Had he been an average American worker instead of a pop-singing, iconoclastic voice of his generation, Paul McCartney would today be almost ready to journey into the halcyon days of retirement.

Born in 1942, McCartney sits on the introductory fringe of legions of baby boomers ready to launch an incursion into the resources of this country's public retirement systems.

The 1960s-era teenyboppers who once donned their best duds and horn-rimmed glasses to scream and faint at the sight of the Fab Four are now entering their Eleanor Rigby years as part of the healthiest generation ever to exist.

Americans are living longer, and that's good news -- but good news that comes with complications.

Currently there are nearly 36 million Americans age 65 or older. In 10 years, that number will increase to more than 40 million, and by 2030, retirement age Americans will surpass 70 million -- nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population.

Bill Ruh, CTO of Software AG, a company helping to automate annual retirement statements at the massive California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS), calls the current convergence of conditions a "perfect storm."

"There are shrinking state budgets coupled with recent poor performance of retirement system investments, meaning funds are not available to hire additional call-center staff to answer questions on the phone," he said. "Baby boomers who will soon retire in large numbers look to the Web to get information -- a recent survey showed that the fastest-growing segment of Internet users is senior adults -- and services."

You Tell Me It's the Institution

It's no wonder public retirement systems -- traditionally notorious for being buried in paperwork -- increasingly look to technology to relieve overburdened workers and better serve constituents.

And it's about time.

Big business spent the past decade automating processes and eliminating paper wherever possible. State and local governments jumped on the e-bandwagon several years ago -- though many are just now getting to where they technologically would like -- but public retirement systems have lagged.

Low turnover, which would be considered a plus in other circumstances, is one reason public retirement systems are behind the times, said Lynn Cummings, business technology strategies coordinator for the New York State Teachers' Retirement System (NYSTRS).

"A lot of people, like myself, have been working here a long time -- 20 or 30 years. We have less than 3 percent turnover a year," she said. "Our people were used to doing things the way they'd always been done. There's been a lot of resistance to change."

Tim Garza, chief of the Business Solutions Office at CalPERS, the largest public retirement system in the country, cites a slightly different reason for the slow build toward automation.

"CalPERS is a government entity," he said. "Like all government agencies, we are very conscious of the obligation we have to those we serve. Traditionally government technology upgrades lag behind the private sector, but that's because we have to be certain we are serving the public the best way we can and are using their dollars wisely."

Along with trepidation at changing longstanding practices and responsibility to honor public trust, the sheer volume of the paper process --applications and beneficiary forms, and changes in status, claims and individual benefit statements -- as well as a glut of historical paper documents make massive automation intimidating.

But radical change is taking place.

"Our research of a sample of public retirement agencies shows that about one-third have already put into place one or more of what we call the 'top-five practices,'" said Ruh. "Those practices include electronic form submission, online member self-service, real-time access to account information, automated ad hoc report creations and distribution, and electronic enrollment of new members."

Kris Middaugh  |  Staff Writer