Book Review: While America Aged …

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Lowenstein, Roger. While America aged : how pension debts ruined General Motors, stopped the NYC subways, bankrupted San Diego, and loom as the next financial crisis. Penguin Press, 2008.

My sister is a salaried engineer for a company that was spun off from General Motors. She emailed recently:

Yesterday a man in sales with 25 years, and a reputation of being a very hard worker, was “let go.” The rumor is there will be 52 more salaried people let go between now and the end of next week. Interestingly, we found out that they just hired 11 salaried people. People hired after 1995 do not get the same retirement benefits as those of us hired before 1995. They are firing people who have been here a long time and replacing them with hirees with fewer retirement benefits.”

Using three case studies, this new book in the Ford Library discusses the pension crisis that is looming over American industry. Author Roger Lowenstein begins in Detroit in the 1940’s, where the UAW bargained for pensions in labor contracts. General Motors complied because promises for future benefits did not incur costs in the present. Pension and health care costs for retirees would not come due until many years in the future. Over time, the union’s success brought the company to the brink of bankruptcy as the number of retirees grew, the benefits grew and those promises came due.

Lowenstein also discusses two other cases, transport workers in New York City, whose union led a strike in 2005 that brought the city to a standstill, and the pension crisis in San Diego, sparked by city officials who doled out benefits to city workers but declined to impose higher taxes. The final chapter in the book suggests changes in the ways corporations, unions and the government manage benefits, paying for them in the present, instead of charging them to a future generation.

© Reviewer: Meg Trauner & Ford Library РFuqua School of Business. All rights reserved.

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