The daily commute as an element of job satisfaction (or lack thereof)

Do you factor in a daily commuting experience as part of your overall job satisfaction? If you don’t, then maybe you should.

Shana Lebowitz writes for Business Insider on “how most of us underestimate just how miserable commuting can make us.” She cites research published in the Harvard Business Review:

That’s according to a team of researchers writing in The Harvard Business Review. They cite multiple studies that suggest commuting can be more stressful than actually working, and that the longer your commute, the less satisfied you may be with your job and with life in general.

Her conclusion? “Reduce your commute. As in, move closer to your office or find a job closer to your home.”

Urban commuter here

My commuting-to-work experiences have been exclusively by city subways. (I haven’t owned a car since 1982!) I’m more than willing to exchange suburban home space for the experience of city living.

After graduating from law school, for years I made weekday subway trips from Park Slope, Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. My love affair with New York was still in full flower, so I dealt with the frustrations, delays, and packed subway cars with (somewhat) stoic patience. The average door-to-door commuting time was 40-50 minutes, but it often felt much longer because of the miserable rush hour experience. When I look back at those years, I’m surprised there weren’t more displays of maniacal acting out by otherwise mature, sensible people!

For the past fourteen years, I’ve been doing subway trips from Jamaica Plain, Boston, to downtown Boston, where my university is located. The average commuting time is about 30-40 minutes, made much easier by the fact that a flexible work schedule allows me to largely avoid rush hour traveling. The biggest difference between this and my NYC subway experience is that I can usually get a seat on the train, which for me translates into opportunities to read a book, magazine, or newspaper.

Economic class impacts

However, I’m also cognizant of the fact that I’ve had some choices in this regard. In Greater Boston, for example, housing costs have driven more and more people into outer ring suburbs and beyond. Their lengthier commutes are often imposed upon them. Similar patterns are evident in other popular metro areas as well.

Of course, others choose to live in suburban areas, even if it means a longer work commute. Personally, I can’t understand the appeal of suburban living, but many of my friends feel completely the opposite way! In any event, smoother commutes — whether by car or by train — would be good for everyone. If we use this research data to inform how we can improve the quality of lives overall, then we should invest in transportation systems that ease commuting experiences to and from urban centers.

Even early 401(k) supporters believe the U.S. retirement funding system is broken

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Slate‘s Helaine Olen summarizes recent articles and research studies to paint a scary view of America’s retirement funding crisis, including a Wall Street Journal piece reporting that early advocates of the 401(k) retirement account are now admitting that it’s doing a lousy job of helping folks save for retirement:

The Wall Street Journal’s Timothy Martin tracked down several early proponents of the 401(k) and asked them what they think of their innovation, which has supplanted the traditional pension at most companies. . . .

Herbert Whitehouse, a former Johnson & Johnson human resources executive who pushed the then-new savings vehicle in the early 1980s, now says even he can’t retire until his mid-70s if he wishes to maintain his standard of living, because, Martin writes, his 401(k) “took a hit” in 2008. He’s 65. And Ted Benna, the man most frequently credited for the 401(k) as we know it, says he doesn’t believe “any system currently in existence” can help most Americans finance their financial needs in retirement.

Olen summarizes recent research studies documenting the depth and breadth of this crisis:

The Center for Retirement Research currently estimates that about 52 percent of households are “at risk of not having enough to maintain their living standards in retirement” with “the outlook for retiring Baby Boomers and Generation Xers far less sanguine than for current retirees.” The Economic Policy Institute says just under half of households headed by someone between the ages of 32 and 61 have nothing saved for retirement.

Cassandra Calling

In a Slate piece from last March, Olen reveals her exasperation in writing over and again about a retirement funding crisis that America is sweeping under the rug:

News flash: Americans still aren’t saving enough money for retirement.

No doubt you are tired of reading this story. I’m certainly tired of writing it.

“The United States is on the verge of a retirement crisis,” I proclaimed in 2013. I repeated myself in 2014. And again in 2015. And, now, 2016.

I can relate. On a much more modest level (in terms of readership, that is!), I’ve been sounding this call for many years on this blog:

Two tales of the Times (2016)

Two articles published in last Saturday’s New York Times drive home a pair of contrasting narratives about aging and retirement prospects in the United States. One paints an idyllic picture of retirees who have the flexibility and financial resources to engage in adult learning activities for pleasure and intellectual company. The other details the challenges facing women who became unemployed in their 50s during the Great Recession and who have struggled to find work since then.

Is America “On the Beach” about its retirement funding crisis? (2015)

Is America simply waiting for the huge, coming crisis in retirement funding to overtake us? What happens then?

The situation reminds me of the 1959 movie, On the Beach, starring Gregory Peck and Ava Gardner. In the film, Australians are attempting to carry on with their everyday lives, while knowing that massive, deadly nuclear fallout, which already has wiped out most of the rest of humanity, is heading their way. When that occurs, they, too, will have no hope for survival.

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones (2014)

Many members of “Generation Jones,” that span of late Boomers and early Gen Xers who are in their middle years, face tough times right now. This cohort has been hit especially hard by the ongoing economic crisis, with many losing jobs in mid-career and finding it difficult to obtain new employment and to save for retirement.

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few) (2013) 

In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack, and much of this broadside is coming from well-monied corporate interests, aided by supportive far-right politicians.

This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together because, frankly, concerns about America’s retirement funding crisis tend to be examined in silos, such as (1) Social Security; (2) public employee pension funds; and (3) 401(k) balances.

Retirement expert: “Most Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2012)

According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck (2010)

Do I have it completely wrong, or is most of America ignoring the coming economic and social train wreck that will occur when millions of Baby Boomers realize they do not have sufficient resources to fund a relatively comfortable retirement?

I’ve been trying to connect the dots, and the emerging picture of the Boomer retirement crisis frightens me….

In her March Slate piece, Olen urged the presidential candidates to make the nation’s retirement readiness a major campaign issue. Instead, we got the ugliest, most vulgar campaign in modern American history. I don’t know what it will take for the nation to wake up to what is before us, as millions of Boomers (followed closely by Gen Xers) move into their later years. Even the relatively quick-fix responses, such as raising the payroll tax limit to allow Social Security to maintain current benefit levels and — hopefully — to increase benefits for those in need, do not appear to have a lot of political support in Washington D.C.

Poor, aging, and on the road in America

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A photo essay by John Glionna and Francine Orr for the Los Angeles Times profiles the life of Dolores Westfall, age 79, who travels the country in her rickety recreational vehicle in search of work:

Westfall — 5 feet 1 tall, with a graceful dancer’s body she honed as a tap-dancing teenager — is as stubborn as she is high-spirited. But she finds herself these days in a precarious place: Her savings long gone, and having never done much long-term financial planning, Westfall left her home in California to live in an aging RV she calls Big Foot, driving from one temporary job to the next.

She endures what is for many aging Americans an unforgiving economy. Nearly one-third of U.S. heads of households ages 55 and older have no pension or retirement savings and a median annual income of about $19,000.

. . . Many rely on Social Security and minimal pensions, in part because half of all workers have no employer-backed retirement plans. Eight in 10 Americans say they will work well into their 60s or skip retirement entirely.

The piece notes that while more fortunate retirees may pack up their RVs to cross the country sightseeing, Westfall (whose fall from the middle class was precipitated by the Great Recession) and others are traversing America in search of work. Most of these jobs are of limited duration and pay poorly. In Westfall’s case:

Her seven-year journey has taken Westfall to 33 states and counting. She’s worked as a cavern tour guide, resort receptionist, crowd control officer, hustling clerk at an Amazon warehouse. Others like her have cleaned toilets, picked beets, plucked chickens.

Her monthly income consists of $1,200 in Social Security and a $190 pension, plus pay from her seasonal jobs. She owes $50,000 on her credit cards. There’s also a $268 monthly loan payment for her aging rig.

Westfall embodies what journalist Jessica Bruder, interviewed two years ago by NPR’s’s Here and Now program, has called the phenomenon of “workampers.” Here’s the intro:

A story in Harper’s Magazine opens a window into some of these people. They’re called “workampers” (a contraction of working and camping) and they travel across the country in their RVs, often performing seasonal work, selling fireworks, pumpkins, Christmas trees. They even work part-time in huge Amazon warehouses.

Jessica Bruder is author of the story, “The End Of Retirement: When You Can’t Afford To Stop Working,” in the August issue of Harper’s. She told Here & Now’s Robin Young that this movable work force is a great thing for companies like Amazon.

Even if workamping does not become a dominant option for cash-strapped seniors, a growing retirement funding crisis awaits us. A huge cohort of late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a group that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — is hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

Beefing up Social Security payments and strengthening Medicare are two obvious options to help close the financial gaps facing many seniors now and in the future. Unfortunately, we heard very little discussion about America’s retirement readiness during the awful, just concluded presidential campaign. If early assessments are correct, the Trump Administration will be looking to cut Social Security and Medicare payments for seniors, which will only worsen the human impacts of the burgeoning crisis.

Accumulating stuff and more stuff: Are Millennials breaking the pattern?

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Jura Koncius writes for the Washington Post on a trend observed by auctioneers, personal organizers, and downsizing coaches: Millennials aren’t that interested in inheriting all the material possessions that their parents and others want to hand down to them:

Members of the generation that once embraced sex, drugs and rock-and-roll are trying to offload their place settings for 12, family photo albums and leather sectionals.

Their offspring don’t want them.

As baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, start cleaning out attics and basements, many are discovering that millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, are not so interested in the lifestyle trappings or nostalgic memorabilia they were so lovingly raised with.

For now, at least, the Millennials don’t need or want all that stuff. As to why, Koncius quotes professional organizer Scott Roewer:

“Millennials are living a more transient life in cities. They are trying to find stable jobs and paying off loans . . . . They are living their life digitally through Instagram and Facebook and YouTube, and that’s how they are capturing their moments. Their whole life is on a computer; they don’t need a shoebox full of greeting cards.”

So will Millennials be the generation that breaks the constant cycle of accumulation?

I think it’s too early to say. Right now it’s fair to presume that life circumstances are influencing Millennial attitudes toward material possessions as much as anything else. Finishing school, geographic transience, economic pressures, and a challenging job market all enter the picture. Furthermore, as the Pew Research Center recently reported, “for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household.” 

It also may be the case, as suggested in the Koncius piece, that Millennials are more likely to live in a digital mode, one less tied to accumulating material possessions. I’d like to think, or at least hope, that maybe they have wizened up to the fact that experiences, not possessions, tend to generate more individual happiness — something that many members of preceding generations have not necessarily understood.

In any event, if this trend hardens into a generational lifestyle choice, then it may be a healthy development for society overall. Speaking as an inveterate collector attempting to downsize my own belongings, I know that we’d be better off shaking the accumulation habit. It does mean, however, that thrift shops may overflow with unwanted stuff from empty-nested McMansions. Those giant dining room tables may just have to be sawed down into kindling.

A $400 question: America’s desperate and dwindling middle class

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Neal Gabler is a successful writer whose personal account of sliding down the economic ladder due to career ups and downs, kids’ college costs, and questionable spending decisions has gone viral. Published in the current issue of The Atlantic, Gabler’s tale of being in the heart of midlife with precarious personal finances and dubious retirement prospects has struck a chord.

Before jumping into his own story, Gabler shares facts and figures that should give all of us a chill, including a recent Federal Reserve Board survey of American consumers, which featured a question about how respondents would cover an unexpected $400 expense:

The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew?

Holy smokes.

Gabler counts himself among those who would have trouble scrounging up $400. He makes clear that he’s not blaming the world for his situation; in fact, he takes responsibility for his actions and decisions:

I don’t ask for or expect any sympathy. I am responsible for my quagmire—no one else. I didn’t get gulled into overextending myself by unscrupulous credit merchants. Basically, I screwed up, royally. I lived beyond my means, primarily because my means kept dwindling. I didn’t take the actions I should have taken, like selling my house and downsizing, though selling might not have covered what I owed on my mortgage.

It’s a thought provoking and sometimes disturbing piece about middle class anxieties, pressures to keep up with the Joneses, and how quickly both time and money pass through our lives.

Lingering effects of the Great Recession

Gabler may not be blaming his personal finance woes on our economic system, but plenty of evidence suggests that most Americans are subject to the slings and arrows of an unforgiving market economy and significant wealth inequalities.

Nicholas Fitz, writing for Scientific American, documents our misconceptions about wealth and income distribution in the U.S.:

The average American believes that the richest fifth own 59% of the wealth and that the bottom 40% own 9%. The reality is strikingly different. The top 20% of US households own more than 84% of the wealth, and the bottom 40% combine for a paltry 0.3%.

. . . The median American estimated that the CEO-to-worker pay-ratio was 30-to-1, and that ideally, it’d be 7-to-1. The reality? 354-to-1. Fifty years ago, it was 20-to-1.

Ben Leubsdorf, in a piece for the Wall Street Journal, writes about the lasting economic and psychological trauma of the Great Recession:

The recession ended seven years ago, but persistent joblessness and underemployment marred the economic expansion that followed. A growing body of research suggests the economic trauma has left financial and psychic scars on many Americans, and that those marks are likely to endure for decades.

About one in six U.S. workers became unemployed during the recession years of 2007, 2008 and 2009. Today, nearly 14 million people are still searching for a job or stuck in part-time jobs because they can’t find full-time work.

Even for the millions of Americans back at work, the effects of losing a job will linger, the research suggests. They will earn less for years to come. They will be less likely to own a home. Many will struggle with psychological problems. Their children will perform worse in school and may earn less in their own jobs.

Retirement prospects

Labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci (New School for Social Research) is one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement funding. Though most of her work is contained in academic articles and studies, she has recently authored a slim 116-page book, How to Retire with Enough Money: And How to Know What Enough Is (2015), which I highly recommend. Two years ago, Dr. Ghilarducci told The Week (subscription may be necessary) that “This is the first time that Americans are going to be relatively worse off than their parents or grandparents in old age.” Figures cited in the article back her up:

A stunning 45 percent of all American households with people still in their working years have nothing at all saved for retirement. Among those ages 50 to 64, 75 percent have less than $28,000 put away. Even among the most prepared Boomer households, savings average just $140,000, far too little to fund a 20-plus-year retirement. All told, Americans are at least $6.8 trillion short of what they need for a comfortable retirement, according to the National Institute on Retirement Security.

In her book, Ghilarducci avoids pointing the finger at individuals for alleged overspending or failure to save. Rather, stagnant incomes and a sharp decline in employer-sponsored pension and retirement plans are among the major culprits. She urges readers to undertake both personal and political action to improve America’s retirement security prospects.

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My conclusion? We’re facing a major reckoning on a national and global levels when it comes to economic issues big and small. I concur with Dr. Ghilarducci that the responses will have to be both personal and political.

Crowdfunding as privatized, casino-style public assistance

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Crowdfunding started as a way of raising capital for entrepreneurial projects, and then it also became a fundraising tool for non-profit initiatives. Now, fueled by a growing wealth divide and the lingering effects of the Great Recession, crowdfunding is turning into a popular medium for individuals to launch pleas for money to meet unexpected and sometimes dire personal expenses. Some campaigns are started by people who are trying to help friends and family members in need.

Many such requests are posted to Facebook. Using sites such as GoFundMe, they request individual donations to cover medical bills, rent, burial costs, educational expenses, and the like. The funding goals usually are in the four and five figures. I’ve seen a few for six-figure amounts. Because the crowdfunding campaign is almost always posted by an individual, donations are rarely tax-deductible as charitable gifts.

I have no idea what percentage of crowdfunding appeals for individual expenses are successful, but my guess is that there are many more misses than hits. Many, if not most of them, carry a voice of desperation. Those launching these campaigns feel like they have run out of options, and so they are asking others for support to keep them afloat.

Welcome to today’s privatized, casino-style form of “public” assistance. As the bottom continues to fall out of America’s middle class, and our safety net increasingly shows its holes, we’re going to see more and more crowdfunding campaigns on behalf of those who are trying to make ends meet. 

The successful appeals will be compelling in voice and substance and supported by a network of friends. The unsuccessful appeals will be unpersuasive, sound questionable, or naively assume that lots of strangers are waiting for reasons to give away their money. In other words, something of a twisted “meritocracy” will develop between those who are successful and unsuccessful at pitching for money to help them survive.

Perhaps this is a logical, unsurprising result of a society that has bought into the notion that the “free market” is a panacea and the solution to all of our problems. A reality TV show pitting those in need against each other cannot be far off.

Related posts

“Should I support that Kickstarter, GoFundMe, or Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign?” (2015)

More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences

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A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

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