When I was a teen-ager, back in the late 60s, my mother expressed sadness at how frequently she seemed to answer the phone, only to hear one of her friends say, “Louise, can I talk to you?” It was always the harbinger of a marriage gone wrong and another divorce in the offing. It was a time of great upheaval in families, and not just with kids leaving home for Greenwich Village and the Haight-Ashbury.
It’s now four decades later, and I now find myself well aware of the sadness my mother felt. For me, it’s not the phone but e-mail that brings messages not from friends but from colleagues, each of them blandly announcing that their world has unexpectedly shifted and they’ve been laid off. A different kind of divorce for a different century, but a divorce anyway you look at it.
This is how I look at it. The world has been jealous of baby boomers since we were born. (Some people are just vicious about it.) The world seemed to revolve around us. We had toys, breakfast cereal, television, you name it, seemingly invented for us. What we saw on television looked almost exactly like our suburban cocoons. If not for Vietnam, we might have been the most coddled generation in the history of the world. I feel like this is the world exacting its revenge against all that cushiness.
It seems like every time I turn around, someone I know in their 50s is getting involuntarily detached from the routine they knew. It’s not just my friends, and it’s not just men – it’s happening all over the country, and to women too. And it’s happening at the worst possible time, for a lot of reasons.
The job market for 50-somethings has withered. For reasons I can’t fathom (perhaps because I’m a 50-something), no one seems to value experience anymore. They’d rather hire two youngsters. As the saying goes, if you think wisdom is expensive, try ignorance.
Interest rates and investment returns have stagnated. It would be one thing to be laid off at 50 and still be able to live on savings. But the recent economic brouhaha has left stocks and interest rates low or stagnant. There’s no cushion. And with housing values still low in some areas, it’s impossible to cash out of an underwater mortgage.
Our peak earning years have vanished. It was all too easy to put off saving for retirement by saying, “I’ll do it in my 50s when I’m making the most money.” Now time has run out.
Let’s be honest here. This isn’t a question solely of money. Yes, I know people who now face bleak if not impoverished retirements because they’ve spent their 50s cashing in their IRAs in the hope that they would find employment and then bulk them up again. I also know people whose layoffs included seven-figure payouts (diminished considerably by taxes); they won’t end up on the street, but they don’t feel like they’re contributing to society.
They’re lost and bereft, sitting on decades of experience that no one seems to value anymore. That’s almost a worse feeling. My friend George – who reinvented himself in his 40s – is writing a book about coping with these issues, and one-third of it relates to the psychological issues of dealing with job loss (the other two-thirds relate to saving money and finding different employment).
Sometimes it is a question of money. I have friends whose lives have been wracked by divorce settlements that may force them to keep working … well, forever. One friend’s retirement plan consists of convincing me to build a cabaña in the backyard so he can live there and clean the pool for room and board.
Some of us are lucky. We’ve reinvented ourselves, mostly because we didn’t have much of a choice, and found a way to be self-employed. Others, like my friend Rich, has bounced from job to job, even doing contract work he hated for a while, but has finally found a programming job at a well-financed start-up. He’s older than almost all of his co-workers, but he’s enjoying the challenge. Others my age I see in retail stores, as cheerfully as possible ringing up sales or sweeping up aisles.
Yes, we boomers had a cushy life. But we’re paying for it now, at a time when we can least afford it.