Boomer challenges

Most of us who are Baby Boomers are all too aware of the major challenges facing our generation. (Some Boomers are insulated from these challenges, particularly among the socio-economic elites — but that’s always been true for most of the challenges facing humanity, and the elites constitute a small percentage of Boomers anyway, so we can ignore them.)

I’d like to look at three areas where we face major challenges: finances, jobs, and spiritual matters.

Financial challenges first. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, as part of the wave of economic conservatism that swept the United States, employer-managed pensions disappeared and were replaced with 401(k) plans. The Boomer generation, particularly the tail-end Boomers like me, are the ones who are the guinea pigs for this radical experiment in economics. And the experiment, to be quite frank, is going badly.

Younger generations, you will want to pay attention to what happens to the Boomers, because you’re stuck in the same flawed retirement system.

I’ve been reading Fifty-Five, Unemployed, and Faking Normal: Your Guide to a Better Retirement Life, a 2016 book by Elizabeth White that describes in some detail how badly off the Boomer generation is. Funding retirement used to be based on a three-legged stool of social security, pension, and personal savings. Pensions have disappeared, unless you work for the government (and even then, state legislatures are taking them away). Personal savings for many people got wiped out in the 2008 Depression, and savings for many Boomers were inadequate anyway — now, says White, a third of all Boomers have no personal savings. So the three-legged stool is down to one leg, social security, and that, says White, is a wobbly leg.

It’s much worse if you’re a Boomer woman. White points out that the average social security benefit for a woman is well below the poverty level. This causes White to comment:

“This is why the budget battles on Capitol Hill — which until recently only threatened to cut social security and other social-insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid — are so ludicrous. What we’re really talking about is dooming millions and millions of women to misery and destitution.”

You’ve heard about the “cardboard grannies” in Hong Kong, right? You don’t need to go to Hong Kong to find that kind of poverty for elderly women — they’re right here in Palo Alto, or in your home town.

OK, enough about Boomer financial challenges. I’m getting depressed. Let’s move on to jobs.

When we Boomers were children, the expectation was that you worked for the same employer for most of your career. And to work for an employer meant a W2 job with benefits and a pension. And in the economic expansion following the Second World War, there were lots of good jobs that provided you with a comfortable middle-class existence. All of that has disappeared or is disappearing: W2 jobs replaced by the gig economy, long-term jobs gone, pensions disappeared, real wages down.

If you’re a Boomer who still has a W2 job, you can expect it to end soon (because jobs don’t last any more). And chances are you won’t replace it with another W2 job, and that if you do find work the wages will be lower, and you’ll be “self-employed” or a “contractor” which really means that your employer can screw you out of even more money. All the younger generations are also living this reality. But many younger people have embraced the “entrepreneurial” mindset that goes with the gig economy, i.e., they have much lower expectations for employment than do Boomers.

Now add in age discrimination. Yes, age discrimination is real; it has been well-documented here in Silicon Valley, among other places. And all of us who are well into middle age have witnessed the phenomenon where you apply for a job (even a really crappy job), and everything’s going well, and then suddenly they ghost you — and you realize that what caused them to ghost you was that somehow they figured how old you are. Maybe it hasn’t happened to you, but you know someone it has happened to. (This phenomenon, by the way, applies to Unitarian Universalist ministers and religious educators, too. On average, search committees seem to prefer religious professionals who are about 40, passing over both younger and older applicants. Unitarian Universalists are no more enlightened than the rest of society in this respect.)

And now add in things like race and ethnicity. Elizabeth White details the wage-disparity gap for women, and refers you to the 2016 AAUW study The Simple Truth about the Gender Pay Gap. The AAUW study show that the gender pay gap is worst in Louisiana and Utah; worst for Hispanic and Latina women (worse even than for African American or Native American women), and of course worst for older women.

When you couple Boomer employment prospects with Boomer financial challenges, you can see that Boomers are screwed. Many Boomers need to continue working well into “retirement” to keep their heads above water, but the only available jobs are inadequate, and besides older people aren’t going to get hired anyway.

Younger generations take note — it’s going to get worse. If I had to predict, I’d say we’re headed back to Dickens-era London.

OK, that’s depressing. Let’s move on to another big challenge….

I feel the biggest challenge I face as a Boomer is a spiritual challenge. Boomers grew up during a time of spiritual awakening, from the Consciousness Revolution to the Jesus Freaks. It may not look like a spiritual awakening now, particularly not to younger generations to whom it may now appear as little better than chaos, but for many Boomers it felt like a spiritual awakening.

Take, for example, popular music. The music of Jimi Hendrix’s record album “Are you Experienced” felt like a spiritual awakening to many older Boomers. By contrast, popular music today may focus more on material things, or in the case of political music tends to be more pragmatic, more focused on the hear-and-now. Neither musical approach is better or worse, they’re just different. Of course today, popular music has shattered into a thousand different genres, so you can find spiritually-aware popular music, whether it be kirtans or hip Pentecostal pop — but the most widely listened to music is not going to be characterized as spiritual.

Or take spiritual practices. What Boomers grew up with was a sense that you did spiritual practices for the sake of doing spiritual practices. But today, with so many big corporations touting mindfulness as a path to greater employee productivity — with schools touting meditation as a way to keep kids sane while under intense academic pressure — the point of spiritual practices is no longer, well, spirituality, but rather the point of spiritual practices is to succeed at material things. And yes, of course I’m exaggerating for the sake of emphasis; this is not a stark division between then and now; but I do have a strong sense that the trend has been away from spirituality for the sake of spirituality, towards using spirituality for the sake of the materialistic priorities of the present time.

I feel we Boomers are a spiritual generation living in a materialistic time. As a Boomer minister, this is a challenge I face on a daily basis: I find myself constantly justifying participation in organized religion because of reasons like your kids will succeed at school, you will be stable for your job, and so on. And that’s not the reason I do religion. So it’s a challenge to have to explain materialistic reasons to do spiritual things.

yet I also think this is perhaps the greatest gift we have to offer the world right now. We are facing problems like environmental disaster — toxics in the environment, invasive species, climate change — that require focused, immediate, pragmatic solutions. Younger generations seem to be doing pretty well at leading us towards pragmatic solutions to serious problems, and I enjoy working with them on dealing with these big problems. But I feel we Boomers have a special role to play as a generation that keeps alive the sense that spiritual matters are essential: we know that humans cannot live on bread alone. Not that every Boomer is interested in, or able to, serve as a spiritually-grounded person; but I feel we have an above-average number of such people in our generation. This, then, is a positive challenge for us Boomers: to provide a spiritual center.

So ends my meditation on Boomer challenges. There are other challenges we face; and our generation has other strengths that we can draw on. But those are topics for other people’s meditations.

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