I am continually perplexed at the society in which I live. The longer I live, the more I realize, as my 11th grade English teacher once joyfully professed in class one day "life isn't fair." It was the first time someone, other than my dad, said those ignominious words to me. As I recall, the entire class was a bit chagrined by the sudden outburst from our less-than-beloved and, now as I look back, depressed instructor. I don't know exactly why he said those words at that exact moment in time, but his outburst resonated with me. I digress.
I am one of millions of Americans who graduated from a 4-year college, got married, got a job, and raised a family. I've had my share of travails -- I raised my children almost entirely alone after I went through a divorce when my now grown children, were very young. One of my children suffers from a debilitating illness and another is confirmed bi-polar, but she functions at a high level. I lost my second (and only other) wife, suddenly and without warning last year. I am also personally cursed with attention deficit disorder. It has plagued me from birth. I've also had a good life though. I've traveled the country, and I've seen some of the world. I was a good athlete in high school, I was popular socially and with the girls, I surfed and partied, and I hung out at the beach in my late teens and twenties. I have three wonderful children and my parents are still living (happily married for 52 years). I have two brothers and we are a close, loving family. I am very grateful for everything in my life. I truly am.
I have never achieved any fame (or infamy, thankfully). I've never been rich, nor will I ever be rich, but I've also never been truly poor. I have done what the vast majority of Americans do who are blessed with a solid beginning in the form of a stable home life with prospering parents who care about their children: I got on with life as an adult and have stayed in the rat race in order to make ends meet and live out a respectable middle class lifestyle. I wasn't a business, engineering, pre-med or pre-law major in college. My grades were not good enough to get me into grad school, nor did I have the money to attend. I thought I might like to follow in my father's footsteps and fly jets in the Air Force, but to be perfectly frank, I simply didn't have the right stuff -- physically yes, mentally no.
I was lucky enough to escape college debt free, thanks in full to my parents footing the bill -- something I have been unable to provide my own children. We've had to circle the wagons and get them through college by all means possible. My ex-wife and her husband have contributed substantially, and I took out student loans in my name as well as got help from my parents. Aside from working in the summer in various dead end jobs like most kids, I had very little actual work experience when I graduated from college. I took my first real job working for the County of San Diego in 1986. I did this for a little over two years, and then as I became better familiarized with the machinations of civil service, and I landed a job with the State of California in 1989. I've been working for this same employer for almost 23 years.
I am now nearing the end of my working career. I will be legally eligible to retire from state service in a little less than two years, when I turn 50. Before all who read this think, WHOA!, that is WAY too early to retire, my retirement at age 50 will provide me with the following income: $1,784.00 per month (before taxes) plus medical insurance. I am sure that for some that may seem like a very nice income. But the truth is, it doesn't even cover my monthly rent. It will not cover the basics like food, clothing, utilities and gasoline. Forget about niceties like travel, dining out, helping my children financially, or spending money in my local economy. Therefore, I'm planning to continue working until I am at least 55, and likely, until I'm 60 when my retirement income will increase substantially based upon my years of service and age.
For those of you, who further believe 60 is also an early retirement age, I'll remind all who will listen: the average life span for a man born in 1963 in the United States (the year I was born) is 67. I'm sorry, but in my mind that just isn't much time to enjoy the golden years. It will mean I will have worked (full time) the majority of my adult life, from age 23 to age 60, in order to receive, by law of averages, seven years of retirement. Sure, I might live to be 70, 75, maybe even into my 80s, but the facts are, the odds are NOT in my favor. I may not even make it to retirement. Who knows?
I took a job in civil service because I knew, although in the long run I might make more money in the private sector over the course of my working life, if I worked long enough and hard enough in civil service, I would make enough money and earn a DEFINED BENEFIT PENSION and be able to collect it at an age when I could still enjoy it -- even if only for a brief period. I surmised at the young age of 23 that some pension at a point later in life is a hell of a lot better than no pension.
I'll be blunt: I don't feel one bit of sympathy for those of you out there who chose not to take the path I took and who have watched your retirement investments fluctuate from good to bad, good to awesome, awesome to piss poor. That isn't my problem, but I resent this same group of people who now want to yank out from under me what I had the foresight to contemplate when I was 23 years old: my defined benefit pension plan. I purposely took a job that I knew had a low risk factor when it pertained to my retirement benefits. I don't think I should now be penalized for having done something prudent.
Sadly, the defined benefit pension is becoming a thing of the past in this country, and that's a shame. But what is even more shameful, is the fact that a lot of people in this country are elated with giddiness that this type of retirement is coming to an end. My guess is that most feel this way because they don't have one. They are envious. But what they fail to realize is the end of the defined benefit pension system in this country will also spell the end of middle class retirement FOR ALL in this country. And by the way, just to make it clear, I have paid into my retirement the entire time I have worked -- 25 years and counting. My retirement is not some freebie that I'm going to get at the end of my career. I will have earned every penny of it.
This article is about what is happening to millions of people like me, as we near retirement age. It seems my generation is not only suffering wage stagnation, resulting in a lowering of our overall standard of living, but also the promises of a modest retirement income once made to us are being reneged (or attempted to be reneged) by those in power and hypocritically won't suffer the effects of the takeaways that loom ominously on my retirement horizon.
Although generations before me are smug about their social security benefits (and yes, appreciative too), my generation has grown up with the dark cloud hanging over our heads that it won't be there for us when we meet the minimum age and eligibility requirements. This feeling is pervasive, and it looms large. Granted, the generations before mine had many problems and concerns to contend with, but never once did they worry about whether Social Security would be there for them. My generation does, and quite frankly, it sucks, and it causes me great angst when I consider there are forces conspiring to eliminate my employment pension.
What we have heard for years is the equivalent carrot dangling about raising the minimum age requirements and lowering monthly payment levels in order to keep Social Security solvent. Other pundits have suggested further draconian measures, including eliminating the system altogether and setting up 401k-style retirement accounts. What depresses me most, however, is the growing number of people my age and younger who think this boondoggle will actually work. You would have thought the market crash of 2008 would have taught my generation a lesson, yet it has not. And you would think that same crash would have helped to bolster the idea of "staying the course" with defined benefit Social Security payments amongst our politicians. Yet, it has not. I continue to see one political angle after another, attempting to manipulate, tweak, change, or out and out dismantle this valuable, needed program. Do we really want to go back to the way of life when the elderly in our society were forced to live out their golden years, prior to Social Security, in shear poverty?
I've paid tens of thousands of dollars into Social Security, and it sickens me to think I won't see a dime of that money when my turn on the ride-o-security is due. I realize Social Security is a pay-as-you-go system. I pay for those on Social Security now. However we (or at least me), the tax contributors for today's retirees (our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents), are starting to smell a rat - a big, selfish, greedy rat. As far as my benefits are concerned, I feel like I'm waiting in line, like at Disneyland, and I'm not at the end of the line anymore. In fact, I'm in the front third of the line. It's a long, hot summer day, I've been waiting patiently in the sun with the rest of people in line near me, a few in front, a few behind, and I can actually see the gate that will get me on the ride, but I still have to make a few more back and forth turns until I get my turn. I've still got quite of bit of time to spend in work a day life, but the proximity of my position to the gate is giving me the incentive to stay in line instead of bailing out of frustration and impatience. I don't want to be the person who gets to be next in line to ride only to have someone at the gate tell me the ride is permanently broken, and, "oh-by-the-way, we're really sorry about this, thanks for understanding."
Yet that is the reality my generation has lived with. And what of the generations after me? There is a pervasive way of thinking in this country that has taken me years to understand. I believe it is rooted in our general basic human make-up, and that is self-preservation. Ultimately, we as individuals worry about ourselves first, then the next guy. This way of thinking has, in my humble opinion, only helped to foster the continued decline of the American middle class way of life. Here's what I mean. As each generation has come up through the work force, since just after World War II, they have been willing to concede a little bit in their benefits and wages received through employment. The general thinking being, "Well, it isn't great, but I know I can get by in the end, even with this not-so-good new deal my employer is now offering me." Well, the problem is the next generation of workers gets hit again, and the thinking is the same.
You get the picture. The law of diminishing returns is clearly in play. Now, add in global economics and a globally-available labor force, and the whole thing is magnetized and the takeaways begin to mount exponentially.
And Medicare? Are you kidding me? What a joke. Medicare is ALREADY broken in more ways than one -- the worst of it being its shaky financial structure. My generation won't have Medicare, this I am sure of. I'm not sure my generation will be able to afford Band-Aids in retirement.