When I was a teenager just beginning to work my first job as a cashier in a grocery store, I remember my father saying, “Do the right things, work hard, get married, buy a house, and everything will turn out alright.” I used to believe that, but now I see the chasm between the “haves” and “have nots” growing at an alarming rate. While I don’t currently consider myself a “have not,” when I look ahead to retirement, I am terrified that I will become one — and that I will have a lot of company from the rest of the Baby Boomers and beyond. While I don’t necessarily agree, a Canadian friend of ours goes as far as to say that there is no longer a middle class in America.
The July/August AARP Bulletin featured a cover article entitled, I Retired Too Soon: Why More of Us Need to Stay on the Job. In it they write, “An AARP survey in April found that nearly one in five people ages 55-64, planned to delay retirement because of the economic downturn,” that they are “delaying or re-evaluating their dreams of the golden years that may, in fact, never come to pass.” These are people just like me, and maybe you too.
I am 51 years old and have been working consistently since I was 16. I am a dependable, capable employee, I pay my taxes, and I am a good neighbor. I take personal responsibility for my actions instead of blaming others. We live modestly, have no debt except for the mortgage on our home, and have investments in 401Ks and IRAs to help provide for our retirement, but we are not cash-heavy. When I look ahead to retirement, like many others in the middle class, I’m worried. I feel vulnerable. On our latest visit to Costa Rica, we talked to two different couples who used almost the exact same words, “If we stayed in the States, we would have to work until we die.”
I see our growing monthly bills for heating and air conditioning in Baltimore’s sweltering summers and frozen winters, not to mention the soaring cost of fuel for our cars. Food costs, including staples like milk, bread and rice are sky-rocketing, at a time when the country’s farmers can’t afford to keep farming. And I watch the value of our home and our other investments dwindling before my eyes. And what will happen after we both stop working and health care expenses rise? Will we have to work until we die?
I am also afraid that the United States isn’t a good place to grow old. If young people entering the workforce today are the ones who will take care of us when we can’t take care of ourselves, we are in trouble. They grew up with us, the Baby Boomers, as parents. We wanted to give our children everything that we didn’t have growing up. After all, our parents lived through the Great Depression, and just didn’t have as much “stuff” to give. When today’s young people were children, “Mr. Rogers” told them that they were special, just for being themselves; when they competed in athletic events, every child got a ribbon, just for competing. And when they struggled in school (or in life), their well-meaning parents tried to protect them from experiencing the consequences of their own actions. This generation comes into the workforce, expecting their employers to act as benevolently, and to make the same concessions. Both educators and corporate America are scrambling to find ways to attract, and manage, this new breed that expects everything without “working hard and doing the right thing.”
I know that there are many people in this country who are worse off than me, people without health insurance, homes, and jobs. And I’m not trying to whine, really. But this is how I feel, and why I want to live somewhere else, where the climate is hospitable, the people are giving, the necessities of life are less expensive, and there is an national health care system that everyone can afford. Costa Rica seems just the place, to me.