Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Luckiest Generation

      I just got back from a two week vacation in Florida. I've been making an annual visit to the Sunshine state ever since I was walked down the gangplank to early retirement a few years ago.
A happy retiree

     What I noticed during this year's trip was the throng of retired people making the winter migration. Well, duh . . . yet in previous years there were plenty of retired folks, of course, but also lots of families with little children, and some college-age kids, and also couples in their 50s vacationing by themselves. This year, the ratio of retired people to the general population just seemed much higher than usual. Everyone I met had white hair and walked with a crooked gait, and were heading off to retirement meccas like Sarasota or The Villages or Vero Beach.

     I realize this is a self-selected group of people -- retirees who are healthy enough and affluent enough take extended vacations in Florida. Nevertheless, I was struck by how many cheerful retirees, seemingly unaffected by economic doldrums, were enjoying this winter respite -- and how few younger people were making the trip. It made me consider how fortunate these retirees are, and I confess, it also brought to the surface a little twinge of envy.

     And it made me wonder if this group of people -- people from their late 60s to early 80s -- are perhaps the ones who hit the sweet spot of American history. Are they the luckiest generation?

     I'm talking about people born from the late 1920s to the early 1940s. For the most part, they were too young to face the horrors of World War II or Korea, and too old to be drafted into the army that slogged through the mud of Vietnam.

     This generation enjoyed the fruits of the post-war economic boom. They came into the workforce in the 1950s, when there was no such thing as foreign competition, and developed their careers during the 1960s when the economy was a powerful, productive engine. If they didn't go to college, there were union jobs aplenty in places like Detroit or California. Yet, they did go to college in greater numbers than ever before, paying a pittance in tuition compared to today's students. And unlike recent college graduates, who are lucky to have a job at all, they could write their own ticket at a major corporation, with a good salary, plenty of job security and a nice pension.

     People from this generation also benefited from medical advances, from Lipitor to Viagra, as well as many of the social changes of the late 20th century. Divorce had less social stigma. Abortions were available to those who needed them. Minorities began to shed their shackles. Ask Colin Powell (born in 1937) or entrepreneur Earl Graves (1935) or music pioneer Berry Gordy (1929). Ask Nancy Pelosi (born in 1940) or Martha Stewart (1941) or Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933).

     In 2011, this generation continues to benefit from the timing of their birth. Today's retirees enjoy a support system that their parents would envy -- and their children may recall with wide-eyed astonishment. These days a Social Security check averages $1075 a month. The parents of this generation, in 1980, took home Social Security averaging a measly $285 per month. Even after adjusting for inflation, the benefit today is about double what it was in 1980.

An anxious 20-something
     Yet if you asked current 35-year-olds how much they expect to get in Social Security, do you seriously think they'd say -- Oh, about double what my parents are getting. Fat chance. They will have to work longer -- at least until age 67 -- and they think they'll be lucky to get any Social Security at all!

     A recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, "Generation Y Me?" outlines the plight of those born in the 1980s and '90s, blaming some of their economic woes on Baby Boomers. As a Baby Boomer myself, I will admit there's probably some truth to the complaint. Maybe Baby Boomers have it better than Generation X, who in turn have it better than Generation Y.

     Americans have historically enjoyed a better life than their parents. And their children a better life still. Is it possible that, for the first time, the younger generation has a lower standard of living, a tougher time getting ahead in life?

     I don't know. None of us chooses which generation we belong to. We suffer the consequences. Or, if we're lucky, we enjoy the benefits.


Dick Klade said...

Kind of hard to generalize about entire generations. Your analysis is thoughtful, and quite right in many respects. Born in 1936, I fit right into that batch of geezers you are discussing. Most of my contemporaries see things somewhat differently.

As youths, we worked at about any job we could get, and usually were exploited. Mimimum wage laws didn't apply to us, so 50 to 75 cents an hour and no benefits was common.

Tuition at public universities indeed was relatively low, but most of my fellow students worked at summer jobs and many held down jobs during school (I waited on tables) to make ends meet. Maybe student loans and grants were available somewhere, but I don't remember hearing of any.

We of the "luckiest generation" often marveled at the lack of Boomer interest in working at all. The Boomers either were totally supported by indulgent parents or just "put it on the plastic," something we were loathe to do.

Tis true many of us missed military service in "hot wars," but Uncle Sam took two years out of our young lives via the draft, and we didn't live in private rooms, enjoy good wages while we served, and come home to all sorts of benefits after service. Boomers have missed the glories of that experience altogether, now that we have an army of mercenaries rather than citizen soldiers.

Most of us bought starter homes we could afford when we had saved up enough for a down payment. The "family jalopy" meant just that. We had one car, and for most that was a used one in the early years of family formation.

My wife and I still chuckle a bit recalling the months we ended with five dollars left from my earnings as a young professional. It wasn't hilarious at the time, however.

Most of us indeed are enjoying relatively secure retirements now. We think we earned them by saving, sacrificing, and living within our means. Our method of building a life better then the ones our parents enjoyed doesn't seem to have been the course of choice for many Boomers. Those who wanted it all right now seem to be learning if you take it all up front and borrow wildly to do it, not much may be available later.

Kay Dennison said...

My golden years were tarnished by a messy divorce and being forced into early retirement. I manage reasonably well but with limitations. That the GOP wants to cut Social Security and Medicare scares me to death.

Boomer Pie said...

Millions of boomers retirement income/401Ks were zapped so tons of boomers cannot afford to retire or they're taking on part time jobs. On the other hand, I like your perspective about us being the luckiest generation. In many respects...we have been and still are.