the question that can only be answered one way

Both Bubelah and I have one surviving grandparent apiece. Until I was a young adult, I had all four; three of her grandparents had died either before she was born or when she was much younger.  But now we both have a single grandmother left.  It’s tough, of course, to lose relatives or friends but I think there’s something to watch the people whose genetic makeup pumps through your own veins pass away.  The loss of health is sad; the loss of mental health is despair-inducing.

My own grandmother, though, will be one of the last people to see her way through retirement with the following: her pension; Social Security; survivor benefits from my grandfather’s pension; and finally, the remnants of my grandfather’s aggressive and carefully planned investment strategy.  He began investing as a young man and was still studying stocks and monitoring his portfolio until the end of his life in his eighties.  My grandmother was typical for those days, too – she understood very little about their financial situation.  Like many women of the Greatest Generation, she focused on the expenses, not the income.

Once my grandfather passed, my parents took over my grandmother’s finances. I gave some advice but not much more than that.  Nonetheless, my grandmother has continued to rely on my opinion simply because I do work in a field related to finance and (vaguely) economics.  Speaking to her the other night, she asked a question which began to haunt me as a young man and these days has started to keep me up at nights.

“Do I still have enough to last until I die?”

A gambler or a credit card addict doesn’t think about that question. Tomorrow is tomorrow.  Somebody will be there to help:  daddy, adult children, the government, the market, the bank, Batman… but there is no scenario for most people that involves lying in the street freezing.  I imagine that in the worst case most people imagine being stuck in a government nursing home, but consider what a safety net even that is:  people expect the government to guarantee old age care.  Yet the same people complain about communists like me who’d like to see government-provided health care for all ages.

That question can only be answered one way:  yes. The question has two levels:  will I have enough for basic cable and fresh milk and the occasional new sweater on one level, and ‘is there a future where I am aged, infirm, helpless, cold and hungry’?

I don’t spend enough time around the elderly in general – I think we have a lot to learn, good and bad, from them – but I have spent enough time to realize that the question ‘do I still have enough to last until I die’ is going to be a scarier and scarier question in the years ahead. I used to worry about the first part:  would I have enough for me (at first), and then later, for my family:  enough to do a little traveling with Bubelah, send my grandkids a Transformers XIII action figure and so on.  But in my darker moods, watching the slow steady decline of the middle classes’ standard of living, the second part of that question creeps in, latches its claws into my lizard brain and stays.  That’s when I remind myself that there’s only one possible answer to that question; I have to make sure that answer is ‘yes.’

photo by Eleaf

13 Replies to “the question that can only be answered one way”

  1. You know spending time with my grandparents makes me worry LESS about the future. I have two still alive (and kicking – my gran has more energy than I do most days).

    They both smoked for 40 years yet are still as healthy as you can be in your 80s. They worked as milkman and housewife but were able to put away enough to retire okay. They are an example as to how your spending reduces when you get past say age 70. They have a lot of family who help in every and any way. They regularly kick any canvassing politician's ass over the issues they care about.

    Sure they don't have ipads or go on cruises but they have a very nice life and I figure it's a good example for me. Definitely agree that spending time with the older generation is fun and educational, and wish I lived closer to my amazing grandmother!

  2. I'm only in my 40's, but this question has haunted me for years. I'm unmarried and an only child, so the only person I can truly rely upon is myself. Plus, I need to make sure I have enough resources to care for my parents in their old age as well. Thinking about the future has prompted me to stay in a high-paying job that I hate for longer than I probably should, but I take my responsibilities seriously. I don't want to be a burden on anyone.

  3. This is a very tough, yet essential question to ask yourself. I think two elements make us uncomfortable about this question which is why we tend to avoid it. (1) Money or rather the lack of it is a scary thing in our world. (2) The end of our lives is even scarier. Who wants to think about his or her own death?

  4. Clay Shirky has an interesting post that pertains (…). While he is talking about business models, he is also describing society in general. The societal structures that we see supporting the elderly likely won't last forever. As costs increase, either the structures will fail, or society will.

    That indicates that we are ultimately responsible for our own futures, and should plan accordingly. However, just because we plan doesn't mean we will succeed. And those who do nothing may in fact luck out and thrive into their golden years. I prefer improving my odds through preparation, but I also recognize that it is no guarantee.

    1. @Curmudgeon: Thanks for the comment, but particular thanks for the link – that's a fascinating article. The concept that complexity of systems is a weakness and not a strength sounds sortof obvious when you say it, but not when you think it through – but then that article turns that on its head. Great read, and anyone reading brip blap should read it, too.

  5. I think about this ALL THE TIME. And only just recently so, as my own parents are now in their eighties, living on Social Security and my father's pension. Both have some form of dementia and would be in bad shape at home if my mother hadn't taken out a reverse mortgage (I'm not for them generally, but in this case it's been a godsend; it's paying for their caregiver).

    They invested and saved relatively little. Without my father's pension, they'd be living on Social Security. Without Social Security, they'd be living on his small-ish pension. They're lucky they have both. I worry for my mother if Dad passes away first. She stopped working until I was about 15 and therefore her Social Security check is much less than his and her survivor benefits for both pension and SS are pretty small!

    A great movie to watch is 1937's Make Way for Tomorrow, about a couple who lose their home in the '30s and have no one to turn to but their adult children, who pretty much aren't in great financial shape themselves. This is before Social Security. The parents have NOTHING. They end up each staying with one child, so they are separated after 50 years of happy marriage, with little hope of being able to live together again. It's heartbreaking. Orson Welles called it one of the saddest movies ever. “Even a stone would cry,” he's reported to have said. It's well-acted and it IS heartbreaking. I challenge anyone not to be sobbing at its end.

    Thank goodness for Social Security! It's allowed so many people dignity in their later years. It's truly horrifying what could — will? — happen if/when the program dies.

    Everyone: Save, save, save, everyone. Your future selves depend on it.

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  7. Yes. While I think I do have enough to last until I die (especially if I keep working until I can't dodder into a classroom anymore), what I'm really hoping for is to have enough to leave a good-sized chunk to my only son. We most certainly are watching the decline of the American middle class. I believe the only way families can hope to keep succeeding generations in the middle class is to pass capital to them–intellectual, social, and financial capital.

  8. I'm sorry but with all this doom and gloom about old age and the decline of the middle class do you really think it will go down this way? Will the old be set adrift on ice flows? Will the middle glass keep giving up and just roll over like bitches? Destroy you middle glass and you kill the goose that lays the golden egg. Nazi Germany,Yugoslavia in resent times, you get the picture. They will revolt politically, economically,socially. And yes even violently. It's the way of it, it's just a matter of how much people will take and for how long.

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