This little memoir, a snippet of my life for 2018, I share hoping it will bring courage – and encouragement – to others approaching the fuzzy-edged “retirement cliff.” Perhaps it will also inform those much younger, even those in their 20’s-30’s, in a way that helps them deal with their lives now and be better prepared to handle life way down the road.
On one hand, 2018 was a terrible year for me personally: I (and nearly a dozen other colleagues) were cut from a large program management employer early in the year. The senior engineer position I filled was in many ways a good fit, although often frankly boring, but it allowed me to bring to bear the full experience of my diverse career. It also was the highest paying position I had held, so I was enjoying the sense of finally being “properly” rewarded by the compensation muses. I loved my electrical engineering career, to the point my “job” really was also my “hobby”, although I am also an aficionado of jazz. One afternoon we were called into a small conference room, and were given the bad news. For months afterward I searched for an equivalent job, living on a combination of unemployment compensation, Social Security benefits and a small monthly pension from a past employment. I should say that in April of this year I turned 72. I was born at the leading edge of the “boomer” generation. I posted resumes everywhere, and daily had young recruiters calling and emailing me (most apparently unable to comprehend my resume, just hoping I might take their bait), but none of the prospects were within the general part of the country where we resided, and I had no inclination to move out of state at this point in my life, as I knew whatever the job was it would likely be my last. Losing the job was a huge blow financially, and since we had relocated that area just because of the job, being cut less than two years after coming on board, but having expected to be there five to seven year, I was truly ill prepared this life event. Moreover, I had a rather large debt to service, and a huge balance with the IRS for back taxes that I had been paying on for years. Unable to pay bills, soon I was served with law suits by two of my many creditors. Yes, I had been skating on thin ice for a few years, the result of many factors, and now the ice gave way, and I fell hard. To really punctuate the fall, I had to surrender my nice Ford Taurus, the car I had bought in 2014 thinking this would be the car I took into retirement, “my last car.” Now all of a sudden, if I wanted groceries, I would walk the mile to the store, or catch an Uber. I was having to watch every dollar, stretching each paycheck to cover our basic expenses.
On the other hand, 2018 was a very good year: several months after losing the job and being served by the courts, I realized I needed to consider filing for bankruptcy. It had become clear that there was absolutely no way “out” short of taking this route. As I sat pondering how I could come up with the total attorney fees soon, one day I got a notice in the mail from the former employer, stating I had some ESOP money waiting for me to claim. At the time it was a godsend. Moreover, I had to acknowledge that I had a few medical issues that I had been trying to “work through” previously, that were not going to get better, and really presented an impediment to holding down any job commensurate with my resume. Alas, I realized that after nearly fifty years of working and paying into Social Security, maybe it was time to look at a change in life, something like “retirement!”
Fortunately I found a good attorney, and recent to my writing this, completed the Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings. I have also “retired”. I had never really thought I would actually retire (or even get to retire, as I had seen myself continuing to work until I “dropped”, given my financial mess). Not really having any hobbies like golfing, fishing or such (my work had always been my main “hobby”, although I had dabbled in all kinds of activities over my life, but never found one that I fell in love with), within several weeks after relocating to our home city, I became quite depressed. I mean really depressed. My girlfriend, who was considerably younger and a self-employed businesswoman, just could not seem to understand my situation mentally, which didn’t help; and, my god-children, all young enough to be my grandchildren, were also not equipped to understand. Inside I was a mess, and I had to admit it. However, I reminded myself that I had been through several hard times emotionally in my years, having lost my first wife to cancer, lost both parents, and having gone through multiple job lay-offs. Each time teaching a hard but cogent lesson, but in pondering my present situation I recalled clearly that in each of those times I worked through the difficulty and came out better for it. Now I knew I had to call on my spiritual reservoir and get “a grip on it.” I also began to take a high dosage of vitamin B-12, started exercising again and walking more. Soon I indeed began to pull out of my funk.
After settling into our new apartment, I began to start putting my future together mentally. I had toyed with the idea of having some type of “on-line” consulting business for several years, and having been recently exposed to my godson’s penchant for operating and building on-line business, I said, “Ah-ha, why can’t I do that?” So, right at this very moment I am in the midst of starting these ventures; one, an on-line business consulting activity that will leverage my years of diverse experience and graduate education; the other, a drop-shipping store. Thirdly, I would count running this blog, which I hope to make a few bucks from ads each month. And, the frosting on the cake, is I am also helping my friend boost her business, so she is really my first beta client! This is all new to me, and I feel like I am actually doing the proverbial “reinventing” of myself. No more long hours, no more of the grind, just sitting here at my computer in my jammies, clicking away and thinking visions of dollar signs. As we say now days, “LOL!”
I have also learned, very quickly, how to live on what I have for income, which is about a fifth of what I had coming in at the beginning of this year. I have found that yes, it is possible, given the good health I so far enjoy, to manage my part of our shared monthly budget, and feel “ok” with living frugally – and mindfully. I also feel very, very fortunate that I live in the USA, and give thanks daily for Social Security. Like so many of my generation who are retiring, without this income a large percentage of us would be, literally, sleeping under a bridge.
Now what of the “moral of this story”. Well, first of all, I would offer the caveat that each person’s life is wholly unique, and not one of us can walk in another’s footsteps. Having said that, these are a few lessons I have learned in my life, amplified by the 2018 “situation”, that I wish to share:
Whatever point you are at on your life and career timeline, strive to enjoy life. Life is here to be lived, to the fullest – not to the deprivation of others obviously – but rather in harmony with your community and the world. Strive to follow your bliss – what really resonates with your soul – but do your best to attain and maintain balance. Your retirement account is really not your 401K, bonds or bank savings account, but rather the store of good character that you gather throughout your life, however long you live.
Where ever you are in life, know that circumstances will change, and if you are on top now, you will see the downward slope – or cliff – at some point, so prepare if you can financially, and in any case prepare spiritually. By “spiritually” I don’t necessarily imply anything religious – although I believe in prayer and ritual – but rather I am saying you should look into yourself in a way that no one else can, and work on your character in a way that will be your buoy through turbulent waters that surely await. By the way, if we examine our self, we will find that we are not apart from others or the world at large, but that’s another blog post one day. Life really is a journey.
“Retirement” today, and indefinitely into the future, is as ephemeral as the white picket fence around the neat “American dream” home that flashed across the silver screens of the 1950’s, when I was a boy. Think about what it is you want to be, to do – and to give to others and the world society at large – in the last part of your productive life, and at least in the back of your mind, let that be a light to move toward. That light does not and cannot be some fixed notion, but rather the luminosity of values that you will strive to be. I do believe that I found my own lighthouse decades ago, although at times it briefly disappeared in the fog that drifted across my path. Today I stand beside that lighthouse, and feel good inside.
For my fellow boomers, each having walked their own paths in life, I would just offer, most of us likely have quite a number of good years ahead, regardless of our situation. Life really is a state of mind. We can create a joyful world, even if we have very little materially. I assure each of you, if you are going through a rough time, you can and will get through it. I saw a bumper sticker once in Austin, on the back of an old pickup truck that said “Getting old is cruel”, or something to that effect. At the time I thought that was probably true, but now I see aging totally differently. If we just take our lives one day at a time, be present in its moments, try to do our best to stay balanced in our thinking and grounded in our perception, our own aging can be beautiful, and may even be slowed a bit. Remember too that there are many things we just cannot fix – let those go, and do not worry – life does go on.