Should Government Workers Get to Retire Early?

Voters appear evenly divided about what age is too young for public sector workers to retire.

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Many state and local government workers can retire and collect a pension after a few decades of service, regardless of how old they are. Some public sector employees who started working in their 20s and never changed employers are eligible to collect pension benefits for life beginning in their 50s.

[See 10 Ways to Boost Your Social Security Checks.]

A recent New York Times and CBS News poll found that most Americans are willing to pay for good benefits for teachers, police officers, and firefighters. The majority of those surveyed (56 percent) oppose cutting the pay or benefits of public employees to reduce state budget deficits. In fact, many Americans say they would rather increase taxes (40 percent) than decrease benefits for public employees (22 percent), reduce funding for roads and public transportation (20 percent), or cut spending on education (3 percent).

Many Americans say that people who have dedicated their lives to public service deserve a secure retirement. But the public appears evenly divided about what age is too young to retire. Some 49 percent of those surveyed say police officers and firefighters should be able to retire after 25 years of service and begin collecting pension checks, even if they are in their 40s or 50s. However, 44 percent say they should have to be older than that to collect pension checks regardless of the number of years they have served. There was a similar divide when citizens were asked about teacher retirement. Some 49 percent say teachers should be able to retire after a set period of service, while 46 percent say teachers should have to wait until age 65.

[Visit the U.S. News Retirement site for more planning ideas and advice.]

Having a traditional pension doesn’t necessarily mean that government employees will be able to retire early. Most state and local government employees plan to retire in their 60s (44 percent), according to a 2010 ING Institute for Retirement Research and Synovate survey of 1,026 full time state and local government employees between ages 20 and 70, excluding public school teachers. Just 13 percent of public sector employees plan to retire at age 59 or younger and another 19 percent plan to retire at age 70 or later or never retire. Many government employees (41 percent) say they have increased their expected retirement age as a result of the economic decline, typically because they expect the cost-of-living and health care expenses to increase in the future.

Many taxpayers say public sector workers should pay more out-of-pocket for their own benefits. A recent NBC News and Wall Street Journal survey of 1,000 adults found that most people support requiring public employees to contribute more of their pay for their retirement benefits (68 percent) and health benefits (63 percent). However, the majority of voters are opposed (62 percent) to taking away the right for public sector workers to collectively bargain for their health care, pensions, and other benefits.

The average global retirement age at which private-sector workers with a full career can first draw retirement benefits from the main national pension scheme without any reductions was 63 in 2010, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development analysis of retirement ages in 30 countries with national retirement plans. The lowest 2010 retirement age was 57 in Greece and the highest was 67 in Iceland and Norway. The United States has the third oldest retirement age, 66. Many European countries and the United States already have laws in place that will increase the retirement age in future years.

[See 7 Reasons You Don't Have a Pension.]

Workers in the U.S. can begin to collect Social Security checks at age 62. But workers who sign up at this age receive smaller payouts than those who wait until their full retirement age to sign up. The full retirement age used to be 65 for people born in 1937 or earlier. But the age was increased to 66 for most baby boomers and will climb to 67 for everyone born in 1960 or later. Employees can further increase the Social Security payout they will receive by waiting until age 70 to sign up.

Twitter: @aiming2retire