Maybe it’s karma. Boomers had it so easy for most of our lives. But now we’re getting older and realizing with varying levels of panic what sociologists have known for quite a while: that we may not have the same standard of living as our parents. Even those who are comfortable are wondering how to retire on microscopic interest rates. But it’s worse for those who have been laid off and face a job market that’s not only limited, but highly unfriendly to older people perceived as being more expensive, less energetic, and less flexible than the generations behind them (we’re not, but it’s a stereotype).
The fact is, Boomers have generally been comfortable. We’ve ridden a multiple booms into the stratosphere, whether in stocks or real estate, or both. At least three of my high school classmates – and who knows how many of my college classmates – are comfortably ensconced in the mythical 1% everyone keeps railing against. But too many others can be described with three Ss: stuck, scared, and scrambling. They’re the ones who keep me thinking about the idea of reinventing oneself, as I wrote about last summer in Reinventing Lucy.
Every so often I run across people who’ve really nailed the art of reinvention. Take my friend and former colleague George, who’s now retired – and I use the term loosely – in Tucson. He noted in his holiday card this year that he’s now 75. He and I worked together more than 25 years ago here in Silicon Valley, and that was after his first 20-year career, spent in journalism. Long before the terms “reinventing oneself” or even “virtual companies” were thrown around, George had created a thriving home-based business doing corporate newsletters.
He had left journalism in 1983 because of a situation that’s highly familiar today: the desire of management to “sweep out the gray hairs and the high salaries” and hire younger people. (See, today is just a lesson we have to keep re-learning.) Also, he saw the dusty future of journalism better than most people: capitalizing on his psychology degree, he moonlighted as a psych professor at a local junior college. He would always poll the students on whether they read a daily newspaper, and over the years, he saw the numbers dwindling. Young people were losing the habit even before there was online news as an alternative. Between that and management banishing the older guys to the midnight police desk, he knew it was time to get out.
Knowing his insights into reinvention would be valuable, I sat down with him on the phone the other day. He offered these five salient tips for those who are now in their 50s and seeking to take control of their lives. In truth, they apply to any generation, and they can be summed up simply: maintain your financial independence, and every other kind of independence will follow.
● Moonlight. That’s an old-fashioned term for a second job, which George refers to as a “kitchen-table” job. For those worried about getting laid off, George cites a Wall Street Journal article he read many years ago called “Defensive Entrepreneurship” (there’s also an unrelated web site.) It’s basically a contingency plan – something I’m always in favor of – to protect yourself not only financially but emotionally. “If you have a fledgling business, you’ve got something to do besides sending out resumes and being depressed. It may sooner or later sustain you.” George also started investing in residential real estate, which brought in extra income.
● Save. Unable to borrow money without showing years of tax returns, he decided to establish “the bank of George.” He went on an austerity program and stockpiled $5,000 in a reserve account so he always had a buffer to sustain him and his business.
● Avoid debt. Reinventing yourself isn’t necessarily easy, but in order to thrive in the process and have the emotional wherewithal, you need to focus on the task at hand without the pressures of debt. Even if you just borrow money from your in-laws, you’re still obligated. “You surrender your independence when you take on debt. The less pressure you have, the better you’ll feel.”
● Avoid overhead. George was running a virtual company long before the term was invented, outsourcing before we knew what it was. His newsletter team consisted of freelance writers, an independent designer, and an outside printing firm. He ran the company from out of his house, so he never had to worry about office overhead.
● Network. Once you’ve established your home office, leave it. “The worst thing is to be isolated. Go to places where people gather and network.”
All of that said, George acknowledges that the path of reinventing oneself as an entrepreneur isn’t for everyone, especially those who are uncomfortable with risk. His own mother, referring to his real estate ventures, said, “I wouldn’t want people calling me at 3 a.m. to tell me the toilet is stopped up.” Indeed, reinvention combined with self-employment is self-segregating: “People will gravitate to where it feels right.”
In time, the newsletter business faded away. Once desktop computers became capable of doing layout, even in word processing documents, there was no reason to hire an outside company to do the writing and the design. George spends his days in Tucson with his wife (and long-time Cranky fan) Sondra, having comfortably moved into his next phase: volunteer work.
“I just signed up to volunteer with the United Way to help families working on their finances,” George told me. “Times are rough and they’re not going to get better. For the next five years, maybe even longer, people will be working on just surviving.”
Frankly, I can’t think of anyone better suited for the job.