Friday, July 14, 2023

We are All Unprepared

Best I can tell, I will be able to retire eventually.  This was once the general assumption of most Americans, the expectation that when you reached the end of middle age, you'd set down your labors and spend your dotage travelling or puttering around in a golf cart through some sprawling community in Florida.

That is no longer the case.  With the collapse of the Soviet Union back at the end of the last century, American businesses no longer had any impetus to provide cradle to grave care for their workers.  "Hey, wait, there's no longer a competing ideology that forces us to do more for our workers or risk having them rise up?  Guess we can find some more profit this next quarter."  Health care?  Heh.  Sort of, barely.  Retirement benefits?  Sure...but the risk is all on you, and the rewards mostly accrue to those who "handle" the trillions that pour into the markets.  

That, coupled with a culture that celebrates the debt-financing of life, immediate gratification over long term planning, and fetishizes youth and adolescence?  We are, as a people, catastrophically unprepared for aging.  We just ain't ready.  Not even faintly.

And we are aging, all at once, thanks to the great pulse of Baby Boomers who have defined our culture for a generation.  They are, all together, getting older.

A recent study by the Urban Institute  lays out some pretty challenging statistics about this grey wave.  By 2040, the percentage of the population that is over 65 will have nearly doubled from where it was in 1980.  The number of individuals in the oldest category, those who require the most care and are least able to fend for themselves?  It'll be quadruple what it was in 2000.

Life expectancy has continued to rise, so those who are old will be old longer, living a decade or more deeper into age than they did a generation ago.

With that shift, Social Security...which we've very much not prioritized...will come under significant pressure.  With fewer working age folks supporting more older folks, that financial safety net will fray under the strain.  We've pushed off doing anything about it for forty years, and the bill is coming due, no matter how much magical thinking we apply to the subject.

Our failure to prepare as a nation is mirrored by our failure to prepare as individuals.  It's one of the peculiarities of a republic, as the ethics of debt play out both in the halls of Congress and our own ever-expanding credit card balances.  

Right now, as of this writing, the average Social Security benefit stands at just over fifteen hundred dollars a month.  Nearly half of Americans have no retirement savings at all, which means the average American household has about twenty one thousand dollars socked away for retirement.  If you retire at 67, and live until you're in your eighties, twenty one thousand dollars doesn't quite cut it, and fifteen hundred a month runs through your fingers real quick lately.

Having enough financial reserve to make it more than ten months into an American retirement means you need to be, relatively speaking, rich.

My wife and I don't seem rich, at least not on the surface.  We live in a 1,300 square foot rambler on a quarter acre suburban lot.  This is about half the size of the average new American home.  It's where we raised our kids, and while it was snug when there were four of us, its plenty of room for two.  Our cars are functional and reliable Hondas, utterly unsexy and leaning towards efficiency and practicality.  I ride to work and run errands on a Yamaha scooter, which gets over 80 to the gallon.  As a small church pastor and author, my annual income over the last decade has averaged $35,000 a year, which...isn't much.  

But scratch the surface, and we're almost painfully privileged.  Rich, even.  My wife's consulting business has done quite well over the last few years, in a King Lemuel's Wife sort of way.  Rache and I own our home outright, so we have no mortgage.  We own our cars outright.  We have no debt.  None at all.  We live small, and live lean, and have consistently over a lifetime spent less than we made.

Our savings, for retirement and otherwise?  Over One Million Dollars.  That's not what it used to be, in an Austin Powers Doctor Evil sort of way, but it's nearly fifty times higher than the typical American retirement reserve.  This isn't cause for bragging or pride, for peering over the high walls of my family wealth-fortress at the helpless rabble beneath me.  I feel almost embarrassed that I even have the option of stepping away from work later in life, because so many others do not.  

Taken as a whole, we're just not ready.  The morning has come, and we're sitting in class on the day of the final, and we're staring blankly at questions for which we don't have answers.