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)

On “quit lit,” “encore” careers, and the realities of creating work options

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This headline from the Yahoo! News page is an enticing one to many: “How to Afford to Quit Your Job.” Kimberly Palmer, writing for U.S. News & World Report, introduces us to a former NPR program host, Tess Vigeland, who one day realized that it was time to say goodbye:

When Tess Vigeland, the former host of public radio’s “Marketplace,” came home from work and cried in her backyard for three hours, she knew it was time to leave her job. “I decided I couldn’t take it anymore and I felt like I deserved better,” says Vigeland, who turned in her notice the following week.

Vigeland now has a book, Leap: Leaving a Job with No Plan B to Find the Career and Life You Really Want (2015), in which she is encouraging other folks to follow her path. In her interview for Palmer’s article, Vigeland recommended, among other things, assessing one’s financial situation, including alternate income sources, savings, freelance work, and “a partner’s salary”:

“I did some back-of-the-napkin calculations with my husband and we figured his salary could pay the mortgage with me not working at all,” she says. In addition, she planned to take on freelance work so her income would not go to zero. “I also knew I had a large retirement account that I could tap into if I had to, and home equity,” she adds.

Midlife “quit lit” and “encore” careers

Okay, here’s one of the issues I have with so much of the midlife “quit lit,” i.e., the quit-your-job-and-live-your-dream-type books and articles based at least in part on an author’s personal experience. I’ve looked at a lot of these writings, and almost invariably the Dream Chasers have financial resources from a supportive spouse, partner, or family and/or have a good chunk of savings that can be tapped to ease a likely income drop, at least temporarily.

More than a few have strong networking connections as well, including some in pretty high places.

I don’t begrudge people who have those options — I’ve encouraged some friends to consider that very avenue — but in reality many folks, because of limited incomes and savings, kids and other dependents, single status, etc., find the hopes inflated by this type of book/article title quickly deflated when they realize that the author had a cushion of financial support and cash.

I find similar dynamics when it comes to “encore” careers, a term used to describe experienced professionals who decide to step off of a demanding, if highly paid, treadmill to pursue work that is more soul satisfying and contributing to the community. There’s even a popular website and book devoted to encore careers.

Yes, encore careers can be great for those who have the financial resources to sustain them. However, most people in their 40s and 50s, especially, happen to be in their potentially strongest earning years. The pursuit of Something Very Different in the heart of midlife typically should not be done on a whim.

I’m not saying Don’t do it. Rather, I’m urging that the strong emotions driving such considerations be complemented by dispassionate assessment and planning.

More realistic options: Avocations, hobbies, and Millennial-style startups

Some loyal readers may feel like they’re hearing a mixed message from me. After all, for those in toxic work environments, I’ve suggested that an exit strategy may be the most viable option when health and psyche are deteriorating. And I’ve also recommended sites like Encore.org for those seeking to make significant career transitions. Furthermore, there are people who, against more “rational” assessments, took that risky leap without a parachute and landed on their feet. Some have enjoyed remarkable success in their transitions.

That said, there may be less risky alternatives to exploring and making major career/work changes. A few considerations:

First, do you have an avocation that has income-producing potential? An avocation is typically a labor of love, so you know the passion is there. A next question to ask is whether you can grow it into a steady income stream.

Second, how about taking something you really want to do and starting it as a part-time micro-business? Chris Guillebeau’s The $100 Startup has a Millennial generation audience in mind, but it contains inspiration, insight, and information for anyone considering a lower-risk road to entrepreneurship.

Third, do you need additional training or schooling? Formal degree and certification programs tend to be expensive, but low cost or free adult and independent learning opportunities abound. You might, for example, go to a local SCORE workshop on starting a business, or take an online course or two through educational content providers such as Coursera, Udemy, and EdX.

Fourth, might it help to work with a really good career or life coach to help you plot your way through all this? A wise voice who asks the right questions and helps you to make and stick to plans and identify priorities can be very helpful. 

Finally, if your potential plans include going out as a freelancer, you might want to take a look at Sara Horowitz’s The Freelancer’s Bible for some of the business details you’ll need to address.

The term go for it has a lot of emotional power, especially if you’re in a less-than-wonderful work situation and considering alternatives that sound freeing and exciting. Pursuing your passions is good, life-affirming stuff. But it’s often helpful if you do so with research, planning, and assessment to help prime a path to success.

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

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

Screen shot of Indiegogo home page

The growth of “crowdfunding” or “crowdsourcing” sites such as Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and Indiegogo has created a sort of privatized lottery system, whereby if you can design the right appeal for a product, cause, or someone in need, and it happens to gain momentum, then you may be buoyed by monies from complete strangers over the course of a few weeks.

To be sure, most crowdfunding campaigns do not go viral and do not raise hundreds of thousands of dollars, despite occasional news stories suggesting that if you merely ask for it, then it will come. Many campaigns fail dismally. (Hence, the lottery-like quality to the whole deal.) However, crowdfunding has evolved into a viable option for entrepreneurs, social causes, and personal appeals.

If you Google around a bit, you’ll find plenty of advice on how to design a crowdfunding campaign. But what if you’re on the receiving end of those requests? Over the last year, I’ve looked at several dozen crowdfunding campaign requests, either through sites such as the ones mentioned above, or via more informal means such as Facebook.

At times, I will happily support a crowdfunding campaign for a good cause, interesting new product, or an individual facing tough times. On other occasions I might decide not to contribute.

For what it’s worth — and I’m not claiming to be the first or last word on this — here’s what I look for when approached by a crowdfunding appeal:

1. Above all, is the request a legitimate one? There are so many factors that go into this assessment, including the individuals involved, the nature of the funding request, and the information provided in the crowdfunding appeal.  This question pervades many other considerations discussed below.

Whether it’s supporting a niche business idea, helping to launch new social venture, or lending a hand to someone in need, I want my contribution to have a positive impact. While this applies specially to larger amounts of money, it’s relevant even if we’re talking about modest donations.

The integrity of a crowdfunding campaign depends in large part on its sponsor(s). Are they identified? Do they have an online presence? If you don’t know them or of them, can you otherwise verify the legitimacy of the request?

2. Is the funding campaign “fixed” or “flexible”? A fixed campaign specifies that if the minimum listed amount isn’t raised, then no one will be charged. By contrast, a flexible campaign takes your money even if the stated dollar goal isn’t reached. I tend to favor fixed campaigns because they tell me that the sponsor is confident in the appeal and its chances of success.

In considering an appeal from a high dollar flexible campaign, I will weigh whether (a) it’s an organization or individual I know; (b) the appeal (including the amount) is realistic and well articulated, and (c) I strongly support the project on its merits. At times, if a flexible campaign seems promising but perhaps overly ambitious or not too well thought out, then I’ll wait to see if it’s attracting a lot of support. If not, there’s a chance that others have the same concerns.

Let’s suppose, for example, that someone is asking for $25,000 for a project on a flexible funding basis. If, say, my $75 contribution is part of only $1,000 raised in total, then I may feel like a bit of a chump, having sent money to a project that isn’t even close to having sufficient funds to go ahead. On the other hand, I may so strongly believe in the project and its sponsor(s) that I will quickly make a contribution, knowing that they will use the money wisely even if they fall short of their fundraising goal.

3. Is there a sufficiently detailed budget? I want to know how the money will be used. I’ve read compelling appeals that are specific and detailed. I’ve read others for amounts around $5,000, $25,000, or even (yup) $100,000 that tell me very little. Guess who is more likely to get my contribution?

When foundations consider grant applications, they typically required a fairly detailed budget. Having both written and evaluated grant proposals, I know that writing out these budgets can be a pain, and frankly there’s often some guesswork involved. Nevertheless, it’s about transparency and accountability. Likewise, crowdfunded campaigns should provide a budget, too. If someone is asking for money in a public way, it is reasonable to expect some specificity concerning how the funds will be used.

4. If it’s a personal appeal for, or behalf of, an individual in need, then how credible does it sound? This is a difficult question, loaded with personal biases relating to who is “deserving” of help, and subject to the narrative skills of the person(s) writing the funding appeal.

Here are the personal appeals that cause me to back away fast: They tend to ask for larger sums of money, often five or six figures or more. Some sound excessive or suggest a failure to explore options. A few smack of The Secret on hallucinogens; it’s as if someone sat down and thought, I sure could use $100,000, so let’s go for it and maybe my request goes viral.

However, especially in this age of massive wealth inequality, economic uncertainty, and a frazzled social safety net, it’s also true that a lot of people are struggling to pay their bills and to put food on their tables. We should keep our hearts open to personal appeals, while considering them carefully.

5. What do the perks, if any, say about the attractiveness and integrity of the funding request? On occasion I’ve funded something because the perk(s) offered seemed pretty cool. Maybe a perk includes the very product I’d like to support. Or perhaps it gives me a good feeling of connection with the people organizing the campaign.

On other occasions I’ve declined to fund something because the perk(s) seemed cheesy or, well, insincere. By the latter, I mean that the perks were somewhat contrived and, in some cases, appeared to be deliberately difficult to fulfill. If, say, a $500 donation to a national campaign gets you a face-to-face cup of coffee with the project organizer, but you have to fly halfway across the country on your dime for that latte, then this should tell you something about the campaign sponsor’s regard for potential contributors — regardless of whether you can afford that level of support.

6. Is the funding request on behalf of an abused animal, or a beloved pet who needs expensive surgery? Put a sad looking little doggie or kitty cat on the funding page with a cry for help, and my critical evaluative skills often go out the window. Unless the critter is Cujo, I’m fumbling through my wallet for my credit card. Yup, I’m a sucker.

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This post was revised in December 2015.

Unemployed at midlife, “faking normal”…and sometimes bullied, too

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org

Screenshot from Next Avenue.org (Photo: DY)

In a plaintive commentary posted on Next Avenue earlier this year, Lizzy White writes about professional, middle-aged women who have lost their jobs and are struggling to make ends meet as they search for work:

You know her.

She is in your friendship circle, hidden in plain sight.

She is 55, broke and tired of trying to keep up appearances. Faking normal is wearing her out.

To look at her, you wouldn’t know that her electricity was cut off last week for non-payment or that she meets the eligibility requirements for food stamps. Her clothes are still impeccable, bought in the good times when she was still making money.

To be sure, the effects of the economic meltdown that began some seven years ago continue to be felt by men and women in almost every income level and vocational category. But those of my generation (late Boomers in their 50s), and notably unmarried women within that group, have felt its impact especially hard, with livelihoods and careers interrupted or ended at what should be periods of peak earning potential. White continues:

She lives without cable, a gym membership and nail appointments. She’s discovered she can do her own hair.

There are no retirement savings, no nest egg; she exhausted that long ago. There is no expensive condo from which to draw equity and no husband to back her up.

Months of slow pay and no pay have decimated her credit. Bill collectors call constantly, reading verbatim from a script, expressing polite sympathy for her plight — before demanding payment arrangements that she can’t possibly meet.

White provides more facts and figures to document the income disparities and disproportionate caregiving responsibilities that often put women in a less advantaged position than their male counterparts. It’s an important piece, and the comments posted below it are worth reading as well, including those who rightly point out that middle-aged men who have experienced job losses are facing these circumstances, too.

The bullying effect

This topic intersects with workplace bullying, because middle-aged workers endure a lot of it. When work abuse culminates in their termination or departure, they often face multi-level challenges in trying to pull themselves together and obtain new employment.

Two years ago, I summarized Workplace Bullying Institute instant poll results showing that workers in the 40s and 50s are frequent bullying targets. The poll asked visitors to the WBI website who have experienced workplace bullying to respond to a single question, “How old were you when the bullying at work began?” WBI collected 663 responses and reported the following:

The average age was 41.9 years. Targets in their 40’s comprised 30% of all targets; in their 50’s were 26.4%; under 30 years of age were 21.3%; those in their 30’s were 18.9%. The prime productive years are also the prime years for being [targeted] for bullying.

Five years ago, I suggested that unmarried women may be specially vulnerable to being bullied at work, especially if they have kids:

Let’s start with the observation that truly abusive bullies often have a knack for sniffing out vulnerable individuals. Then we look at potential targets: Demographically speaking, is there any group more vulnerable than single women raising kids? They already are juggling work and caregiving, their schedules seem timed down to the minute, and not infrequently they are struggling financially — especially if there is no father in the picture.

Unmarried women without children may not be as economically desperate to hold onto their jobs, but they can be very vulnerable as well. Women in general remain underpaid compared to male counterparts. Those who came out of busted marriages may have re-entered the workforce later in life. In any event, they are less likely to have someone to fall back on if bullied out of a job.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many women in their 50s who have been bullied out of their jobs and then face the daunting challenges of recovering from the experience in terms of psychological well-being, employment, and personal finances. For those individuals, “faking normal” may require wearing a mask that feels like a heavy weight, in addition to carrying the burdens of their situations generally.

Sad, disturbing stuff

This makes for pretty unpleasant and unsettling reading, especially if you’re on the north side of 50. These challenges are hitting my generation of late Boomers especially hard.

Decades ago, many of us entered the workforce in the heart of a severe recession. At the same time, employers were cutting back or eliminating pensions and other benefit plans. For those going to school, loans were supplanting need-based grants and scholarships as the primary form of financial aid.

And now this group has experienced an even more severe economic downturn during the heart of what should be its peak earning years.

It distresses me greatly that we have not summoned the collective will to make this a major political and public policy issue. What will it take to make it so?

In addition to rethinking abundance, let’s spread it around a little better

Economist Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, suggests in an op-ed piece for the New York Times that we embrace abundance without excessive attachment to material things:

In other words, if we are lucky enough to achieve abundance, we should be thankful for it and work to share the means to create it with others around the world. The real trick is the second part of the formula: avoiding attachment.

In Tibetan, the word “attachment” is translated as “do chag,” which literally means “sticky desire.” It signifies a desperate grasping at something, motivated by fear of separation from the object. One can find such attachment in many dysfunctional corners of life, from jealous relationships to paranoia about reputation and professional standing.

In the realm of material things, attachment results in envy and avarice. Getting beyond these snares is critical to life satisfaction.

I think it’s great advice for people who are blessed with sufficient disposable income to have spending options. As I wrote here back in 2012, research suggests that the correlation between happiness and income levels tends to peak at somewhere around $75,000, subject to obvious variables such as cost of living differentials. Furthermore, studies indicate that giving to others can increase our personal happiness and that money spent on creating memorable experiences rather than on accumulating more stuff tends to be more satisfying. (Brooks acknowledges the latter point in his article.)

Abundance for some

However, at least here in the U.S., we’re living in an age of a widening wealth gap, with that $75,000 mark looking like an illusion to a majority of its citizens. Millions are living paycheck-to-paycheck, and still more are doing worse than that.

Don Lee reports for the Los Angeles Times on a new Pew Research Center study showing that the “wealth gap between middle- and upper-income households has widened to the highest level on record.” He continues:

…(T)he typical wealth of the nation’s upper-income households last year was nearly seven times that of middle-class ones. By Pew’s calculations, that is the biggest gap in the 30 years that the Fed has been collecting statistics from its Survey of Consumer Finances.

“The latest data reinforces the larger story of America’s middle-class household wealth stagnation over the past three decades,” Pew said. “The Great Recession destroyed a significant amount of middle-income and lower-income families’ wealth, and the economic ‘recovery’ has yet to be felt for them.”

An economic system that provides selective abundance

Brooks engages in some rhetorical sleight-of-hand when he says that “we should be thankful for [abundance] and work to share the means to create it with others around the world.” In other words, he’s not suggesting that we share big chunks of our own abundance with others. Rather, if you read the rest of his article, you’ll pick up an implicit defense of a market-based economic system that supposedly can provide others with abundance as well.

There’s a problem with that, of course. The economic system that has produced so much inequity over the past three decades isn’t exactly creating an abundance of opportunity these days. Steady jobs with good pay and benefits are in increasingly short supply. Around the world, the same corporate entities that took millions of those jobs out of the U.S. are now putting their manufacturing plants in countries where they can pay workers a fraction of what their American predecessors once earned.

Toward something better

If you’ve read this blog for any stretch of time, you know that I’m not going to call for a socialist utopia to replace the big, bad capitalist system. I’m way past the point of pitching any rigid economic ideology as the answer to our wealth gap. But I’ll happily repeat my belief that a robust private sector must be complemented by strong public and non-profit sectors, as well as an ethic of giving that asks more of the most fortunate. On balance we need a healthier mix of economic opportunities, regulatory safeguards for the public good, and a social safety net.

In his New York Times piece, Brooks writes that his inspiration for rethinking abundance was a travel encounter in India with “a penniless Hindu swami,” a “son of Indian petroleum engineers” in America who had traded in his MBA and the fast track for a more contemplative, austere life. That certainly provides grist for a curious narrative (well-paid think tank executive takes life lesson from ex-pat living in self-imposed poverty), but the deeper truth is that austerity and detachment from material goods are much easier to opt for voluntarily than finding yourself with no other choice.

After 700 harassing robocalls from Bank of America, couple wins $1 million judgment

(Graphic courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org)

(Graphic courtesy of Publicdomainvectors.org)

From Good Morning America, here’s a story about a couple who won a $1 million judgment against Bank of America for subjecting them to some 700 threatening robo-calls over a period of four years, in response to late mortgage payments:

Bank of America is being forced to hand over more than $1 million to a Florida couple after the bank flooded them with hundreds of loan collection calls for years – the latest example of alleged behavior that has cost the bank tens of millions.

In a complaint filed in July, attorneys for Nelson and Joyce Coniglio said that the couple had been on the receiving end of “patterns of outrageous, abusive and harassing conduct” by a subsidiary of Bank of America that included 700 calls in four years, after the bank said the couple fell behind on mortgage loan payments in 2009. The Coniglios also received “threatening collection letters asserting false and misleading information,” the complaint said.

The couple sent multiple letters from legal representation asking the bank to stop, but the calls — sometimes up to five a day — continued. The complaint describes automated calls leaving repeated pre-recorded messages.

Incredibly, a Bank of America vice president told ABC that the calls were meant to “help them avoid foreclosure,” adding that BoA “has helped 2 million homeowners avoid foreclosure.” This claim alone gets a special chutzpah award! Bank of America’s own former employees have submitted written testimony stating the company rewarded workers who put homeowners into foreclosure, as this 2013 piece from ProPublica explains. In addition, as reported in the full GMA article, harassment of this nature from Bank of America and its affiliates is hardly unique.

Surely there are more humane and ethical ways of doing business. In BoA’s case, the same corporate arrogance that helped to fuel the economic meltdown in the first place continues, backed by hollow and disingenuous attempts to explain these practices.

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:

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

******

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.”

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