HERE IS HOW IT’S supposed to work. We enter the workforce in our 20s, possibly 30s if we’re academics, hoping to secure a job that will be, well, secure. We hope to grow in our jobs, advancing to a position of greater responsibility and higher pay. We marry and put our kids through school, trying to save enough for retirement in the meantime, confident that, if we don’t have enough in our RRSPs, we can work longer to top them up, hoping for a comfortable retirement on our own terms.
But it doesn’t always work that way, as increasing numbers of workers have discovered in recent years. Late last year ProPublica and the Urban Institute published a new data analysis indicating that this hopeful scenario is no longer true for most American workers. The data come from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which followed a representative sample of 20,000 people from age 50 on, beginning in 1992.
The study discovered that “56 percent are laid off at least once or leave jobs under such financially damaging circumstances that it’s likely they were pushed out rather than choosing to go voluntarily.” Furthermore, when they do find other jobs, they generally earn much less than before, putting their remaining years at serious financial risk. Younger people can more easily move to another workplace because they are lower on the salary scale and thus more marketable. However, employers are more reluctant to take on people past age 50 because they are more expensive and will be working for only a limited time before retirement.
But, of course, this makes it more difficult for people to prepare for retirement, especially if they are still paying for their children’s education. Government pension plans offer only a basic income to recipients, while the cost of living continues to rise.
WISDOM OF THE AGES
When I posted the ProPublica study on Facebook, I quickly had people telling me their own stories. One person told me that he had been a regional sales manager with a good work record, but six months after a successful review was let go. Another said that, while he was formally protected by his seniority, he had to take a lesser position at lower pay to elude the younger purveyors of change who were now running the show. I was surprised to hear that so many have had an experience similar to my own.
I am tempted to pull out the Bible verses that command us to “stand up before the gray head and honour the face of an old man, and you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Deut. 19:32 ESV). Or “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (Job 12:12). Or I could reiterate what happened to the foolish King Rehoboam when he rejected the advice of the wise elders and followed instead that of his youthful companions.
But this is unlikely to carry weight in a society whose very structure puts the aged at a disadvantage. The advertising industry has celebrated youth and strength for a century or more. But even at its best youth lacks, well, experience. When each succeeding generation takes a trial-and-error approach to life, declining to learn from the previous generation, the larger society becomes rootless and unstable. Those able to catch the crest of the wave will prosper, at least for a time, while ordinary people are likely to lose out. In some measure, the elections of Donald Trump in the U.S., Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Viktor Orban in Hungary represent a backlash against an élite that relies on technical knowledge but lacks wisdom into what makes for a good society.
What is the answer? I hope to return to this subject in a future column, but in the meantime I would like to suggest that strengthening labour unions, reforming the labour code and educating our youth in the basics of our cultural patrimony are places to start.
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