Viewpoints

Vin Scully shows us the right way into retirement

Vin Scully waves to fans at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, before the last home game he announced.
Vin Scully waves to fans at Dodger Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 25, 2016, before the last home game he announced. The Associated Press

If only more Californians could retire like Vin Scully.

The Los Angeles Dodgers announcer calls his last game Sunday against the Giants, a month shy of his 89th birthday. His retirement has occasioned a national celebration of Scully’s play-by-play mastery through 67 years.

But what deserves more attention – including from Californians who don’t care about sports – is the smart, progressive way he planned his retirement.

In this country, people often depart the workforce abruptly and at a time decided by numbers – a company rule, a buyout, Social Security calculations or retirement benefit formulas – and not what’s best for the retiree or their workplace.

Scully, by contrast, phased in his departure over two decades. In his prime, he announced not just Dodger games but also national football, baseball and golf. In the mid-1990s, as he approached the age of 70, he pared back his duties. He focused solely on baseball, then dropped national broadcasting and gradually reduced his Dodger obligations, mostly by limiting his travel to road games. This year, he has worked home games almost exclusively.

“I would like to disappear like the Cheshire Cat,” Scully has said, “where … the only thing left is a smile.”

The Cheshire Cat Strategy was a success. Scully remained robust, his wide-ranging observations carrying entire games – solo. The myriad tributes to him emphasize how his deep knowledge made him a resource to the nation’s second most valuable baseball team. And fans treasure how he’s connected them and their families across more than three generations.

Could Scully’s phased retirement be a model for other Californians?

The question might seem daft. This state thinks little about its older citizens, preferring to celebrate young “innovators” who “disrupt” the establishment. And retirement has become one of California’s nastiest legal and political minefields, especially when it comes to pensions and health care for government retirees.

These pension wars leave little room for a conversation about how we might make the so-called golden years better for all of us – for retirees, for businesses, for governments. But that’s precisely the talk California needs to have.

Our state is rapidly aging; the number of people 65 and older is projected to nearly double by 2030, while immigration is flat and our birth rate declining. So California urgently needs its most senior citizens to be more productive.

Instead, we watch as valuable baby boomer workers retire, leaving huge voids of knowledge and skill. Government agencies in particular are finding it hard to hire and retain replacements.

Part of the answer lies in Scully’s example: We must make it possible for valuable workers to stick around longer. The central principle is flexibility: the ability to mix varying levels of work with life in a way that makes both better.

Legal scholars advise me that legislation would be needed to establish a new category for public workers who want phased retirements. So I hereby propose that California governments create the Vin Scully Phased Retirement Plan. When employees reach retirement age, they should be able to enter into a plan, subject to the approval of their supervisors, which could be altered by mutual agreement.

Phased retirements make sense. Just ask emeritus professors or senior-status judges. So why should a state that has invested in its employees for so long completely lose the benefit of their experience and knowledge? And wouldn’t it be better for retirees to maintain connections to work and colleagues that keep their minds sharp and may even extend their lives?

“All I know,” Vin Scully recently said, “is I’m eternally grateful for having been allowed to work so many games.”

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square. He can be contacted at joe@zocalopublicsquare.org.

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