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They Walk Among Us

“I love retirees. I’d love ’em even more if they’d go away.” A take on public-sector retirees, their pensions, and why one writer wishes they would all move to Florida.

The time has come for this nation to have a serious conversation about retirement etiquette. Once upon a time, retirees blew town and headed for the Florida Keys. They golfed or sweltered on the beach or read Barbara Cartland novels or played shuffleboard. More ambitious types went to Paris to see the Mona Lisa or to Branson, Missouri, to hear fiddler Shoji Tabuchi butcher “Turkey in the Straw.” Many headed south to escape brutal winters or because it was cheap, but mostly because they believed that they had earned their day in the sun after so many productive years in the work force. Which they had: They created this economy and they were entitled to enjoy their golden years.

But in the backs of their minds, retirees of yore must have also realized that getting out of town was a good strategy from the human-relations point of view. People who are years from retirement and do not have overtime-padded pensions don’t have all that much in common with retirees. Retirees are not facing the same day-to-day problems as the rest of the country. They’re past all that. They’re made.

Today I notice that retirees are much less likely to head for the Sun Belt now that they now have the scratch to hang around. Retirees of all descriptions clog the diners, doctor’s offices and parking lots. Every time I go to the supermarket in my quaint suburban New York town, I run into teachers, civil engineers and postal workers who retired early. This is getting on my nerves. I like teachers. I like civil engineers. I even like postal workers. But I’d like them a lot more if they moved to Florida. Or Tuscany. A few weeks ago, I went to the police station to ask if the boys in blue could keep an eye on some jokers going in and out of the building where I work and mentioned that I’d been in the same office for 17 years.

“I started working here 17 years ago,” a youthful cop said. “But I can go out in three years. Can you?”

No, I can’t. Neither can a lot of other people who are funding public-sector retiree pensions. Which is why retirees should keep a civil tongue in their heads. It’s bad enough having to bankroll the new leisure class; it’s worse having to listen to them gloating about it. With unemployment running near 10 percent, America is turning into a four-class society: the rich, people with pensions, the poor and everybody else. The rich usually have the good sense to stay in Malibu or the Trump Tower—out of the line of fire. The poor languish in the slums or Appalachia. But retirees walk among us like zombies. Subsidized zombies. This is the sort of thing that led to the Protestant Reformation.

I’d like to believe that when people retire young, they do pro bono work, volunteer to clean up polluted lakes or do something vaguely useful. But I’m not seeing it. Most of the retirees I know twiddle their thumbs in the devil’s workshop. They golf. They travel. They half-learn Italian. They complain about threats to COLA. In the nightmare scenario, they become local gadflies and cranks.

People may say that I am unfairly generalizing or guilty of pure jealousy. I don’t care. I have spent my entire life in the private sector, in the part of the economy that takes all the risks, buttressed only by the thin safety net of Social Security and our own savings. I don’t object to public-sector retirees, who now earn more on average than their private-sector counterparts, getting a nice pension. I don’t even mind paying taxes to fund those pensions. I just wish all the people with juicy pensions would saddle up and move to Florida. The less I see of you, the better you look.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.