An Ugly American Retirement

The more I think about the idea of retiring… the less I understand. Is retirement about not working? Or is it about not working at the same job you’ve been doing for a Very Long Time. Am I leaving an employer, a lifestyle, a way of defining who I am in the world? What the heck does “retirement” actually mean?

On one hand there is this privileged view of retirement as a time in life when you sit back, savor the sun on your face, drink a cappuccino at 10am while doing the cross-word, and generally do all the things you never had time to do while holding down that all-important (to Americans anyhow) J.O.B.

We can call it a career, but honestly… even people with a V at the front of their title rarely consider the job anything more than an enjoyable way to pay the bills. And we’re the lucky ones, the people who … through dumb luck, persistence, nepotism, or sheer brilliance (usually some combination of the four) have nudged our job into a track that feels meaningful, or better yet, outright fun.

On the other hand, there is the sheer terror of not being able to physically keep up with the J.O.B. and losing everything when your mind or your health fails and you no longer have the company paid insurance plan… and you’re not quite old enough for Medicare.

There are, of course, as many scenarios in between as there are retirees. I spoke recently with a trim, well-coiffed woman volunteering at the local community art gallery. It all started when I admired her earrings, which were dangly and obviously hand crafted with tiny gems and several different types of precious metals. They were, she said stroking them fondly, done by a jeweler artist friend of hers. Then she added, a touch wistfully, that they were now completely out of her budget.

And there it was. Retirement. The fixed income. The reading-the-crystal-ball calculation of how your savings, your retirement income, inflation, new taxes, new medical costs, miscellaneous unpredictable disasters, and your lifespan will play out. Without the income she once made and regular raises, she can never be sure whether a luxury like gold earrings will lead eventually to her being unable to purchase medications, maintain her transportation, or pay for the roof over her head.

Fine, we think. As we grow older, we need so little. Jewelry? Is that even in the calculations? Of course not. What a frivolity!

True, but what about travel? What about birthday gifts for grandchildren? What about that $1500 loan to struggling children who have lost one of their jobs? What about books, and classes, and music lessons, and art supplies and a large garden out in the country? What about all the things that we hope one day to have the time to do when we’re done with the regular daily grind? Shouldn’t we be able to afford some “frivolities”?

This is retirement. Maybe not just in the United States, but especially here in good old America – where we’re so great that our politicians can regularly have conversations about whether the retirement system every single working citizen must pay into from the first dollar we declare on a tax return until our incomes hit the ridiculously low wage cap of $128,400 (as of 2018), or we retire… should be put to some other use than to provide a modest income for every American retiree.

I am one of the lucky folk, who stumbled into a terrific employer that cares more about people than profits. A company whose benefits include that increasingly rare creature known as a pension plan. In fact, a pension I didn’t even know I had until six months ago.

I have gone along on the assumption that what I put into my retirement investments and Social Security were it. And despite the fact that I’ve been regularly pumping money into retirement accounts my entire working life, every calculator on the internet told me that I was basically due to work until noon the day after I died.

Even with the pension calculated in, they still say this. I must have at least 80% of my present income to maintain the lifestyle I presently enjoy. I sometimes suspect these things are designed to scare people out the idea that there may actually be a different way to live life. You wouldn’t want a horde of early retirees drawing for decades on the system. (I can feel any number of American politicians, and ‘fiscal conservatives’ of all stripes shuddering at the very idea)

I love that term, “lifestyle“. Don’t you? It reeks of needless, heedless expenditure, of trust funds, and jet setting. There are beautiful people involved wearing designer frocks or silk pocket squares, race car driving, beach volleyball, dancing at clubs until 3am while chugging champagne, and trips to Cannes for the film festival.


The fact is – paying a mortgage, maintaining a car, paying vet bills, and pest control services, and buying groceries to make family dinners in a modest town in a climate that swings between raining and overcast, to dry and hot as fuck, also qualifies as a lifestyle.

Whatever expenses you presently have, you’ll have when you retire. If you’re not dressing in designer duds costing more than your average American mortgage payment and drinking expensive vodka on a private jet on your way to a sunny vacation destination now… you’re not going to be doing that when you retire. What are you going to be able to do?

This is where “retirement planning” comes into play. When is your home due to be paid off? How much equity do you have in your home (if you’re lucky enough to own)? Where can you cut costs? No more work wardrobe and dry cleaning? It’s tee shirts and jeans from here on out. Great…. unless you actually enjoy dressing well, or getting the better service that being well-dressed and manicured automatically accords you. I’m personally a pajama bottom and tee shirt kind of woman, unless I’m going out for dinner, and I have a ton of business clothes stockpiled for those events. So I’ll be fine.

You’ll have time to cook your own meals and eat out less. No one needs your saggy grey old-person body in their hip bistro anyhow. That’s just depressing the appetites of their cool young customers. Maybe, even though you’ve never wanted to have a big garden, you’ll grow food and can your way into a supply of semi-healthy winter veggies.

Maybe you plan to let your present fur friends be ‘the last ones’… and bam! Bob’s your uncle. You’re saving on pet food, pet toys, and vet bills you’ll no longer have when they’re gone.

There’s a grim satisfaction to this kind of retirement calculation. How can we do less, spend less, enjoy less?

We consider the income we’ll have, and whether we’ll find ourselves in a lower tax bracket. The strange positive-negative energy of being poorer, and therefore paying less to support government services clogs the air like slightly toxic smoke, destined never to recede.

Am I depressing you? Well, don’t be. Surely your circumstances are far better than mine, with my healthy income, steady job, and good credit. You won’t need a safety net in your old age. In fact, you probably don’t need one now. All those people who “can’t hold a job” and are just sucking off the government teat… and OUR tax dollars, should just go away.

And by that, we mean die. Right?

People in need can always rely on their family for help. Right?

No. Families from every generation are under siege financially in a way that American families have not been since the Great Depression… and maybe not even then. Do you really think your student loan-burdened children and grandchildren will have extra space in the apartment they can barely afford to give you a place to live? Can you really afford a home of your own AND the medical costs of your chronic medical conditions? The middle class is barely scraping by, without supporting additional family members. Most of us are one paycheck away from suffering damage to our credit, if not loss of desperately needed transportation, essential health care, or even a home.

And amidst all of this, we have a record-breaking government shut-down so that our elected president can have what he wants… which isn’t border security with it’s complex matrix of tunnels, midnight scurries across the border, people snuck in inside of barrels on trucks, or the cargo holds of large shipping containers. What he wants, is to Get His Way. Despite his much proclaimed “negotiation skills”, the President has consistently demonstrated an inability to sit down and discuss why his point of view will lead to an outcome that is better for the American people than what his adversaries, (the snowflake, libtard) Democrats want. (Oh, and an increasing number of sad defectors from his own party who are tired of the tirades, tired of the lies, and tired of being asked to support things that are blatantly not in the best interests of their own constituents.)

Every politician wants to hold onto the office into which they were elected. Republicans are no exception. The hold-outs believe that the 30-40% of die hard GOP members who don’t want to think too hard about the implications of everything their party stands for and is actively doing to their neighbors, friends, and co-workers… will be as loyal to them as they are to Mr. Trump and his cadre of very very beautiful and really really loyal family members.

Unfortunately, that math falls through when 2/3rds of your wives aren’t stunning blond USSR immigrants, and you don’t have vast reserves of money and opportunity to hold over the heads of your children to ensure they step up and perform precisely as directed. Republican politicians who are toeing the party line, all know that they’re going to have some serious soul-searching to do one day. But it’s easier right now to be LOYAL. That’s what get’s rewarded… and by rewarded I mean, you don’t have regular vitriol directed at you via 3am tweets and unsubtle insults at the pulpit… um, lectern.

And that’s all I have the energy I have for this topic folks. I’m not even ready to discuss the fact that the human body breaks down much earlier than anyone wants to admit, and that enjoying retirement of any kind means not just taking GREAT care of your health but being genetically fortunate, while finding a way financially to retire long before the “golden” age of 67. Retirement in America. An interesting proposition. Meanwhile, my wife and I are working on our own unique calculations. Perhaps I’ll blog on that more later.

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