Feeling Antsy

You know those jokes people used to makE when a child went off to college or some other significant expense presented itself? The ones about having to work until they’re 80? They’re not so funny anymore.

Events in the financial world over the last weeks and months have upset a lot of retirement plans, including some that looked pretty cushy not so long ago and some that were marginal at best. There’s not much wiggle room left, so a lot of folks may be pushing their retirement ages now to – say, 85 or 90. Unless, of course, they have been bought out or laid off.

And those second careers that retirees were always encouraged to look into so they could keep busy in-between trips to Disney World with the grandkids? Or so they could find the fulfillment that eluded them in their first careers? Well, some of them aren’t working out so well.

There’s a lot of antsiness out there. People are feeling restless, unsettled.

I heard recently from an old friend who had gone back to school in his 50s to get a doctorate so he could teach college-level history just like he always wanted to do. And he did, for a couple of years, until massive budget cuts in his state’s university system eliminated a bunch of non-tenured faculty positions, including his. He and his wife are retired in Mexico because they couldn’t afford to stay where they were.

This fall’s economic and financial developments have had lots of people doing some hasty pre-retirement math and not liking the totals.

Among the people of widely varying degrees of financial solvency I have had conversations with about the economics of retirement, the most viable strategies that have emerged are, in order, buy a winning lottery ticket, learn to live more economically or hope things get better.

My own most promising strategy plays off a recent flurry of cleaning out my office at home, where I unearthed an envelope containing $53, dating back a few weeks to a group outing at which I was treasurer. I charged the meal on my credit card, and my dinner companions paid me back. I put the bill-stuffed envelope in a pile of papers near my desk and promptly forgot about it.

So once it surfaced, I had a quick burst of that “found money” elation – and a new retirement plan. I figure if I can find 10 or 20 such envelopes each month, their contents will provide a nice little financial boost to my sunset years.

On the same day I heard from my friend the former college professor, a congressional panel in Washington was excoriating former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld for soaking his failed company for something like $458 million over a seven or eight year period – he says it was more like $250 million.

One congressman asked him simply if he thought that was fair. And, yes, he pretty much did.

He took a bad verbal beating from the congressional representatives, perhaps even broke a sweat. But he walked out of the hearing room still in possession of his millions. He might have to send his suit to the cleaners, but he can afford to. The fact that Mr. Fuld will “step down” without severance pay at year’s end as his company’s CEO provides some small comfort. But he will stay on as chairman of the board.

I think people who do jobs that are important, that are tough, that require lots of education and preparation and strength and intelligence and integrity should be well-paid. Especially if they do them well. But $400 million for doing a lousy job?

I’m not suggesting that Mr. Fuld’s excessive compensation is directly responsible for my friend’s job loss, that if he’d tossed back a couple of bonus checks my buddy might still be wearing leather elbow patches on his jacket and grading mid-terms; but the disparity in their respective situations does help explain to me some of the anger and frustration directed toward Capitol Hill and Wall Street from Main Street and environs.

Trying to make sense of all the financial developments and your own place in their ebb and flow is a little bit like looking at a giant jigsaw puzzle that somebody dropped on the floor, so that there are pieces everywhere, in no particular order, with no context.

It’s hard to grasp the big picture when the little details keep getting in the way.

Categories: Business Casual