chapter traces the larger social and economic context by highlighting the impact of the Great Recession and recovery, growing economic inequality, declining values of real wages, a decreasing social safety net, increasing low-wage work options, and the size of our aging population that is working longer. Special attention is paid to how inequality shapes both working and postwork lives.

2 The Fast Money Trap
chapter abstract

In Chapter 2 the stories of current restaurant workers illuminate their attempts to prepare for their economic futures in their thirties and forties—the Generation Xers. How do these workers define their economic situation, how do they see their future, and what might they be planning? What are their plans for retirement? Concerns for retirement? Plans for their families? How do they envision their later years, including how long they plan to work? Throughout this chapter, it becomes clear that Generation X workers—many of whom will not succeed at finding alternatives out of the service sector—will inevitably face economic insecurity, exacerbated by various health hazards associated with service sector work.

3 Aging in Low-Wage Work
chapter abstract

Chapter 3 shares the experiences of "lifers"—workers in their fifties and sixties who have spent their careers in restaurant work—throughout the United States and their struggle as they try to make ends meet. How can we understand the daily lives of these workers who spend so much of their working lives in low-wage work? What are the physical and health challenges of working in low-wage work and aging? What are the stereotypes of older workers? How do they balance work and family needs? How they manage their economic stability? And this chapter also highlights how this problem stands to get dramatically worse as the growing number of service sector employees age.

4 Retiring in a Coffin
chapter abstract

Chapter 4 explores the experiences of retired restaurant workers—many of whom are retired by circumstance, not choice. Some may have mastered patchwork solutions to meet their immediate needs during their working years, but have not saved enough money to no longer work. Others may have already outlived their savings, and others will never stop working. The stories of restaurant workers are complemented by the experiences of other retired seniors—some who had defined benefit plans and others who were surviving just on their social security checks. Almost all face economic anxiety at some level. As more and more people enter low-wage service work and greater numbers of jobs outside low-wage work begin to mirror some of the worst workplace practices (movements away from defined benefit plans and deceasing value of wages), more and more people will experience insecure retirement across the board.

5 Crisis or Come Together
chapter abstract

Chapter 5 draws connections between the lived experiences of workers and finds ways to strategize about change and consider the policy implications of what we learn. What will the situation be like in 2035 when workers who are in their thirties and forties today in low-wage work will be approaching retirement age? Could the situation get worse? Is this the new normal? This final chapter addresses these larger concerns along with detailing a new social contract that involves public policy. How might workplace practices be reenvisioned? Can we learn something from the smaller portion of good service jobs? What new pathways to economic security in retirement for our aging workers can be put into place? This chapter provides the opportunity to reflect on the experiences on restaurant workers and to highlight a new social contract that can offer a path to an economically secure retirement for all workers.