For older workers like Seibert, a couple years' warning would not have done much good. That's because with so much of their work lives behind them, they have less time left to adjust. And the problem is compounded for those like Robert Montgomery, 67, who retired from Delphi in April 2004 after 31 years.

These people have to hope that, bankruptcy or not, the company will make good on its pension and retiree health promises or, if it doesn't, that Washington will step in to cover at least the pensions. (There is no government insurance program for retiree health benefits.)

Until the last few years, they could have rested easy that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. would ensure that they got paid. But that was before many of the nation's steel companies and some of its biggest airlines declared bankruptcy and dumped their pension obligations on the government. Among them: Miller-managed Bethlehem Steel, whose retirement promises will cost the pension agency $3.7 billion.

Suddenly, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s $9.7-billion surplus in 2000 became a $22.8-billion deficit, and some analysts suggest that this was just the beginning of the trouble.

Seizing on the agency's estimate of a $450-billion mismatch between the assets and liabilities of all of the nation's private pension plans, these analysts say that a financial crisis of the magnitude of the savings-and-loan fiasco of the 1980s is in the offing. Others say that a second, similar-sized crisis is on the way for state and local government pensions, which the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. does not insure, but which carry a kind of implicit public guarantee.

Coming atop President Bush's concerns about the solvency of Social Security, the new warnings seem to suggest that America has over-promised; that even if current and near retirees like Montgomery and Seibert get their pensions, younger workers won't get -- or even be offered -- anything similar; that the era of defined benefit protection is coming to a crashing close.

So what sort of shape is the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. really in?

Asked last week, Executive Director Bradley D. Belt said, "Clearly, the agency is facing the largest set of challenges in its 31-year history." But Belt said that some of the most negative assessments were overstated.

The $450-billion figure, for example, represents what the agency -- or the taxpayers -- would have to pick up if every private pension plan in the nation failed simultaneously. "It's a Chicken Little number," said Mark Ugoretz, president of a Washington-based group that lobbies on benefit issues for the nation's top 200 corporations.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. estimates that its exposure to troubled companies, which are the most likely to dump their retirement obligations, is closer to $108 billion than $450 billion. And if the agency's recent history is any guide, about one-third of that amount, or $35 billion, will end up on its books -- a substantial amount, but manageable.

The big problem is that almost no one in Washington can agree on precisely how to manage it.

The House and Senate have each approved bills that would require companies to contribute more to their pension plans and raise premiums for Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. insurance. But the two bodies have yet to agree on how to reconcile the measures.

The administration has advanced its own overhaul proposal. The president recently promoted it as requiring firms to contribute more than the congressional plans and on a tighter schedule. But critics warn the requirements are so stringent they would have the effect of driving more companies out of defined benefits, and may even have been designed to do so.

"The administration would like to have employers get out of defined benefit plans and put people into individual accounts," said Alan Reuther, the nephew of labor legend Walter Reuther and the UAW's legislative director.

"The president tried to push [individual] accounts with his Social Security privatization. He tried to push them with his health savings accounts, and now he's trying to push them with pensions," Reuther said.

Administration officials deny they intend to uproot traditional pensions.

Even if Washington resolved the traditional system's immediate financial problems, there remains the question: In the new global economy, can companies -- or the government -- afford to promise the kind of long-term protection that pensions provide?

To all appearances, Delphi's Miller thinks the answer is "No," and Lowell Seibert isn't waiting to find out for sure.

He has put away the golf clubs he bought recently. He and his wife have put off plans to replace the family room furniture. And he has given up ordering an extra-wide Lay-Z-Boy recliner so his 28-month-old grandson Anthony can sit beside him when he reads bedtime stories.

The way Seibert now figures it, Anthony will be closing in on his teenage years by the time he can afford to retire.