Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thoughts on Retirement

A friend just retired in January after working forever at the local newspaper.  He's not that old, but it's interesting the timing of it.  Newspapers in general are falling apart financially (the list of failing magazines grows daily).  Old business models are not holding up in this economy and age.  We've got such easy and free access to information nowadays, fewer people want newspapers cluttering up their life when they can just get any info they want on their phones in a second.  The local paper is scaling back a lot, I believe.  I don't know anything about his retirement numbers or sources of income, but I wonder where the money he is planning to live on the rest of his life is coming from.  If he had vast sums in investments...did they just shrink?  Will he be forced to find new sources of income?  Will he have been prepared for this type of thing to happen so soon after he retired?  Does he have a pension that relies on the paper to continue to be able to stay in business to support him?  I should ask him, but since it's absolutely none of my business, I likely won't :-)

As "scaled-back" or Spartan as I've both voluntarily and involuntarily made my life the past few years, I have been thinking even more these days about how patently absurd the typical American lifestyle seems.  I don't mean that like a commie kind of way, though it'll probably sound pretty hippy-ish.  I've always discarded as much "stuff" as I take with me every time I move, but with the financial system floundering about like it is, it really has made me start to wonder what really is important? 

Why do we struggle so hard to make enough money to afford a bunch of toys we don't have time to play with because we're so busy working to make enough money to afford the toys?  What good are the toys, anyway?  Most of the stuff we seem to accumulate end up being things we play with for a short time, then spend the rest of our lives dusting and moving around from place to place.  Maybe it'll be "worth something" someday, maybe we'll want to play with again, or maybe we just hang onto it because we know how hard we had to work to make enough money to buy it in the first place, even if it is an obsolete item that couldn't be currently sold on ebay for 1% of it's original price.  What about our houses?  The bigger and "better" home we get insures that we'll get to enjoy it less, as we have to be out working more to be able to pay for it (see yesterday's blog).

Incidentally, I'm glad I pare things down like I do, as I realized recently that I've never had the same address for more than 4 years at a time in my whole life.

Of course people like to cite Wallyworld as the biggest killer of this American dream as far as the financial system goes.  They were able to undercut any and all competitors in pricing, effectively killing off most smaller businesses, and rendering megastore competitors such as K-Mart practically impotent.  They got the American shopper so accustomed to low low prices, that Americans became less concerned with where a product was made, or it's quality, and were now primarily concerned with price.  To keep prices lower, most of their products are made in China or elsewhere, where the cheapest possible labor can be had, sacrificing quality for that low price.  American companies who have similar products of greater quality had fewer and fewer customers who could go buy these cheaper products, started going belly-up too, or shipping their jobs overseas.

So now we have fewer and fewer Americans able to make a decent living because their well-paying jobs got shipped overseas to make cheaper products for Americans to buy at cheaper prices.  But they're basically in the same boat, as they had to take lower-paying jobs since the better paying jobs were now gone to make the parts cheaper, because that's all the buyers would buy.  So basically the American consumer put itself out of work and made some big corporations and a lot of people in China really friggin' wealthy.  You can't raise wages and expect to only pay cheaper prices for everything at the same time!  (Incidentally, AIG was one of the first companies to do a massive outsourcing of it's helpdesk people to India in the early 90's.)

But Wallyworld was all a bit of a tangent.

I have been watching and following the blogs of people who live either Nomadic lifestyles or those who are trying to live "greener" or just live more simply.  People living in RV's, old converted busses, vans, off of motorcycles, or in tiny houses on property somewhere.  I follow far too many of them, but a lot are quite interesting. 

All of them have the commonality of "needing" less than the average American.  They are almost all without any sort of debt in their lives, and don't use credit.  The average teenager would likely go batshit crazy at the lack of stimulus, as most don't even own a tv.  All of them are computer savvy enough to at least have a blog or email, if not some sort of source(s) of internet income.  The traveling people have those that don't require them to be at a specific location, if they don't just do odd jobs wherever they are just to pay for food.  Most of them are using at least solar and oftentimes wind power generation to provide their electrical needs, so after initially buying equipment, internet/phone and perhaps vehicle fuel, they have no utility costs.  Several who have vehicles have those that run on veggie oil that they get free from restaurants.  Many of the Nomads wake up pretty much wherever they want to be on any given day.  They often have a great view each morning.

All of them live on a lot less than they typical American family.  All of them redefine "need" and "want" as they apply in our current language.  I would be willing to bet that most if not all of them are hardly at all affected by the current economic implosion.  Many times they have some craft of some sort that they do, and travel to various arts and crafts shows around the country selling what they make.  Most don't seem to make enough money off of these items to retire off of, though it pays what little bills they have, and they meet all kinds of interesting people, all while not necessarily having to be in the system.  I'm not suggesting they cheat on their taxes or anything, as I don't know.  But it seems a much less complicated existence than we have as our standard lifestyle here of consuming anything and everything our senses can find.

I posted a video of a guy I saw on one of the blogs yesterday.  He builds super-tiny houses in the neighborhood of 100sq' (there are quite a few places that do that and I follow several of their blogs).  He is the one who pointed out that the bigger the house, the less time you get to spend in it.  I guess the point of it all is, what really actually matters, and how much of what we do is just noise?  How much of our mortgages is to pay to store our shiny shit that does nothing but gather dust?  I wouldn't want to try to calculate the square footage on that.  Why do we spend so much time working instead of enjoying the world?  I'm not talking about hedonism.  I just mean being outside, seeing the wonders of this amazing world.  It's not some excuse to be lazy and do nothing, it's just doing what's important to that person.

It seems crazy to me that for the majority of almost 40 years, I've just stayed in one little corner of the world.  I've traveled a small amount, but still so much of even this country I've never seen, let alone the rest of the world.  Why do we just sit here in one place our whole lives?  Are we afraid to get out and see things?  Safety, security, comfort?  What difference does any of that make if we never go anywhere or do anything until we just die, anyway?  And yes, I'm well aware that I may just be having another mid-life crisis and I'll be over it soon :-)

Everyone has different wants, I know.  But I wonder how many people do what they do because that's what you're "supposed to" do?  You hear of people talk of being "tied down" in relationships, having kids and being "stuck" with raising them or getting themselves stuck on the hamster wheel of money/career/work, all to buy the shiny shit they want and working even more to keep the shiny shit...oh and there's more shiny shit over there, too!  Is it just that the grass is always greener?  Do we really want to see the world?  Do we just use those things as excuses for not going out and doing it?  Of course to many people, being married, having kids and raising a family is the most important thing to them.  Some people have monetary goals instead.  I'm not suggesting you can't have a happy and fulfilling life living in the same town all your life.  I'm talking about the people who long for things other than what they actually do.  We're all different.

Sure, the case can be made for those who work their whole life and sacrifice those productive years to someday be able to retire and then enjoy all their free time and see the world.  But now we're back to the financial collapse.  How many of those people worked their whole life with the reward of retirement looming or finally coming, only to find out they can't retire, or they did retire, but now have to go back to work?  How many grossly underestimated the costs of retirement, hadn't accounted for the "Greater Depression" we're in now and their stock failures?  How many have been eating the shit we eat here their whole life and find their retirement funds being eaten away by medical costs faster than they can spend it on being retired and enjoying all those promised rewards?  (I'll go on another tangent about our food and health situation soon.)

I have already seen the tightening of the belt by much of America.  Though I stay in circles of people who pay attention to what's going on in the world, there are Brazillians of Americans who don't really watch the news or pay attention to what's going on in the financial markets or any of that nonsense, who have not even heard of the economic crisis.  Most are blissfully unaware of the turmoil on Wallstreet unless they caught part of an Obama speech.  But there are huge segments of the population who didn't even do that.  Not everyone watches the news, and that's pretty much the only place you hear about it.  As long as their job is still there, the only thing they know is that gas prices went back down, so they'll be taking the for sale signs off their SUV's and going back to "normal".  That is many Americans' gauge of the financial world, and really all they know.

Whether it's just the natural order of things to change over time, or it's all just going to hell in a handbasket, we have yet to see.  Companies used to provide pensions, then it was employer-matching 401k's, then it changed to employee only contributions to 401k's, and now those are going bankrupt.  What will be next?  All I know is that few people seem to have ever benefited from any of these promised retirement plans, no matter how much they've contributed to them over their working lives.   The first few people in that generation seem to get the benefits just fine, before it collapses and the next iteration is made commonplace.  Not even to mention the social security debacle and all that is becoming.  I don't expect I'll ever see any of that.

So I've been re-thinking a lot of what I always thought we were "supposed to" do. What constitutes a "life"?  What is retirement?  What is the point, purpose or otherwise?  What the hell is a handbasket?

Well this got long.  Though it may sound similar to the popular manifesto, fear not, I won't turn into the next unabomber.

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