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Or you might say I am giving it away. I will leave my law practice that has gainfully engaged my working life for 34 year and retire. Mrs. Left and I picked the date about a year in advance. As suggested by Hunter's wonderful recaps of the political dysfunction in 2013, this seemed like good time of year to examine 2013's arc of my life, too, particularly as my last year working is now 2/3's behind me. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Socrates is credited with observing that the unexamined life is a life not worth living, but I say sometimes 'tis simply a life not worth examining. At the risk of exposing that my life might be that kind of life, I invite anyone willing to take that risk to follow me out into the tall grass for some random brain droppings on the subjects of work, retirement, Social Security, Medicare, Student Loans, Aging, etc.

From second grade until I graduated high school, my family lived in the same building where my mother operated a business six days a week. I tell people I grew up above the store. Mom was self-employed all those years, first as the divorced but unsupported mother of two,  who then remarried when I was in 3rd grade. Neither she nor my step-father held high school diplomas, but she was self-employed and reasonably successful for nearly twenty years and he was a well paid union electrician working on an assembly line for fluorescent light fixtures. Coincidentally, his brother in law owned the factory. I worked there too during high school and college.

Education was highly valued in my family circle, even though nobody had much. But, my Mom's older sister married a guy who became a banker, Lion's Club booster and rock-ribbed Republican. Their daughter went to college out of state and became a school teacher in the 1950's and taught elementary school lower grades all of her life until she retired. My older brother became a Ph.D. audiologist whose research won him an international reputation. I became a lawyer. We were the first cohort of our families to attain so much education and status.

I had already been married, even before I fulfilled a military obligation, marrying at the end of college and prior to Viet Nam era Naval service. I later finished law school, entered practice, and a few years later Mrs. Left got her law degree, too. She will retire about a year after I go. We are still together and celebrated our 43rd wedding anniversary last week.  

After we retire we will relocate to the area where I grew up. I no longer have any family ties there, but there are other lures, cultural and more. Cost of housing in rehabilitating urban neighborhoods is one strong draw for us, as we currently live in a part of the country with enormous housing costs.  Because we have labored so many years in professional occupations, our impending retirement, which scares both of us shit-less, by the way, will support us at levels most retiring Americans could only dream about. Yet, terror that it might not be enough abides.

Defined benefit pension plans, which used to represent the normal path to corporate retirement in America, are disappearing. The total number of employers offering such benefits, in 2012, had shrunk to 35,000, nationally, in 2012. Most Americans, if they have any retirement cushion at all, rely on 401K type plans dependent upon the vagaries of Wall Street.   Mrs. Left and I have those kinds of investments in tax deferred accounts. It seems like a lot of money. But we still have to pay taxes on everything we withdraw, and in a few year we are required to  begin withdrawals.

We also will collect from five defined benefit plans once we we are both retired.
The five are Social Security (2), Federal Defined Benefit (2), and State Defined Benefit (1). Except for the Social Security, this is the kind of post-retirement support that most Americans dare not dream of. Mrs. Left and I will qualify for Social Security because Social Security, which we will draw at nearly top rates. Our defined benefits come from vested service with employers among the handful that still continue such retirement largess. Some of the income we can rely upon in retirement is the result of planning, and some from an incomprehensible serendipity.

Here's one. About the time I plan to retire, I become both eligible and legally obligated to enroll in Medicare, America's tragically limited but extremely efficient singe-payer health system. A few months later, Mrs. Left achieves the same milestone. That's just dumb luck. I couldn't vote for LBJ back when the voting age was still 21, but I truly, madly, deeply hated the bastard for Viet Nam and what it was doing to my generation. Yet, when Democratic majorities in Congress delivered Medicare, it was LBJ who proudly signed the law, enacting a dream dating back to the Truman Administration. LBJ went to Independence, Missouri for the signing and gave the 1st two Medicare cards to Harry and Bess Truman.

Another bit of luck is that we can underwrite the balances on our children's student loans with cheap, group life insurance under our fixed benefit plans. We promised our two kids a free four year ride at the best university they chose to attend. Both attended out of state flagship State universities, but not in states where we lived. We covered most of the expense from income and savings, but still face a six figure balance upon which we are paying off in the kid's names. Our pension plans let us purchase cheap group life insurance to pay off the balance if we croak too soon.

The vast majority of our fellow Americans can hardly dream of the kind of retirement security Mrs. Left and I hope to enjoy. Employer provided defined benefit retirement is becoming a faded memory:

Over the past few decades, employees fortunate enough to have employer-based retirement benefits have been shifted from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans. We are now seeing the results of that grand experiment, and they are frightening. Recent and near-retirees, the first major cohort of the 401(k) era, do not have nearly enough in retirement savings to even come close to maintaining their current lifestyles.


According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, the median household retirement account balance in 2010 for workers between the ages of 55-64 was just $120,000. For people expecting to retire at around age 65, and to live for another 15 years or more, this will provide for only a trivial supplement to Social Security benefits.

And that's for people who actually have a retirement account of some kind. A third of households do not. For these people, their sole retirement income, aside from potential aid from friends and family, comes from Social Security, for which the current average monthly benefit is $1,230.

This is only going to get worse as Republicans go after federal employees' retirement benefits, as military retirement gets slashed, states reign in pension spending and municipal bankruptcies in the age of no new taxes put the axe to city employees pensions.

I have many friends and acquaintances who are about my age. Too many of them have little or nothing set aside for their retirement, despite having worked hard their whole lives. In too many cases, hard working Americans who lived a lifetime playing by the rules, showing up and getting hard jobs done, will face retirement on nothing more than Social Security, maybe a few tax deferred dollars in a 401k and the equity, if any, in their home.  These are educated, talented people doing useful jobs. They may have keep working until their health gives out, because what real choice do they have if they don't want to supplement their diet with cat food.  

Mrs. Left and I aren't better, or smarter or harder working than these people. We will instead enjoy the retirement that is coming for us, reasonably prosperous, well fed, well sheltered, traveling, merely because we fell, mostly by luck, into that shrinking pool of lucky Americans who are the winners of American Retirement Lotto.

There is enough productivity in the American workforce to reward every worker with a secure retirement in return for a lifetime of effort and performance. The kind of retirement I will enjoy should be the rule, not the exception, in a nation supposedly founded upon a principle, among others, that provision should be made for the general welfare. We simply need to withhold the benefits of that productivity from the plutocrats and oligarchs, and by ending or reversing income inequality with progressive taxes, provide a secure and comfortable retirement to all. The best way to guarantee that this happens, is to expand, enlarge, increase and otherwise improve Social Security while legislatively obliging larger employers to establish proper defined benefits for retired workers. It is simply a matter of having the national political will to recognize the need and address it. Like all such paradigm changing social improvements in America, it will require, at least, Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress and a Democrat in the White House, with a filibuster proof Senate majority. Then, and only then, can we begin.  

Originally posted to LeftOfYou on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 12:39 PM PST.

Also republished by Social Security Defenders.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (43+ / 0-)

    "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." John Kenneth Galbraith

    by LeftOfYou on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 12:39:13 PM PST

  •  I suggest sending an email note to the (11+ / 0-)

    DK social security defenders group about your diary.

  •  Congratulations on your retirement (12+ / 0-)

    I clicked on this link expecting to read about someone being fired. I suggest you change the misleading title, in case you might seem to be asking for sympathy that is in this case undeserved.

  •  I thought you were quitting real work (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    LeftOfYou, Lujane

    to run for congress ☺

    Congrats and good luck!

  •  I am happy for you and the missus. (5+ / 0-)

    I remember being conflicted over LBJ, too.
    I have tried to think of some way to retire, but I have no choice but to keep working until I fall down dead in a courtroom somewhere.
    The only other possibility might be to tweak my home, make it a duplex, share some of the bills with a renter.
    Or win the lottery.
    401K's are evil.

    •  The Propaganda Effect Alone (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      on the cusp, jakedog42, Denver11, thomask
      401K's are evil.
      Is particularly pernicious and destructive.

      "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." John Kenneth Galbraith

      by LeftOfYou on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 02:13:13 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  One of my conservative friends (8+ / 0-)

        pooh poohed the struggles of one of my clients who lost $100,000 in one hour in 2007.  My friend said those 401Ks are all long term investments and given time, they bounce back.
        My client was 72 years old.
        I meant to ask her what Saint Ronnie's definition of "long term" was.  I was too pissed off to say a word.

        •  This just reinforces my point. (11+ / 0-)

          American retirement is a crap shoot, based upon luck and serendipity, with most people learning that odds are not ever in their favor. One way or another, Father Time will force anyone into retirement and the schedule for that is not timed to the stock market. Your 72 yo client was most certainly suffering irremediably from a loss she couldn't recover from. Past age 70 these accounts must begin paying out taxable income. If you need the money when the market is up, why you're a lucky ducky. If the bears are in town, bring on the cat food.

          "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." John Kenneth Galbraith

          by LeftOfYou on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 02:53:01 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  It is the case, as LOY pointed out that the (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            nchristine, LeftOfYou, Lujane

            position in society occupied by the retired has radically changed in the last decade or so and threatens to continue to do so, destroying whatever retirement plans that those now on the cusp of doing so have set up. If SS is part of your planning as it is for LOY, think how much fun it is not to listen to the Rs plans to abolish it, in favor of a massively lesser system which will assuredly run out before the seniors living on it will. When the 72 yo set up his or her plan, the notion that pensions were a foolish indulgence, starting with defined benefit plans, was not the standard as it is now. It was normal. Now all retirement is a crap shoot unless you are 1 percent.   Now all seniors are is folk who may have some money which Rs cannot live without making sure that someobody is getting a fee out of that money every month, no matter what happens to the seniors. After all, the fate of seniors is in that part of their plans which they never have gotten around to explaining, now that the seniors are not paying taxes in which Rs can spend twice.

             It was misery for me, trying not to tap what else than SS I have until I must, living through the shutdown and the threat of debt default whose function is in no small support to destroy the funding of SS had it gone all the way, and now I am again looking at another similar death watch now planned for Feb. 7.

  •  Congratulations on moving on to a new... (10+ / 0-)

    ...phase of life. Perhaps even a new less stressful job in a new field.

    I hope your children manage to turn those degrees you paid for into employment that eventually provides their children with the same benefit you gave them.

    Don't tell me what you believe, show me what you do and I will tell you what you believe.

    by Meteor Blades on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 02:32:20 PM PST

    •  So far it looks promising. (6+ / 0-)
      I hope your children manage to turn those degrees you paid for into employment that eventually provides their children with the same benefit
      We hope so, too. They both have a lot to contribute and I hope we can rein in the oligarchs disproportionate take from those contributions. People my children's ages don't hold out much hope for their own old age, on those rare occasions they can be forced to think about it all. The experience of their lifetime teaches them to expect to get screwed.

      "The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness." John Kenneth Galbraith

      by LeftOfYou on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 02:45:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  How many parents as percentage of all parents (0+ / 0-)

        do you think are in your position and able to pay for their children's education and draw that kind of retirement benefits? And with paying for their education I mean paying off their loans so that the children start out without student loan debt.

        If I had to rely on SS exclusively I would be dirt poor, couldn't even pay for the expenses of a paid-off little townhouse. The SS would cover barely my fixed costs for taxes, co-op fees, electricity, telephone, TV and internet. It wouldn't even cover expenses for gasoline.

        I basically have to sell my town house to move into a house that has no extra fees and hopefully low estate taxes. I would give up a mobile phone and Cable TV.

        Oh boy, I think I become a nun and go into an order, that at least would give me the security I go to heaven.  :)

        Starting to think of my son's situation, I can't even start thinking without flying off the handle.

        Not being from this country, all I can tell, I sacrificed a lot just for having to live in here. The most fucking social policies I can imagine I have learned to exist in the US. No, I don't hold back on that one anymore. It's just pure, simple misery for most of us.

  •  I'm one of the lucky ones. (9+ / 0-)

    I get SS, and three defined benefit plans. I actually got a $3,000 a month raise when I retired. The only planning I did was to make sure I took jobs with that kind of retirement plan and medical coverage. Unfortunally, those jobs are getting fewer and fewer. We have to undo 30 years of the Reagan disaster and turn this country around for our kids and grandkids. The only thing I can see that is exceptional about this country is the way we crap on our elderly, sick and poor compared to other advanced countries. We can and must do better.

  •  Social Security is not a "defined benefit plan" (0+ / 0-)

    it is designed to resemble one, true, but in fact it is a government income-insurance program for the old and disabled. It makes sense to expand it to cover those who will never have defined-benefit plans, in part because fewer and fewer have the chance to work for the same company long enough to earn a significant pension, even if there were safeguards against companies (and now governments) raiding their pension funds.

    Social Security should really be changed to be less like a pension plan--one problem is that those who are most likely to have real pensions as well as substantial savings are the ones who get the largest payout from Social Security, while those who depend on Social Security as their only source of income get the smallest benefits. Ideally the benefit should be flattened and separated from the earned-income calculation, which would allow for raising/eliminating the FICA tax cap.

    "All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out." --I.F. Stone

    by Alice in Florida on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 04:31:15 PM PST

  •  I didn't lose my job... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    ...but when I go there, there's someone else doing it.

    I actually retired myself. And am bored out of my skull already. However, much of that is because I'm recovering from a few aggravated injuries, and it's deep winter in Alaska.

    Headed for Colombia in March.

    "Wealthy the Spirit which knows its own flight. Stealthy the Hunter who slays his own fright. Blessed is the Traveler who journeys the length of the Light."

    by CanisMaximus on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 05:42:11 PM PST

  •  Good for you and Mrs. Left! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    snazzzybird, on the cusp

    Unfortunately after the Bush economy fell apart and the imposed austerity of cruel baggers and weak Dems, my retirement plan became the "work until I die" model.

    "Given the choice between a Republican and someone who acts like a Republican, people will vote for a real Republican every time." Harry Truman

    by MargaretPOA on Wed Dec 25, 2013 at 06:52:19 PM PST

  •  Math is deadly (0+ / 0-)

    Social Security and Medicare work and are excellent programs.  In the case of social security in particular we have been very good at ensuring the program remains adequately funded. (Though speaking of Social Security this way is not quite correct.)

    Defined benefit pensions have disappeared and are disappearing in part because they are expensive when required to be adequately funded and tend to disappear when needed otherwise.  They aren't really a good idea given the incentives involved.

    You could argue for expanding Social Security, but I'm not sure that seniors as a group are worse off than any other at this point thanks to that very program.

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