Saturday, September 19, 2009

Will the Boomers Go Bust?

What Will Happen When the Baby Boomers Retire?

A retirement avalanche is about to descend. The baby boom began shortly after the end of World War II in 1945 and continued well into the 1950s. Numerically the boomers represent a work force of around 70 million, and those born earliest will be sixty-five in 2010. They are old enough to retire, but will they have the money for a living standard beyond that of the homeless?

The answer is no for most of them. Why not? Their parents for the most part retired in comfort as they could rely on company retirement plans. In those days, whether people worked for large or small companies, employers and employees felt they were part of the same family--employers held the role of ship captains and employees participated as loyal crews.

The picture began to change in the mid-seventies. A new breed of managers took over the leadership of corporations. The new business philosophy was for a company to make greater profits regardless of the means. Where once employees were part of a family engaged in a business venture, they now became nothing more than a cost factor, and costs are there to be cut. Now seen as nothing more than a financial burden, they can be eliminated by shutting down factories where they made a decent living and opening up plants in other countries where slave labor wages are the rule.

If a plant stays open, employees soon get the message that they had better accept cuts in health and pension benefits or lose their jobs. If a union threatens a strike, the employer lets workers walk out. If they don't buckle under, whatever service they provided is outsourced

Simply put, a good part of the baby boomers have by now either lost their jobs and/or retirement benefits, or if they are still working, had their benefits reduced so that they cannot possibly retire at any level above poverty.

Why Did the Baby Boomers Allow Themselves to be Reduced to Cost Factors?

The Cold War had broken out, and the power struggle between the communist authoritarian regimes and the militarily superior regimes of the west brought the world closer and closer to war. War needs anger, greed and hatred to thrive, but an unimaginable turn of events took place. As the east-west conflict heated up and America became increasingly involved in Vietnam, the baby boomers, rather than respond to a patriotic call to arms, answered with a message of love and peace. For a large segment of the population in their twenties and early thirties goals of acquiring wealth and career building were replaced by a quest for a peaceful and harmonious world.

When the Vietnam War was over and most civil rights goals were achieved, the generation that had pushed for change took a rest. This was not true, however, for a minority of boomers who had continued to pursue primarily careers and money. Without the distractions of idealistic goals, the acquisition of wealth for its own sake became fashionable and got increasing support from the media through programs like "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous." While the former hippies and war protesters did not necessarily join in the chase after money, they did not do much of anything to stop the greedy from their ever-greater worship of wealth and power. In a setting of general public complacency, it was easy for the power seekers to climb the corporate ladder by squeezing the incomes of all those on the rungs below them. Once they ruled the corporations, they got salaries and bonuses in the millions while others quietly lost their jobs and were too embarrassed to say or do anything about it.

No Work, No Money, No Retirement: Where Can You Go? How Can You Hide?

People are ashamed of being unemployed. Being broke may get you sympathy, but it won't get you respect. Having no retirement income will leave you either homeless or at the mercy of a relative. Civil servants, teachers or the career military are among the few who survive the race to the economic bottom. But those of the baby boomers who are neither wealthy nor part of a retirement system suddenly find themselves as part of a new underclass having to deal with the contempt of those who are better off. They now find themselves as outcasts much like the racial and ethnic minorities and women were before the civil rights movement.

So it becomes an irony of history that the baby boomers who did so much for the rights of the disadvantaged and in addition stopped a war, are now themselves confronted by a reality that they successfully defeated forty years earlier. Without jobs, no longer part of an "active society," they have little choice but to tap resources they have not drawn on since the early seventies. They cannot fail to recognize and face the fact that they can neither find jobs nor retire because the money they earned over their lifetimes is in the pockets of those addicted to power and greed. Considering that they are a generation of courage and innovation, they will through social and political action find ways to get back what has been taken from them. Given that the baby boomers are far better educated than earlier generations, given the fact that in their youth they were never afraid to challenge gratuitous authority, and given the fact that their personalities were developed in the period of greatest creativity, they will find the way to bring about the change needed for survival with dignity.


Anonymous said...

great entry howard. I'm not a baby boomer but was moved by your commentary.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting and thought provoking entry.


Anonymous said...

It's true and we will!

Anonymous said...

God! Howard! This is so well written and thought out. I suppose those and someone of your background may simply expect this. The topic is so well measured and all the aspects of reason come through so clear and objective. Yes, I am a baby-boomer and my eyes and ears are peeled. If needed on the front line of THIS battle, I'll be on it!