I’ve discovered recently that I’ve become a reportable statistic. I’ve been a baby boomer since birth, of course. Many of the statistics about us involve retiring early, building big nest eggs, increasing casino revenues, growing the Winnebago market and moving to Phoenix. None of those stats apply to me, though, a fact my beloved has occasionally pointed out to me with a yellow highlighter and the monthly AARP newsletter.
So now I’ve learned that I’m a member of a growing population of boomers, who, in the words of USA Today, “are in for a rude awakening” as far as their willingness to continue working, pay bills, and stay “busy and intellectually engaged.”
After a rather unceremonious severance from a local newspaper (my second in eight years), I spent two years looking for work in a soft labor market. Not only did opportunity fail to knock, its window had been painted shut. I eventually found employment with a firm that valued attendance more than any other skill.
It’s the kind of job that should remind all boomers that the vision of working diligently, then retiring early to relax and pursue individual goals belonged to only one generation. The question we must answer for ourselves now is: Was that version of retirement a real vision or a fantasy?
The boomers expanded into a vast middle class, but prosperity cannot be confused with concentrated wealth. We were never destined by our hard work and salaries to live like the idle rich.
Lacking a direct experience of the Great Depression and riding the wave of expanding prosperity through the 1980s convinced most of us that we really were creating an easier life. So we started taking it easy. With home equity and growing 401(k)s, we began living beyond our means. Not all of us, but enough to reverse the polarity from boundless prosperity back toward anxious uncertainty—which is where civilization has been since the beginning anyway.
It’s been a rough landing for some of us, and a rough one for more of us still to come. But it’s a landing that was both necessary and inevitable.
For our children, we boomers have an obligation to re-acknowledge that life is, if not hard, at least harder than we believed it should be. Our predecessors, the so-called Greatest Generation, knew that.
A difficult life breeds simple pleasures, like taking a walk in the park instead of a trip to Disney World—or saving all year for a weekly rental at the beach instead of buying a beach home as an “investment opportunity.” Simple pleasures might even include putting Las Vegas on a bucket list instead of using that destination, Atlantic City or the Native American casinos as depositories for extraneous Social Security funds.
Work, not wealth, is the only guarantor of security. If that alone is the lesson boomers must now convey to their children and grandchildren—that there are no free rides—it might be learned without making them endure a Great Depression.
One final thought: If your cable goes out, go easy on us when you call. We didn’t do it, and we really do mean to help you.
Reid Champagne is currently open for suggestions for water cooler banter. Email Reid at firstname.lastname@example.org.