Check out the horror stories from one of the most abused segments of our population—people 55 and older. People invest for decades into a retirement plan and, just like that, it all goes away. It may be an unscrupulous or incompetent employer or that investment specialist in your town who, as it turns out, didn’t know what he was doing.
As Baby Boomers we were taught by our parents and grandparents to work hard and be loyal. Loyalty is a two-way street, or so we were told, and employers supposedly recognize and respect this asset as exemplified by our hard work and willingness to go the extra mile.
My parents’ generation was better at this than their children were, and they also became the first generation to comfortably retire at relatively young ages. That had, in previous generations, been the province of the wealthy, who lived off their accrued wealth when accruing wealth was rare. Now the masses were cruising away their retirement years in RVs, bronzing their wrinkles in sunnier climes or just content not to labor for a pay check unless it was on their terms and schedule.
My father, who died in 2011 at the age of 90, was actually retired for more than a quarter of a century, and he and my mother were together and happily active for all but the last two or three of those years. They were lucky, but their situation is not all that unusual. They lived simply on Dad’s IRA and Social Security checks. Mom never had to work during their 66 years of marriage. I should say she didn’t have a paying job. She brought up four kids, which can be hard labor, and took care of the home front, paying the bills and making critical management decisions.
My generation and those that followed couldn’t afford to do that, because we needed more stuff. My wife and I have college degrees—something that wasn’t so common in our parents’ generation—but she put her degree on hold until both of our children were in school. Then she put it to use teaching elementary school kids with learning disabilities. Living on my income as a newspaper reporter and editor was challenging in the early years, and we occasionally got behind on the bills and damaged our credit rating a bit.
It took us a few years to get back on track so we could send our daughter and son to two of the best schools in the land, NYU and Carnegie Mellon. Their brains and financial need loan assistance allowed us to accomplish that, and as we hit 60 we found ourselves clear of virtually all debt.
My first weekly paycheck as a reporter in 1972 was $120, and after the three-month probationary period it was increased to $126. We had a young child and were able to pay rent and buy groceries—all on my earnings, which, fortunately, increased by as much as $50 a week over the next six or seven years. There wasn’t much room for recreation in our budget, but there are a lot of happy memories of those years as a young couple. It was when we started needing stuff, like a house, when things became more stressful.
Mary began teaching full-time after we returned to Wyalusing in the early 1980’s and has since retired herself.
I tell you all of this because I’m one of the lucky ones. I never made a lot of money over the years, but I enjoyed what I did. My wife was a great teacher, which doesn’t factor into her raises because merit pay is unknown in Pennsylvania public schools. But she did get healthy raises over most of her three decades in the classroom. When she started teaching, my income was something like 15 percent more than hers. In 2010, my last full year on a newspaper payroll, her salary topped mine by well over 15 percent. That made her the chief wage earner in the family in the last decade of our careers.
Still, we embarked into our sixties with few financial worries. I feel very fortunate that I was able to do what I loved doing, and, armed with writing skills, have the freedom to do what I want as a freelance copywriter. That includes writing a weekly column and occasional article for my old newspaper. Fortunately, few of the things I want out of life cost a lot of money.
There are people of my generation who find themselves living hand to mouth because that company they were so loyal to found an excuse to dump them, unloading their salaries and retirement contributions. They can’t find any decent jobs, other than minimum wage positions that even high school kids regard as beneath them.
According to the National Council on Aging, there are about 13 million of my peers who “live one medical bill, one missed meal or one job away from economic disaster.” Then there are those who are already there.
There is always the chance that something bad will happen. There are no guarantees in life. Economic catastrophe is always a threat in a world where cyber attacks and hacked bank accounts can destroy everything you’ve worked for, leaving you destitute and anonymous. So, all things considered, I’ve been very lucky. The only thing I’m missing is a pair of reliable knees.