Thursday, February 21, 2013

And So ... We Muddle Through

      I was at a burger joint the other night, having dinner with my lovely B. On the way to the restaurant from work, B stopped by to visit a friend of hers who'd suffered a death in the family. She'd brought along a plate of homemade cookies, and stayed a little while to offer some friendly support.

     So at dinner, across the wooden table, B said to me, "Do you know what her husband does for a living?"

     I had no idea. I barely knew the woman, and had never met her husband. But they live in a nice house in town, so I figured maybe he works at the nearby Pepsi office park, or for IBM which has a big complex in town -- or perhaps he commuted to the city for some kind of management job.

     "He drives a delivery truck for the local oil company." said B.

     "Huh?" I replied. I was surprised. But I'm never too surprised anymore to find out what people do, because so many of my contemporaries have changed jobs in the past few years, usually not for the better.

     B's friend is a nurse, and has a good job, which apparently pays for their mortgage and food and clothes for their kids. The husband used to work for a financial firm as some kind of commodities dealer. But a few years ago he was let go because, as B explained it, whatever he did was rendered obsolete by the computers. The guy was unemployed for a while, until a friend who worked for the local oil distributor suggested he drive a truck to make a few extra dollars while he looked for another opportunity. Now, several years later, he's still driving a truck.

     John Agno of So Baby Boomer argues in his post, Generation Squeeze, that while all of us have suffered from the Great Recession and its long and painful aftermath, it's the Baby Boomers who have taken the greatest hit. "They have lost the most earning power of any age group," he wrote, "with their household incomes 10 percent below what they made when the recovery began three years ago, according to Sentier Research, a data analysis company."

     In addition, Baby Boomers have suffered the most from falling real-estate prices. They are helping to support both aging parents and their underemployed 20-something children. Many have lost their jobs at a point in their lives when it's practically impossible to find another job at anywhere close to their old salaries. A lot of Boomers have lost their medical benefits, long before they're eligible for Medicare, and many have been forced to start taking Social Security as soon as they can, at age 62, thus shortchanging themselves by receiving lower monthly payments for the rest of their lives.

     As a Baby Boomer myself, I find it hard to disagree with Agno's conclusions. But I can understand how a 20-something might disagree -- pointing out that many recent college graduates are working in jobs well below their skill level, while finding career-track positions closed off to them. Many are going back to school -- and incurring still more debt -- in a desperate attempt to develop a sought-after marketable skill. The result:  Most 20-somethings make less money than their Baby Boomer parents did at a similar age, and they will likely be on a lower salary track for the rest of their lives.

     Nevertheless, my sympathies go out to my fellow Baby Boomers. One friend of mine worked for years for one of the big liquor companies. He got laid off in his mid-50s, and soon found himself working as a clerk in our local liquor store. Another friend got laid off from his marketing job a few years ago. Luckily, his wife holds down a pretty good job. But he now spends his time as a house husband -- even though his kids are grown up and out of the house.

     I know a man who turned 60 last year. He lost his job with the state government. Technically he's a lawyer; but he hasn't practiced law in years and he hasn't been able to find a legal job, so now he works part-time at a fitness club. His wife, also a lawyer, got laid off from her firm (even though she was a partner), and now works "of counsel" with another firm -- which is legalese for part-time, we'll call you when we need you, and pay half the going rate.

     Despite this wife's experience, I'd venture to guess that Baby Boomer men have suffered more than women, in the sense that due simply to the conventions of the age -- for there was still plenty of sexism in the 1960s and '70s when those careers were getting started -- the men rose higher on the corporate ladder and the income scale ... and then they fell harder. But the economic, social and psychological toll has hit everyone, including spouses and children and other family members.

     I wish I knew what was going to happen. Are we the next Great Britain, as some have suggested, just at the beginning of a long but inevitable economic decline? I hope not. I hope we solve the sequestration conundrum, and tackle the debt burden, and figure out a way to put people back to work in meaningful jobs. I hope we are able to put ourselves back on a progressive economic path that will allow us to take care of our elderly, and also serve our children and grandchildren well.

     In the meantime, I guess we have to do is ... muddle through.


MerCyn said...

The 20-somethings are suffering, but they are young, resilient, and after bouncing around most will fall into a living wage opportunity. My computer geek nephew has one temporary consulting job after another and will eventually find a full-time WITH BENEFITS position. A friend of his spent two years selling shoes before landing his dream job after volunteering in his field. We boomers believed the good times would never end...

Retired Syd said...

I think this is why we're having such trouble digging out of these economic doldrums. With the hit that boomers took, the largest consumer group just doesn't have as much money to power that 70% of the economy driven by consumers.

And then at the other end of the age spectrum, our younger consumers are having trouble getting started in their careers (and as consumers to drive our economy.)

I wonder how we get ourselves out of this vicious cycle?

Linda Myers said...

I suspect each of us will take a look at the current reality and make the necessary adjustments. No matter what our age.

I wonder how many of our children had an inheritance as a possibility in the back of their minds for somewhere down the line? Those may now not happen.

Douglas said...

I am a fortunate Baby Boomer. I retired before it all fell apart and my pension is secure and I started SS at 62. But, yes,my income is roughly half what I brought home the last 5 years I was working. But, with mortgage paid off and no car payments and living in a cheaper cost of living area, I have more disposable income now than I did when working.

Do you know what I made in 1970? $113 per week.

Stephen Hayes said...

Yes, we all must muddle through. I know several fellow baby boomers who are hurting and revising retirement plans.

Barb said...

Its a toughie, and its worth mentioning that many of those twenty somethings like my son can't get a job because so many of the jobs he would take are held by folks who got forced out and are now working for any income at all.

it goes round and round......

Juhli said...

I remember well having to look for work during past recessions - it is tough. And as the female half of our marriage, I am the one who has been layed off, etc. because I worked in corporate America. My husband was first a tenured professor and not a federal employee. He apparently made the better career choices but who knows at the time. You just have to do the best with what you have available.

Vagabonde said...

Yes times have changed. When I came over from Paris in the 1960s I used to make more than my friends in Europe and everyone envied me. Now they make a lot more, with more benefits, and they only want to come here for a holiday (although lately they have been afraid of violence and have gone to Canada or Australia instead.) If the minimum wage in the US had kept with inflation since the 60s it would be at least $10.60 a hour! In Australia in 2012 the minimum wage was $15.96 per hour. My cousin’s son who has a Masters in computer science got a job in Singapore paying twice what he would have received here. It is sad to see that the US is no longer the top country when it comes to wages and benefits and where people can get ahead. I hope it won’t take too long to get back up.

schmidleysscribblins, said...

Indeed, many 20-somethings are working below their skill level. I did too, off and on for years.

I developed a bio for my grandson of jobs I held, which included everything from working in a laundry to being a research assistant on Capitol Hill to being a corporate executive. Needs must. Dianne

Dick Klade said...

The minimum wage in Australia is higher and benefits are good, but the cost of living is 30 to 45 percent higher. All things should be considered when making those kinds of comparisons.

Don QuiScottie said...

"Are we the next Great Britain, as some have suggested, just at the beginning of a long but inevitable economic decline?"

An interesting comment to me, living in Great Britain, where even in these harsher times people are so much better off and have so much more than when I was a boy (50 years ago).