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Strikes Like Chicago's Could Become a Lot More Common

Chicago's first teacher strike in a quarter century is over, but similar labor disputes over health care, pensions, and work trajectories could become a lot more common nationwide if policymakers and administrators do not begin to make system changes needed to cope with the unprecedented aging of the American workforce.

A new Congressionally mandated report from the National Research Council, part of the National Academies of Science, in Washington, warns that by 2050, Americans' life expectancy is projected to reach 84.5 years—more than 30 years higher than it was in 1900—and those over 65 will make up a larger proportion of the population than those under 18.

As I've reported, those demographic changes are likely to mean tougher local budget votes for districts in communities with older residents. But as the NRC notes, those cash-strapped districts also have potentially outdated systems to handle health care, pensions, and retirement, and career trajectories for aging workers. That's a particular problem for school districts, which in many cases are among the largest employers in their communities. Chicago, for example, is now struggling to fit increased pension costs into its post-strike budget.

"The nation needs to rethink its outlook and policies on working and retirement," said Ronald Lee, a professor of demography and economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and committee co-chair, in a statement on the study. "Although 65 has conventionally been considered a normal retirement age, it is an increasingly obsolete threshold for defining old age and for setting benefits for the elderly."

The committee recommends policymakers restructure their working policies to encourage teachers and other workers to delay retirement and begin saving more and earlier for post-retirement living and health-care expenses.

Haw many school districts are taking demographic issues into account when considering long-range planning? Those who don't may face economic consequences.

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