"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Saturday, September 29, 2018

What's Happened to the Men?

     I went to get my flu shot this past week. Don't forget to do that. For odd reasons, my visit to the clinic made me think of a post I wrote awhile back about men and women.

     One of my pet peeves (along with hectoring people about safe driving) is hectoring people, especially men, about taking care of their health. In my experience, a lot of men ignore their health, somehow thinking it's a sign of weakness to go to the doctor, or eat their vegetables. This contributes to a basic inequality between men and women: on average, women live four years longer than men do.

     I think of myself as a feminist. Everyone should be treated equally and should have the opportunity to fully develop their talents and their lives. So in that spirit -- and hoping it's somewhat relevant and not insensitive in light of the hysteria around this week's news -- I repeat:

     I lost my job at age 53, never to find full-time employment again. Now over ten years later, I find myself sitting at home, working around the house, playing golf with my friends, doing volunteer work and picking up a few freelance assignments -- while my better half goes off every day to her job as a librarian. (This was two years ago. B is retired now -- she retired when she turned 65 and qualified for Medicare.)

    But my situation was not unique. I look around at my friends . . . still today. One lost his job in his late 40s. He couldn't find another job so he tried to start his own business, then he had some health problems, and now at age 60 he is being supported by his wife who commutes to the city. My friend Joe was forced into early retirement at age 57. His wife had gone back to work after the kids went to college. Joe became the house husband; his wife the bread winner -- until, now, Joe died last year at age 65, and his widow is still working but has been able to cut back to part time. Yet another friend took early retirement from the government after his wife landed a high-paying job in another city. Now he's fixing up their house (still) as she goes off to work every day.

     A few years ago, in 2012, Hanna Rosin came out with a book and TED Talk The End of Men, which argued that the era of male economic hegemony is gone for good. She pointed out that most of the jobs lost in the Great Recession were in male-oriented industries, while women working in health and education were not affected so much. According to the New York Times, today 12 of the 15 fastest growing professions are dominated by women.

     Meantime, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, since 1970 female participation in the workforce has increased  from 43% to almost 60%, while male participation has gone down from 80% to 71%. And while older men still make up the majority of senior executives, today women in their 20s actually outearn men in their 20s. The tide has turned.

     A variation of this issue came up in our lives, when B was helping to run the charity auction at her church. She was looking for an auctioneer. "I think a man would be better," she mused, "but there aren't many men who come to church."

     "What about the elders?" I asked. I was thinking there must be at least one man among the group of elders who run the church.

    B paused.  "Actually, there aren't many men who are elders." She counted them up. "Gee, it used to be all men," she concluded. "Now there are hardly any." She gave me a significant look (as though it was my fault) and said, "Where are all the men?"

     I could only think that men, in large measure, are no longer in leadership roles, (okay, I get it, not in Congress, but isn't Congress behind the times in a lot of ways?) and in many cases no longer even working. Women have taken their place. Her boss, the director of the library, is a woman. So is the president of the library board of trustees. The PTA is run completely by women -- although men still dominate the volunteer fire department.

     It's no secret that the path to a good job is a good education. Today, more women than men go to college.  The college enrollment rate for high-school graduates is 72% for young women and 65% for young men -- the result is that 57% of undergraduate students are women.

     One Minnesota college admissions officer noted ruefully that the admissions pool had recently fallen to just 30% male. In the past year it had increased to 34% because, he admitted, "We actually did a little affirmative action."

     Meanwhile, women earn 63% of master's degrees and 54% of doctoral degrees. But hold on. Men do still "win out" in one category. Their high-school dropout rate is 10% compared to 7% for women.

     Currently some 80% of K-12 public school teachers are women. Perhaps one solution to male underemployment would be for men to enter the field of teaching, expanding their career opportunities and possibly helping today's young males make more of their school experience.

     None of this affects me directly. I don't need a job, and even though I take an adult-education class, I probably forget more than I learn. Yet I can't help but think how different the world is compared to when I started out -- let alone what it was for my parents.

     A lot of things have changed, mostly for the good. I have two children, a boy and a girl both in their early 30s. I just hope they both have equally good prospects for their careers -- and their lives.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Fishing 4 Answers

     My days of "doing nothing" have ended. I started my two volunteer jobs this week.

     My focus is on education. I donate both time and money to my colleges, to the community college, and other local organizations that are trying to help people improve their lives. I know it's also important to help feed the hungry, house the homeless and help the aged. But I choose education, maybe because I still remember that old saying about giving a man a fish and you feed him for a day, but teach him how to fish and you've fed him for a lifetime.

     So B and I together lead the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy course at the senior center at our local university. I'm not sure we're "teaching anyone how to fish" with this course. But the material from the Foreign Policy Association is informative, and the discussion is supposed to elevate the level of political discourse. And goodness knows, we certainly need to elevate the level of political discourse.

Great Decisions is held at the Alumni House
     My other volunteer job is tutoring underprivileged and ESL young adults. I tutored at our community college back in New York. And now I'm starting in Pennsylvania. We teach reading, writing, grammar, vocabulary. All crucial abilities people need to hold down a decent job and become enculturated into middle-class America.

    But just because I support education doesn't mean I don't get frustrated with the whole system. The training I received for this tutoring job was maddening. My class went for 12 hours over four days, and we still didn't get the information we needed to do the job. The time was taken up by needless background, endless administrative details, irrelevant tangents -- and inedible snacks that were consumed by no one. This is just one example of how the educational system seems incredibly bureaucratic and inefficient.

     And maybe that's one reason why college is so expensive these days. College is way too expensive. Yet, I am not one who favors free college tuition for all. Why not . . . 4 reasons:

     1. Someone has to pay for it. Shouldn't the person benefiting from a service pay at least some of the cost?

     2. That which is given free is not so highly valued. If you pay for something you are more likely to use it, and use it well. It's human nature. If there's no cost to education, there's no penalty for letting things slide, not paying attention, and otherwise squandering the opportunity.

     3. Paying for college is an investment. The idea is that we pay for something now in order to reap bigger benefits in the future. And we all know that we need to encourage more investment in America, whether it's individuals saving and investing for retirement or governments investing in infrastructure for the future. Paying for college supports the value of investment.

    4. Besides, so what if a person comes out of college with $100,000 of debt. Is that so bad? After all, we don't blink when someone takes out $100,000 mortgage to buy a house. So why should we blink at a $100,000 "mortgage" on an education. I'd argue that an education is a better investment than a house. Wouldn't you?

     All that being said, however, I don't really think it's a good idea for a 20-something to be saddled with a huge college loan. Instead I'd argue that it makes sense for the public to provide free college tuition -- or some other higher-level training -- at least for the disadvantaged. And I'd also suggest that perhaps some particularly talented people should get paid for attending college. So  . . . 4 ideas:

     1. Federal and state governments should invest more in education, from pre-kindergarten up through graduate school. After all, the public at large reaps huge benefits from a more educated population. So we as taxpayers should help pay for it. Also, money from federal and state governments is spread more equitably than the traditional real-estate tax which funds most primary and secondary education -- funding that favors the wealthy and the upper middle class over the poor and lower middle class.

     2. College and universities could and should lower their tuition, and make funding more transparent. Much of the price of college tuition is controlled by a secret cabal of college administrators, and they dole out money and credits not for the benefit of students, but for the benefit of the institution. I honestly know very little about college funding. But it seems they spend way too much on administration, sports and trendy courses. These are luxuries. Why can't colleges -- or at least some colleges -- compete on price?

     3. Why don't we make colleges themselves, rather than the government and banks, loan the tuition money to their own students. Making the colleges responsible for the debt would force them to be more prudent in their loan practices -- and would give them an incentive to keep down both loans and tuition.

     4. Maybe an undergraduate degree should take three years instead of four. Instant 25% savings! My premise is that college provides basic, background information. Then people have to go on for a masters degree to get the training to become a librarian, teacher, social worker, health-care provider -- or, it seems, anything else. So let's get on with it!

     Well, these are just some ideas, jotted down one morning over coffee. Now for me, it's back to the trenches, just helping two or three students become better fishermen.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Joys of Doing Nothing

     I know we all urge one another to volunteer in retirement, or take a part-time job, or attend a class, travel to an exotic locale, babysit the grandchildren -- to do something "meaningful." And I'm on board with that whole philosophy. For the most part.

     But sometimes, just sometimes, it's nice to relax and do . . . absolutely nothing.

     The other day we had some family visiting -- they stayed overnight on their way home from western Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. There was talk of taking a bike ride, hiking up at the park, or walking into town to go to the movies. But we ended up just sitting in the living room and gossiping . . . talking and catching up on news from one family member or another. The big event of the day was going out for pizza.

Mostly, I've been staring out the window
     Yesterday, after they left, I puttered around the yard for an hour or so -- which is a lot for me, since our yard is about 1/16th of an acre. Then I came in to shower, and I finished reading my book . . . leading up to the main event of the day, for me, which was driving over to the library to drop off the book and pick up a new one.

     As you might imagine, I was pretty exhausted after trekking across town to the library. So I watched two episodes of Boardwalk Empire -- which I've been kind of binge watching since I found it on amazon prime. If you didn't see the show when it was originally on HBO, I highly recommend it -- but only to people who can take a little nudity and a lot of violence. (B isn't interested.) Or to put in another way: If you liked Breaking Bad, I think you'd like Boardwalk Empire.

     Oh wait. I forgot my main productive activity from yesterday. I did a load of laundry. You see? Sometimes I underestimate myself.

     But on a more serious note, I did one other thing: We talked to our daughter in North Carolina and our son in South Carolina. Both are getting lots of rain and a little wind. But they're both surviving Florence with no damage.

     So anyway . . . today? I'm on my second cup of coffee, with plans to start reading my new book. And while I admit I've been lazy for the past few days, today I have an excuse. We're expecting a delivery, sometime around mid-day. Well, I can't very well go out and do anything "meaningful" because my job is now to sit around the house and do nothing . . . wait for an important rendezvous.

     Okay, next week B and I will start teaching our class at the local Center for Learning in Retirement. I'm joining a book club. And B and I have signed up for our next round of dance lessons, which begin on Wednesday.

     But in the meantime, I'll be searching for meaning while sitting in a chair, or poking around the backyard. Or "strolling" along the boardwalk of Atlantic City.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Whew ... I'm Glad I'm Retired!

     My town of Doylestown, Pa., holds a bicycle race every year called the Bucks County Classic. It took place this past weekend. There were events for children, for women, for amateurs and professionals. One of the events this year was the Brompton Burst.

     In case you don't know, the Brompton is a folding bike made especially for people commuting to work. You can ride it to your office, or the commuter train, then fold it up into a carrying case and stash it in your closet, the trunk of your car, or wherever you want to store it.

     Brompton Burst participants are required to wear business attire. (There's a prize for best dressed.) The race has what's called a Le Mans start, which means when the race begins, everyone runs to their bike, unpacks it, sets it up, then rides five laps around town. The track is about 1.3 miles -- so the race is a little over six miles long.

Notice the tie ... and it's raining

     It's supposed to be a fun, oddball event, a warm-up for the professional bike race. But the truth is, the event just reminded me . . . I'm glad I don't have to commute anymore, whether on a Brompton bike or any other way.

     When I commuted to a job in New York City, my official hours were 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. I never minded going to work early, if I had to, because there were plenty of earlier express trains. But I hated to work late.

     The last express train left Grand Central at 6:33 p.m. And my office was a comfortable 15 minute walk to the station. But once or twice a week, work would spill over past 6 p.m. There was a meeting or I needed to make a deadline. I knew I had to leave by 6:15 to make that last express comfortably. If I left at 6:25 I could still make the train, but only if I ran most of the way.

     I still remember nervously watching the clock. If it slipped past 6:25 I knew I'd miss the express. The next train wasn't until 7:05, and it was a local that took 52 minutes instead of 39 minutes. It meant I'd be getting home almost an hour later than usual -- sometimes because a meeting went ten minutes long.

The professionals take their turn

     And I still remember the many times I'd dash out of the office at 6:22 or 6:24 and, in full business attire, swinging a fully loaded briefcase, go sprinting down Sixth Ave. and across 45th St. to make that express train. In winter it was bad enough, slipping on the rainy pavement. But summer was worse. I'd leap onto the train, elbow my way to an empty seat, and as the train pulled out of the station I'd be breathing heavily, and I'd feel the sweat dripping off my face, soaking my suit, making me feel sticky and itchy all over. 

     So like I said . . . I'm glad I'm retired!

Saturday, September 8, 2018

New Trends in Retirement

     I discovered a new retirement website, the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center, that does original research on various issues of retirement. (A new site to me; maybe you already know about it.) So I've added a link to my resource list at the bottom of the blog, as another place for people to find answers to all the questions about retirement. Scroll down to the end of the blog to see the entire list.

     There are plenty of commercial, organizational and media sites focusing on retirement, including other academic sites, such as the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. Who knew that universities were so interested in us seniors?

     If you know of any other useful retirement site, I'd love to hear about it. Meanwhile, here are a few trends in retirement as identified by the University of Michigan.

     1. The traditional career arc is changing. The experience of a decades-long fulltime job, followed by full retirement, is becoming the exception rather than the rule. Instead, many workers are leaving fulltime work in their 50s, and taking lower-paying "bridge" jobs they may hold for several years before finally entering full retirement. People in bridge jobs have different attitudes and expectations compared to fulltime workers, which significantly affect loyalty, commitment and incentives in the workplace.

     2. As a corollary, more people are choosing semi-retirement. Due to lack of a secure pension, or forced early retirement, a significant group of retirees are now holding part-time jobs. The fraction of partially retired workers has risen dramatically. In 1960, less than 10 percent of people in their late 60s were partially retired. Today, more than 20 percent of us in our late 60s consider themselves partially retired. (I include myself in this group.)

     3. Today, workers have less control over the timing of their retirement. Despite efforts from the government to ban age discrimination, multitudes of workers in their 50s and early 60s have been laid off or forced into early retirement. In addition, almost as many late-stage workers are being passed over for new jobs. At least some of this phenomenon results from businesses responding to difficult economic conditions since 2000. (This happened to me; probably happened to someone you know, too.)

     4. But they also have more flexibility. In 1970, Social Security introduced a gradual increase in the delayed retirement credit, meaning that employees working beyond normal retirement age continue to build up credits for Social Security. Workers now have the flexibility to take retirement anywhere between 62 and 70, and theoretically they receive the same expected lifetime benefits. Also, the decline in defined-benefit pension plans has reduced instances when workers face age-specific work disincentives. In other words, fewer companies require workers to retire at age 65 whether they want to or not. That's the silver lining of defined contribution plans: now you can decide when to retire, rather than the pension plan pushing you to retire at a certain age.

     5. The more money you make, the more likely you will keep working. It seems counterintuitive. You'd think the lower your salary, the longer you'd have to work. But it doesn't pan out that way, presumably because higher paid workers have better jobs, ones they not only want to keep but are also able to keep. (In my case ... I wish!) The fulltime employment rate for 65 year olds on the lower end of the payscale is down, while the rate for highly paid workers in their late 60s has been rising since the 1990s.

     6. People spend longer periods of time in part-time careers. People who leave the fulltime workforce early need to make more income. They tend to fall into the lower end of the payscale to begin with, and in the end have devoted fewer years to earning a salary. Therefore, instead of taking full retirement at 65 or 66, many keep working their part-time jobs until age 70 or beyond, to make up for lost wages earlier in their career. (I've been a part-timer for over 15 years now.)

     7. Inflation, housing prices and the stock market have little impact on retirement. The Michigan Retirement Research Center says that a high inflation rate results in a slightly higher retirement rate, because wages lag inflation and therefore lower the rewards of working. Housing prices and stock-market performance have only a minimal influence on the timing of retirement, and even then only for wealthier individuals. Most people time their retirement based on their own tolerance and ability to work, not on general economic conditions or prospects for the stock market. (Yes, true for most of us, don't you think?)

Saturday, September 1, 2018

A Day at the Beach

     We're retired, so we don't have to go to the beach over Labor Day weekend. We can take a day trip during the week, as we did a couple of days ago.

     We live in Bucks County, PA, and according to google maps it takes 1 hour and 33 minutes to drive to the Jersey Shore.

     And, sure enough, 1 hour and 33 minutes later we pulled into Spring Lake, NJ. We were a little early, so we had brunch and then some of us did a little shopping.

     Spring Lake is a pretty upscale town. A modest house a couple of blocks from the beach costs over $1 million, according to the many real-estate offices lining the main shopping street.

     But any yahoo from Pennsylvania can park for free (if it's not Labor Day and it's not too crowded) and walk onto the beach for ten bucks. (There's no senior discount. I asked.)

     The woman taking tickets warned us that the onshore breeze was blowing sand flies in from the wetlands. We'd be better off down near the water, she advised, and also apply plenty of bug spray. For the most part, it worked. The water was perfect. Warm enough for me (at about 74 degrees) and calm enough for B, who doesn't like the big waves.

          I tried to read my book, but was distracted by all the people watching, from beach bunnies . . .

     To the paddleboarders . . .

     to the guy on the boat out in the water . . .

     to the kids playing football . . .

     to more beach bunnies . . .

     to an intrepid couple way up there parasailing.

     I'm supposed to write an article for my U. S. News On Retirement column highlighting some surprising things about retirement. Okay, we can't kid ourselves too much -- there can be some negative surprises. But today I'm thinking the most surprising thing about retirement is that it's even better than I thought!