My first Social Security check arrived last week while I was enjoying an extended vacation wandering around the house looking for something to do. It was a bit of synchronicity that left me pondering various unlikely retirement scenarios.
It’s a fascinating thought experiment: What would happen if I managed to convince My Lovely Wife that our golden years together would be improved by quitting my job and living on my new 20-grand-a-year government pension? We could rent out a couple of the empty bedrooms to equally cash-strapped boarders, subsist on rice and beans, and generally adopt the scrappy bohemian lifestyle we so loved in the 1970s.
I could pick up a few bucks here and there on the freelance writing front when necessary, I suppose, but mostly I’d avoid any heavy lifting and focus my wavering attention span on crafting a life of leisurely austerity, slogging through 19th-century Russian novels and weeding the kitchen garden between bouts of awkward carpentry. What could go wrong?
There’s the mortgage, of course, and we’d probably have to give up Internet and cable, and maybe swap our cellphones for a landline. Then there’s the whole health-insurance thing (MLW’s not old enough for Medicare) and the roof will probably need replacing in the next few years and the heating bills do tend to rise come winter and the car has 80,000 miles on it. . . .
As I said, it’s a nice thought experiment. And, for a growing number of geezers like myself, it’s as close as we’re going to come to the placid portrait of retirement painted by investment bankers and other financial gurus. As Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan report in the Washington Post, nearly 20 percent of seniors are still in the workforce, more than twice the number that were working in 2000. “While some work by choice rather than need, millions of others are entering their golden years with alarmingly fragile finances,” they write. “One in five have no savings, and millions retire with nothing in the bank. Nearly 30 percent of households headed by someone 55 or older have neither a pension nor any retirement savings.”
And those who do can’t be sure how long it will last, they note. “Among people between 55 and 64 who have retirement accounts, the median value of those accounts is just over $120,000, according to the Federal Reserve,” the Post notes. “So people are forced to guess how long they might live and budget their money accordingly, knowing that one big health problem, or a year in a nursing home, could wipe it all out.”
You can blame the Great Recession and other sundry economic calamities for eviscerating your retirement dreams, but the only retirees I know are those who get an employer-funded pension check every month. And that form of corporate largesse has nearly vanished in the past 20 years. About half of all U.S. companies provided them in 1998; by 2015 only about 5 percent did. I’m not a bookkeeper, but even I know that a guaranteed monthly income is far more reliable than any amount of savings you manage to stash away.
President Roosevelt probably had this in mind when he convinced Congress to approve Social Security benefits in 1935. Mired in the Great Depression, older Americans could no longer rely upon family and friends to keep them afloat when money was scarce. And in the halcyon years of labor organizing that followed, workers could depend upon their union leaders to prod employers to support them with pensions when they left the workforce. This is the world many of us geezers have inhabited for most of our lives, but it seems to me now that it was an anomaly, a brief respite between eras when old folks had to fend for themselves.
Financial planners tell me that I should really have somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.5 million in the bank if I want to live out my years in the style to which I’d like to become accustomed. Maybe I’d only need a million if we ate more rice and beans. Either way, I can’t see much of a downside to pedaling across the bridge to the office tomorrow morning — and for the foreseeable future. We all need a reason to get out of bed in the morning, after all. Besides, if my recent vacation taught me anything it’s that I’m not cut out for a life of leisure.
And I’m not ready to share a bathroom with anybody but MLW.