Some people were born on third base, but what about those who squandered opportunities that aren’t coming back?
Today, we’re going to be looking into failures in the Boomer generation. Let’s set aside sad cases of mental illness and drug addiction — other than to note, of course, that Millennials in similar situations will be far worse off. Let’s look at what it likes when Boomers fail. (As usual, I’ll use “Boomers” to refer to people born 1935-1965: people whose lives began before deindustrialization became acute, our physical infrastructure began to degrade, and our position as the world’s net creditor disappeared).
Our first case is that of a journalist born to an executive of a major corporation. He almost wound up homeless. Unlike most of the others in subsidized housing, William McPherson had a Pulitzer in his hobo bindle. Mr. McPherson retired at 53, on a non-indexed pension with no price protections on his medical insurance, and lived to 84. He seems to have made good calls on AOL and Apple, and bad ones after that; but, in his own words:
I’d fallen under the spell of magical thinking. In my opinion, I didn’t squander the money, either; I just spent it a little too enthusiastically — not on Caribbean cruises but on exploring the aftermath of the fall of Communism in eastern Europe.
The pride here is palpable. He’s not like those other, lesser Boomers who boomed their money away on Harleys and trashy pleasures. He was out there living the life of the mind. Everyone wants to be a philosopher, not because it pays well but because they want to gain social status, even if only in their own minds.
Without being too hard on a sad, old man who died poor and alone, there’s a kind of narcissism that lives among people who always thought they’d have enough money. They don’t crave the approval of a circle of real subordinates as a clinical narcissist would. Instead, they need to see themselves as people who learn things, know things and are above the petty concerns of proles. Making a living is, to be clear, a petty concern of proles.
This attitude isn’t entirely discreditable. You could even say that it’s got a deep heritage in the values of Western society. However, universal freedom was never universal. This heritage was founded on widespread slavery and on the total domination of rural hicks by urban elites. I’m not here to litigate the justice of this system, only to point out the economic base upon which it rested. And you’d be wise to ask where in the economic system you are situated.
This was McPherson’s mistake. He thought that he was an aristocrat of the soul. Maybe this doesn’t require being an aristocrat of wealth, but you need enough to get by, and he didn’t have it.
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. McPherson’s story is repeating itself in hundreds of thousands of cases, such as the case of Kathleen Wolf. Ms. Wolf didn’t wind up homeless. She merely had to downgrade to a small town in Iowa. Essentially, she thought she had money because she had cash flow to join a country club and wear Tiffany glasses, until she didn’t.
Now a philosopher-scholar and a California real estate agent are worlds apart. But we’re not talking about situations that are fundamentally economic different — indeed, they are universal across the Boomer generation.
People in the US ages 65 to 74 hold more than five times the borrowing obligations Americans their age held two decades ago, according to an analysis of federal data by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit policy researcher.
Paying it off won’t be easy. Median savings for US households nearest retirement age has dropped 32 per cent in the past decade to $14,500, according to an analysis of federal data by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank.
Nearing retirement age? Savings of $14k? You’re going to be eating CARDBOARD. C. S. Hecht at Vox agrees:
When I was younger, I never thought I’d spend my golden retirement years living out of my car. For most of my life I had a roof over my head, food on my table, and steady work as a journalist and writer. I grew up living a middle-class life. I was able to live and travel to many places close and far from my native state of New York. Most of my adult life has been in California and Nevada, but I also traveled around the world to Europe and India after graduating college.
Then in my mid-40s, my life slowly started to unravel. I divorced my husband, and three remaining family members who were very dear to me all passed away, shrinking my safety net. I got rear-ended by a car and developed fibromyalgia. For years, every morning when I woke up, it felt like I had been run over by a Mack truck. Later, in my 50s, I went through extensive therapy to heal my fibromyalgia symptoms — but then developed osteoarthritis in my knees.
Then the recession arrived. I had been working primarily as a freelance writer, editor, and PR manager, but well-paying gigs rapidly slowed down. I was running out of money fast and needed steady work. Day after day was spent sending out hundreds of résumés and applications, but I rarely heard back and only landed one or two interviews. Unemployment shot up 5 percentage points in 2009, peaking at 10 percent the next year.
Eventually, I couldn’t scrape together enough money from savings and the occasional gig. I needed money badly, and when I turned 62 I applied for early retirement to activate my Social Security checks. At $672 a month, it wasn’t enough then, and it’s still not enough now.
None of these are “bad people” — they are simply people whose lives were utterly ruined by acting like they had more degrees of freedom than they really had; people who had no idea that they were living far better than they had any real right to expect. They didn’t save and they didn’t plan, and now they’re done here.
Getting back to my economic base statement. I know I’m a worker, and I do my philosophizing part time. It’s probably best if you do the same.