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.

Two tales of the Times

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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.

Back to school (for the fun of it)

In “In School for the Sake of Keeping the Mind Stimulated,” Harriet Edleson opens with the story of a retired couple, both 68, who are enrolled in an advanced adult learning program for personal enrichment:

JOSH AND SUSAN FRIED attend classes three days a week but they never receive any grades or cram for midterms or finals. They are not trying to earn an additional degree or retrain for a new career.

. . . Dr. Fried retired from his dental practice eight years ago and moved with his wife, Susan, a former English teacher, to Rockville, Md.

. . . The Frieds are among the 150,000 men and women nationally who participate each year at more than 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. . . . Along with an array of other such programs fitting under the “lifelong learning” umbrella, they tend to attract educated, passionate people who are seeking intellectual and social stimulation among peers who often become new friends.

These adult education programs can be like going back to school, but without final exams and term papers. According to Edleson, these “lifelong learning programs position themselves as communities where the participants not only take on challenging subjects but also seek to engage more deeply with their fellow students.”

As I’ve written before, later-in-life transitions aren’t limited to immersing one’s self in books and ideas that may have escaped post-adolescent attention spans many years ago. Still other empty nesters, near-retirees, and retirees are creating “encore” careers that allow them to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community.

Overall, for those in good physical and financial health as they grow older, the present and future are bright. For guidance, they can access a growing body of self-help and personal development literature and online content detailing how to maximize life’s second half. The choices are and will continue to be plentiful.

Searching for work at fiftysomething

In “Over 50, Female and Jobless Even as Others Return to Work,” Patricia Cohen opens with a different type of story, one of a woman in her fifties who has not worked since a 2007 layoff:

Laid off at the start of the recession from the diagnostic testing firm in Seattle where she spent more than three decades, [Chettie] McAfee, 58, has not worked since 2007.

. . . Ms. McAfee is part of a group that has found the postrecession landscape particularly difficult to navigate: women over 50.

. . . A new study on long-term unemployment from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the prospects for women over 50 darkened after the Great Recession.

. . . The employment picture has definitely improved since then, economists point out, and more older women have managed to return to work. Still, the waves from the recession, which ended six and a half years ago, continue to upend many people who were cast aside during and immediately after the storm.

Hard evidence of age discrimination against women helps to fill in the picture. Nancy Collamer, writing for Next Avenue, reports that a “National Bureau of Economic Research study, Is It Harder for Older Workers to Find Jobs? , offers ‘robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.’”

Apples and oranges?

Concededly, we’re talking about two different age cohorts here, so I’m not suggesting there’s a direct comparison. But it’s noteworthy that one piece is touting the intellectual and cultural enrichment options available to retirees of sufficient means, while another is spotlighting the job hunting woes of a group 10 or 20 years behind them who, absent dramatic changes of fortune, will never have those choices.

In fact, a 2015 U.S. Governmental Accountability Office study on retirement readiness documents the limited retirement savings of retirees and workers in their mid-50s and older:

Many retirees and workers approaching retirement have limited financial resources. About half of households age 55 and older have no retirement savings (such as in a 401(k) plan or an IRA). According to GAO’s analysis of the 2013 Survey of Consumer Finances, many older households without retirement savings have few other resources, such as a defined benefit (DB) plan or nonretirement savings, to draw on in retirement . . . .

My own interests in these topics have been spurred by the effects of workplace bullying on middle-aged workers. While bullying at work is difficult to deal with at any stage of one’s life, it can be especially challenging for individuals who experience it later in their careers and lose their jobs in the process. Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest that middle-aged women, in particular, are vulnerable to bullying behaviors.

While some are examining how to help the  older, long-term unemployed, there are no easy answers. In the meantime, America’s huge wealth gap is heading into a more pronounced chronological dimension, separating those who can afford at least a relatively comfortable retirement from everyone else, with the latter group constituting a big share of the population.

Related posts

Triple jeopardy: Workplace bullying at midlife (2013)

Retirement expert: “Most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees” (2013)

Not “Set for Life”: Boomers face layoffs, discrimination, and bullying at work (2012)

Singled out? Workplace bullying, economic insecurity, and the unmarried woman (2010)

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

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.

For years I’ve been writing here about the emerging retirement funding crisis, and I’ve seen little evidence that things are getting any better. In fact, a major new research report by the non-profit, non-partisan National Institute for Retirement Security (NIRS) concludes “that the U.S. retirement savings crisis continues to worsen, and that the typical working household still has virtually no retirement savings.”

The new report, The Continuing Retirement Savings Crisis (authored by Dr. Nari Rhee and Ilana Bouvie) is a thorough update of a 2013 NIRS report, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think? NIRS concludes that the situation remains very dire. Here are some key points drawn from the 2015 report:

  • “When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500. The median retirement account balance was $3,000 for all working-age households as reported in a previous 2013 report.”
  • “For near-retirement households, the new analysis finds that the median retirement account balance is $14,500.”
  • “(S)ome 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what Americans need to be self-sufficient in retirement.”
  • “Even after counting households’ entire net worth—a generous measure of retirement savings—two thirds (66 percent) of working families fall short of conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income based on working until age 67.”

Personal and public policy responses

For those in a position to do so, this means paying close attention to retirement funding and engaging in steady, informed saving and investing. However, the realities behind the numbers are that many Americans will not be in a position to make up large shortfalls in expected retirement funding needs.

Clearly, we need to respond on a public scale simply to provide the means for a minimally secure, dignified retirement. The NIRS report agrees, observing that “(p)ublic policy can play a critical role in putting all Americans on a path toward a secure retirement by strengthening Social Security, expanding access to low cost, high quality retirement plans, and helping low income workers and families save.”

Now we get it, sort of

A recent NIRS public opinion survey “revealed that an overwhelming majority of Americans – 86 percent – believe that the nation faces a retirement crisis” and “that 75 percent of Americans are concerned about their ability to achieve a secure retirement.”  

In other words, America now understands that this is a crisis. 

It’s why I invoked On the Beach: We seem to know what’s coming, but we’re basically conducting business as usual. I guess it’s easier than imagining the specter of millions of people heading into their senior years with little or no retirement savings and a frayed safety net beneath them. Many around my age (50-somethings) are bravely saying, “I’ll just have to work forever,” but for a whole lot of reasons, that choice won’t be available to everyone.  

This is not a fun topic; it is a source of anxiety and stress for many, especially among my age cohort. However, unlike the Australian denizens in the movie, we are not necessarily doomed. We can undertake measures to soften this crisis — like shoring up the Social Security system, which is eminently do-able —  especially if we can summon more collective concern, caring, and kindness than what now dominates our political dialogue.

Instead of feeding on the usual nastiness that pervades typical cable news programs, let’s wrap our attention around these more significant concerns with some genuine heart quality and determination. The stakes are too high not to do so.

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Related posts

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

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013)

Retirement party (2013)

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

The press discovers the coming Boomer retirement crisis (2011)

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

Hard looks at joblessness, retirement funding, and Generation Jones

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.

Decades ago, many Gen Jonesers confronted a rough economy while launching their work lives. During the late 70s and early 80s, the economy was in severe recession, inflation ran very high, and employers were cutting back or eliminating pension plans. Academic studies indicate that graduating into a recessionary economy can impair earning power for years. So this group has been unlucky in terms of both entry-level and mid-life labor markets.

I concede my bias on this topic. I’m a member of Generation Jones, and these realities are hitting many among my age group. As the following pieces indicate, we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to rebuild both opportunity and a safety net. Here goes:

Huffington Post: Why Worrying About Retirement Is Actually A Luxury

Ann Brenoff, blogging for the Huffington Post, says that she’s bombarded by advertising appeals from retirement planners, but the real problem is that most people lack sufficient funds to invest for retirement, period:

My inbox is bombarded daily with pitches from retirement planners who claim to hold the secret to my “dream retirement.”

…Here’s the problem I have with them: They ignore the elephant in the room, which is, it’s too late for most boomers to join their party. Spending less and saving more — if even possible — won’t close the gap between what we have and what we will likely need.

…What I don’t understand is why everyone isn’t talking about the crazy awfulness that awaits us — and by us I mean the vast majority of people who are woefully unprepared for retirement.

New York Times: Retirement May Be Even More Expensive Than You Think

How much money do we need to save for retirement? Paul B. Brown, writing for the New York Times, discusses a new book by finance professor and investment expert Richard C. Marston, Investing for a Lifetime:

Although Fidelity Investments garnered a lot of attention two years ago when it declared that you would need eight times your current salary to “meet basic income needs in retirement,” Mr. Marston disagrees. “Despite the fact that it is very difficult to save eight times income, the goal the company proposed seemed too low to me,” he says.

If you thought eight times current income was daunting, Mr. Marston’s default position will stun you. He says it can easily come to 15 times what you are earning now.

Okay, so Prof. Marston recommends saving fifteen times one’s current income?! Only the tiniest percentage of U.S. workers have retirement portfolios on track for that. The gap between the realities facing most Americans and the numbers being recommended by personal finance experts is bonkers, simply mind blowing.

Next Avenue: Reflections From The “Over” Generation

Kevin Kusinitz is a 58-year-old writer who has been unemployed for nearly two years. In this piece for Next Avenue, he reflects upon being part of an age group being passed over for jobs but too young (and broke) to retire:

Like a lot of people around my age, I really didn’t pay close attention to the unemployment situation until I was in the thick of it myself. It was only then that I started reading the heartbreaking stories of perfectly good workers in their 50s who, like me, were shown the door by middle managers all apparently sharing the title: Executive Vice President of Keeping My Own Job by Any Means Necessary.

After decades as a right-of-center kind of guy, I was shocked to wake up one day thinking, “Oh my God, now I know what Michael Moore has been talking about all this time.”

…I’m no sociologist but I predict if this trend keeps up (and, frankly, why shouldn’t it?), the next decade is going to see a spike in older people moving in with their adult children, becoming homeless or even committing suicide because they will have no other options.

Harper’s: The End of Retirement (subscription necessary)

Jessica Bruder, writing for Harper‘s, explores the subculture of older American workers who have lost steadier jobs and who now roam the country in vans and camping vehicles in search of extended part-time work such as seasonal tourist sites and warehouse gigs. You’ll have to get a copy of the August issue or subscribe to access the online edition, but here’s the lede from her story:

On Thanksgiving Day of 2010, Linda May sat alone in a trailer in New River, Arizona. At sixty, the silver-haired grandmother lacked electricity and running water. She couldn’t find work. Her unemployment benefits had run out, and her daughter’s family, with whom she had lived for many years while holding a series of low-wage jobs, had recently downsized to a smaller apartment. There wasn’t enough room to move back in with them.

“I’m going to drink all the booze. I’m going to turn on the propane. I’m going to pass out and that’ll be it,” she told herself. “And if I wake up, I’m going to light a cigarette and blow us all to hell.”

Her two small dogs were staring at her. May hesitated — could she really envision blowing them up as well? That wasn’t an option. So instead she accepted an invitation to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.

Associated Press: Where have all the missing American workers gone?

Tom Raum, writing for the Associated Press, examines the flattened “workforce-participation rate”, i.e., the total number of employed + job seekers, and reports that many of the long-term unemployed are simply dropping out of the labor market after efforts to obtain jobs have been repeatedly unsuccessful:

But perhaps the most significant factor is unemployed workers “who just drop out of the job market after one, two or three years of looking for work and not being successful,” said Carl Van Horn, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University who studies workplace dynamics and employment trends.

Recent surveys suggest more and more long-time unemployed workers are abandoning the search for another job and leaving the nation’s workforce.

“And they are disproportionately older workers,” Van Horn said. “We have a large number of older (unemployed) workers who are not old enough to retire, yet they are facing discrimination in the workplace and have found it nearly impossible to get another job.”

YES! magazine: Why Social Security’s Not Going Broke: A Nonhysterical Look at a System That’s Working

Is the Social Security system about to go under? You might believe so if you listen to hard right pundits who demonize anything to do with a government safety net, but in reality Social Security is doing much better than many private and public pension and savings plans. This article in YES! magazine offers a more sensible look at the situation. In an excellent set of infographics, managing editor Doug Pibel explains that the Social Security Trust Fund has sufficient funds to pay out expected benefits for the next two decades and that relatively manageable tax fixes can ensure its longer term viability:

Social Security will never “go broke.” As long as people are working, Social Security will have money. . . . There is now $2.8 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which will fully cover expenses for about the next two decades. To make it work after that is pretty painless — we just have to decide who pays.

FiveThirtyEight.com: Cutting Off Emergency Unemployment Benefits Hasn’t Pushed People Back to Work

So far, Congress has refused to extend unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless, a policy choice that disproportionately affects older individuals who have been experiencing severe difficulties re-entering the workforce. In a piece for FiveThirtyEight.com, Ben Casselman explains that arguments against such an extension aren’t panning out:

The case against extending unemployment benefits essentially boils down to two arguments. First, the economy has improved, so the unemployed should no longer need extra time to find a new job. Second, extended benefits could lead job seekers either to not search as hard or to become choosier about the kind of job they will accept, ultimately delaying their return to the workforce.

But the evidence doesn’t support either of those arguments. The economy has indeed improved, but not for the long-term unemployed, whose odds of finding a job are barely higher today than when the recession ended nearly five years ago. And the end of extended benefits hasn’t spurred the unemployed back to work; if anything, it has pushed them out of the labor force altogether.

AlterNet: The Terrible News Economists Are Trying to Hide About American Jobs

The so-called economic recovery isn’t that for millions of Americans. Long-time populist political commentator Jim Hightower takes issue with, among other things, the positive spin being applied to new jobs created since the worst of the meltdown:

So, it’s interesting that the recent news of job market “improvement” doesn’t mention that of the 10 occupation categories projecting the greatest growth in the next eight years, only one pays a middle-class wage. Four pay barely above poverty level and five pay beneath it, including fast-food workers, retail sales staff, health aids and janitors. The job expected to have the highest number of openings is “personal care aide” — taking care of aging baby boomers in their houses or in nursing homes. The median salary of an aid is under $20,000. They enjoy no benefits, and about 40 percent of them must rely on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet, plus many are in the “shadow economy,” vulnerable to being cheated on the already miserly wages.

WBUR: Amid, Long-Term Unemployment “Crisis,” MIT Project Lifts Jobs Seekers

MIT’s Institute for Career Transitions conducted a pilot project to coach and advise the long-term unemployed, with hopeful results. In order to measure the potential benefits of providing this assistance, the three-month project included a group who received help and a control group who did not. WBUR’s Benjamin Swasey reports:

Long-term unemployment — which, according to [MIT professor and Institute director Ofer] Sharone, disproportionately affects older workers — is at 2.3 percent of the nation’s workforce, a historically high level. More than 38 percent of America’s unemployed job seekers have been out of work six months or more.

. . . “We have a ton of studies showing that once you hit the six-month [jobless] point, by so many indicators it becomes a real crisis,” he says. “It’s a financial crisis. It’s an emotional crisis. And then when you get to this scale of numbers, it’s a social crisis. We’re losing out on a whole cohort of workers.”

. . .Of the group that got support, 30 percent obtained a full-time job or contract work of at least four months. That compares to just 18 percent from the group that received no aid.

“It clearly shows that the job market is very, very tough, even for someone in an ideal situation,” as “most people did not get jobs,” Sharone says. “On the other hand, I think we can say that there’s a meaningful difference to getting support.”

Boston GlobeHow will historians view us? (registration may be necessary)

How do the challenges specially facing this age group connect to other social and economic policy issues? Here’s one article that helps us to grasp the bigger picture: In an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe, writer Neal Gabler predicts how historians of the future will regard the current American era, and his assessment is not a positive one. Here are a few snippets:

Historians will wonder…how the gains of social and economic equality that were a century in the making were reversed, and, above all, how the country actually became less democratic, often with the acquiescence of many ordinary Americans.

The first thing historians are likely to fasten on is the historic economic inequality in America today.

…They will look at the nation’s…reluctance to embrace health reform that would provide insurance to those who cannot otherwise afford it, its willingness to cut benefits, like food stamps, that primarily help the young and the elderly, its grudging extension of unemployment benefits to people afflicted by the economic downturn.

…I suspect that historians will view this as a terribly bleak period — another Gilded Age but worse.

…And they will wonder: Why there was so little resistance?

What to do???

If any of these articles offered clear-cut, comprehensive solutions to the crisis, I would be highlighting them. Unfortunately it appears that we’re flying without radar here. Furthermore, as Neal Gabler’s Boston Globe piece suggests, I don’t think the American public is sufficiently aware of the systemic nature of this crisis to be able to connect the dots in ways that lead to political consensus. Right now, employment and retirement remain individual challenges rather than shared priorities, reflecting the social and political ethos in which Gen Joners have spent their adult lives.

I do think that reorienting our views on community and society is an important, necessary start toward addressing the situation. Last week I wrote about competing visions of the future, one being a “technological, top-down, service society,” the other being a world of “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.” We need this latter view to take hold if we are to reverse the rampant individualism and selfishness that soon may resemble passengers on a sinking ship fighting over too few spaces on the lifeboats (with a small few already having reserved seats). Either our better natures will rise to the occasion, or history will judge us harshly, and deservedly so.

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Related posts

I’ve been writing about the burgeoning retirement funding crisis since the first year of this blog. Go here to start scrolling through those articles. In addition, here are three pieces especially relevant to this post:

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…. 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….”

My Labor Day 2013 wish: Good, stable, bully-free jobs for Generation Jones (2013) — An extended commentary, echoing many themes raised here, covering topics such as age discrimination, workplace bullying, and mental health impacts relevant to Gen Jonesers, as well as potential public policy responses.

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) — “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.”

Blog subscriptions

Did you know that you can subscribe to either or both of my WordPress blogs for free? That’s right, every time I publish a post, it’ll land in your inbox. Sign up by going to “Follow this blog” at the top right of Minding the Workplace and/or my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser, and enter your e-mail address.

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

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.

I’ve written a lot about the retirement funding crisis on this blog, but I’ve never pulled together some of the interrelated political threads. Here’s a start:

1. Attack on Social Security

Let’s open with the attack on Social Security. In reality, Social Security is among our most stable benefit programs. Although some of the concerns about the future stability of Social Security are legitimate, a relatively easy fix — raising the cap on payroll taxes that fund the program — would go a long way toward ensuring its long-term viability for generations to come.

Dave Johnson, in a piece for the Campaign for America’s Future, traces the ideological roots of the fanatical attack on Social Security:

In 1983 a couple of conservative “think tanks” developed a step-by-step plan to privatize Social Security, for the benefit of “the banking industry and other business groups.” The plan describes a strategy to convince people that Social Security is going broke and that it is a “Ponzi scheme,” to undermine confidence in the program and lead people to accept that it needs “reform.” The plan outlines methods to “neutralize” opposition. The plan involves a smokescreen strategy of saying things to distract people from seeing what they are doing.

This strategy for attacking Social Security was spelled out in a 1983 document from the Cato Institute (previously named the Koch Foundation), with Heritage Foundation input. You can read the original document for yourself, it is titled Achieving A Leninist Strategy. Please, if you have time, read the entire document (in particular the section “Weakening the Opposition”) to understand the strategy that has been unfolding in the years since . . . .

To far-right zealots, there is nothing more objectionable than a government-sponsored program that is working. Such is the case with Social Security, and hence the virulent efforts to destroy it and the support it provides to millions of retirees.

2. Corporate role in sabotaging public sector pensions

Stories about severe underfunding of America’s public employee pension plans are now becoming a daily occurrence in the media. As Matt Taibbi writes in a major piece for Rolling Stone magazine, this is pitting “private-sector workers who’ve mostly lost their benefits already against public-sector workers who are merely about to lose them.” A more insightful inside story, Taibbi suggests, is how Wall Street has looted public pension funds:

One of the primary reasons why public sector pension programs are so underfunded is that they fell prey to those who invested pension monies into the Wall Street casino, and they accordingly lost billions when it fell to pieces five years ago . . . .

It turns out, according to Taibbi, that the massive underfunding of public pension systems has been “caused almost entirely by the greed and wide-scale fraud of the financial-services industry – particularly with regard to state pension funds.” He continues:

. . . In February 2011, [economist Dean] Baker reported that, had public pension funds not been invested in the stock market and exposed to mortgage-backed securities, there would be no shortfall at all. He said state pension managers were of course somewhat to blame, but only “insofar as they exercised poor judgment in buying the [finance] industry’s services.”

In fact, Baker said, had public funds during the crash years simply earned modest returns equal to 30-year Treasury bonds, then public-pension assets would be $850 billion richer than they were two years after the crash. Baker reported that states were short an additional $80 billion over the same period thanks to the fact that post-crash, cash-strapped states had been paying out that much less of their mandatory ARC payments.

3. The 401(k) retirement “system”

Lynn Stuart Parramore, in a piece for Alternet, writes about who wins and loses when 401(k) accounts supplant pensions as a primary source of retirement funding:

Thirty years ago, as laissez-faire fanaticism took hold of America, misguided policy-makers decided that do-it-yourself retirement plans, otherwise known as 401(k)s, would magically secure our financial future in the face of gyrating markets, economic crises, unpredictable life events, stagnant wages and rampant job insecurity.

. . . There were red flags along the way. 401(k)s were originally supposed to supplement pensions, but clever corporate cost-cutters decided that voluntary individual accounts would replace them.

. . . Reality check: . . . . (T)he financial crisis destroyed America’s retirement fantasy. . . . Today, the balance in our retirement accounts falls wildly short of what we need to keep us from destitution in old age, much less to secure a comfortable existence.

To fill in the details, Parramore summons data from a new Economic Policy Institute Retirement Inequality Chartbook that provides “dozens of charts that examine retirement preparedness and outcomes by income, race and ethnicity, education, gender and marital status.”

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center, released a 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, which lays out the alarming data. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…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 $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

The role of individual thrift

All too often, the retirement savings crisis is described as the cumulative result of individual failures to save money. To be sure, many people in a position to save could have done, and could be doing, better in terms of personal savings levels. Too much of America’s “prosperity” has been built on buying stuff we don’t need, financed by easy credit.

But the easy credit has been extended, like cheap crack cocaine, by those who want to get us hooked early and deeply. Furthermore, the disappearance of pension plans, the flattening of personal income, high unemployment, and growing inequality of wealth in society are significant, contributing factors toward this individual “failure” to save for retirement.

Potential solutions

Increasing, not decreasing, Social Security payments and the creation of public pension systems for all are among the fixes that have been floated by policy experts in retirement funding.

But before we can get to these policy solutions, we must educate ourselves as to what and how this happened. We need to understand how we got to such a precarious, frightening place where Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the leading authorities on this subject, believes that “most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees.”

 

Bookends of a coming mega-meltdown

Twenty or so years from now, Americans will look back and ask: Why didn’t we do more? Why didn’t we accept some modest sacrifice to avoid the extreme suffering of today? Why did we ignore what was so perfectly clear back then?

No, I’m not talking about climate change, though you can add that one too. Rather, I’m looking at the scary, jolting confluence of sky high student loan repayment burdens concentrated on one end of the adult age spectrum, and woeful shortfalls in retirement funding for a majority of Americans on the other. I’ve written on both of these topics before (especially America’s retirement readiness), but let me add one excellent investigative piece and one important study to the mix.

Student loan debt

If you’re in college or grad school, or you’re a parent of someone who is, you likely know the score. Gone are the days when a few thousand dollars saved from the family budget covered a big chunk of a child’s tuition and expenses. Income levels have stagnated for most in the U.S., but tuition costs have soared. And the lion’s share of people seeking post-secondary education must borrow money, often gobs of it, to pay those bills.

If you want more detail, the Rolling Stone‘s Matt Taibbi has written a superb investigative article — Ripping Off Young America: The College-Loan Scandal — that is must reading for anyone affected by the financing of higher education. Here’s a snippet:

How is this happening? It’s complicated. But throw off the mystery and what you’ll uncover is a shameful and oppressive outrage that for years now has been systematically perpetrated against a generation of young adults. For this story, I interviewed people who developed crippling mental and physical conditions, who considered suicide, who had to give up hope of having children, who were forced to leave the country, or who even entered a life of crime because of their student debts.

…[T]he underlying cause of all that later-life distress and heartache – the reason they carry such crushing, life-alteringly huge college debt – is that our university-tuition system really is exploitative and unfair, designed primarily to benefit two major actors.

First in line are the colleges and universities, and the contractors who build their extravagant athletic complexes, hotel-like dormitories and God knows what other campus embellishments….

…Next up is the government itself. While it’s not commonly discussed on the Hill, the government actually stands to make an enormous profit on the president’s new federal student-loan system….

The crisis is compounded by a horrible entry-level job market for recent graduates. It’s hard to pay off those loans and save a bit of money when you’re doing your 5th or 6th unpaid internship.

Retirement funding

In the meantime, at the older end of the population, the nation’s largest generation is hurtling towards the traditional retirement years. The only problem is that many Boomers will be in no position to retire, even if Social Security remains intact. Their numbers just don’t add up.

Recent confirmation of the dire situation comes from the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center. Its 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, is clearly laid out and alarming to read. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…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 $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

Where the twain meet

Let us fast forward 20 years and assume we’ve done nothing besides making some minor tweaks to Social Security and lowering the interest rate a tad on student loans.

It’s 2033, and millions of Boomers are working into their 70s and 80s, not by choice, but rather by necessity. The Social Security Trust Fund is running dry, and older Americans who didn’t have, or already burned through, retirement savings are faced with a 25 percent cut to Social Security benefits, funded now on a pay-as-we-go basis by payroll taxes on aging Gen Xers and Millennials.

These younger folks, by the way, are struggling to pay off student loans that are not dischargeable in a bankruptcy proceeding. For many, their finances have required them to make some hard decisions, such as having fewer or no kids.

Of course, this means they’re less likely to be in the market to buy the big suburban houses put on sale by older Boomers looking to downsize their living spaces and reduce living expenses. (It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as their credit ratings are blown from their student loans and the credit card debt they’ve taken on to make ends meet.)

In the year 2033, many of the Gen Xers and Millennials are hoping to pay off their student loans and modest mortgages (that’s all the house they could afford) by their late 50s. Some of their retirement prospects, by the way, are even dimmer than that of the average Boomer.

In 2033, what we could’ve done now will seem so obvious…

Obvious, but not easy. It will require belt-tightening by institutions and individuals who can afford it, higher taxes on some (including raising the payroll tax cap to beef up Social Security), creative public policies to recreate the retirement system, an all-out war on the student loan racket, more emphasis on community needs, and less tolerance for extravagance, waste, and corruption. Some kindness will go a long way, too.

It may sound like I’m preaching the meme of austerity. No, to the contrary. I’m suggesting that we strive to live comfortable, healthy, safe, and enriching lives rather than be in a state of want. But we’ll need a values adjustment to get there.

(By the way, much of this will help to address global climate change. Less mad, privatized consumption will have a cooling effect on our planet, literally and figuratively.)

Call me Chicken Little, Cassandra, whatever

The sky is falling. But this begs the philosophical question: If the sky falls on Washington D.C. and Wall Street, but no one there heard or felt it, did it really fall?

Seriously, at a time when dramatic measures are needed to avoid terrible societal and individual pain later, our leaders in the private, public, and non-profit sectors aren’t exactly sounding the alarm bells. And much of America is oblivious to, or willfully ignoring, this coming mega-meltdown.

We do have choices, but time is running out.

Gen X, too, faces dire retirement funding prospects

I have written frequently about the dire state of retirement funding facing America’s Baby Boomers, but the crisis is hardly limited to that generation. It’s now becoming clear that Generation X faces similarly challenging circumstances as well.

Abby Ellin, blogging for ABC News, recently examined the results of a cross-generational study on retirement funding by the Pew Charitable Trust from the standpoint of Gen X (roughly speaking, those born between 1966 and 1975), which:

. . . found that Gen Xers – the group of Americans following the baby boomers that range in age from 38 to 47 – fared especially poorly during the recent economic down swing. As a result, their retirement years will likely be more tarnished than golden.

The study . . . found that between 2007 and 2010, Gen Xers — which the report defined as those born between 1966 and 1975 — lost nearly half of their overall net worth, an average of about $33,000, and also had higher levels of debt than previous generations.

In addition, notes Ellin, Gen Xers are carrying heavy student loan and credit card debts that add to their financial burdens.

The retirement funding crisis

How much more evidence do we need for leaders in all sectors — government, business, and non-profits — to declare that America is facing a full-blown crisis in retirement funding that will become monstrously, painfully evident during the coming decades?

While our leaders in Washington D.C. bicker and tinker over numbers at the margins concerning Social Security (which, by the way, is a lot more stable a program than some of its critics try to argue), the larger problem goes largely neglected:

1. Traditional pension programs are going the way of the dinosaur, and many existing pension plans — especially in the public sector — have been mismanaged to the point where they may not be able to pay out promised benefits.

2. Social Security was never designed to provide full retirement funding.

3. 401(k) accounts took a beating during the worst of the current meltdown.

4. Many people don’t have 401(k)s anyway.

As a result, millions are advancing toward their later years with insufficient savings and resources to fund a relatively secure and comfortable retirement. The Boomers will be the first to feel this very real pain, and it now appears that Gen Xers will be right behind them.

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