Earlier today I read this opinion piece about earning power today compared to earning power during the baby boomer years, and it made me think. Here are my thoughts.
When I was growing up during the 1960s and '70s, my father was the only breadwinner. My mother was a homemaker. On my father's single salary, my parents were able to purchase a lot and build a house on it. They owned two cars, not brand new luxury cars, but still two reasonably good vehicles. When my father died my mother got a job that allowed her to keep the house and keep my sister and I clothed and fed and supplied with whatever we needed for school. We went on vacations every summer. When I got my driving license she bought me a car - not a new one, but my own car. She sent me to Europe for two weeks as a graduation present when I graduated from high school. When my sister was old enough to drive she got her own car as well.
Because my father had died I was eligible for Social Security benefits, which helped with my college tuition. I also received a Pell Grant. That took care of tuition, and my mother took care of my living expenses while I attended a small university a short distance from my home town. When my sister went to college she attended a private university that was more expensive, but my mother managed that, too. When my mother passed away in the '80s, she left a substantial sum of money to my sister and I. I used my inheritance to pay out-of-state tuition at the university where I decided to go to graduate school.
My job with my employer is considered 'exempt', which means that my employer is exempt from paying me overtime if I work more than 40 hours per week. That means that I can work 18 hours a day and still make no more than what I would earn for 8 hours. I am supposed to be able to receive enough salary that I wouldn't need overtime pay. In reality I don't earn enough money to do what my father did. I couldn't afford to buy a house in today's economy, at least not without putting myself in debt for the next 30 years and struggling to pay my other bills. I can only afford to take trips to places I can drive to, because air fare is too costly. My employer gives me four weeks of paid vacation time annually, but I typically only use it for 3-day weekends or to extend holidays, because I can't afford to take a trip out of state and stay in a hotel every day for a week or more like my family did during my childhood vacations. My husband and I have one car. We couldn't afford to insure two vehicles. We don't have children, and I don't know how my coworkers who do manage to make ends meet.
I do have some extra expenses that my parents didn't have, such as cell phone and cable tv bills, but I don't think those are so much that I should be unable to do what my parents did. But when I was a child hotel rooms for four people cost $60 a night at most. Meals for an entire family didn't cost as much as $20. Gas for the car cost less than a dollar a gallon. Health insurance cost less. Electricity and water bills cost less. Houses were less expensive, so mortgage payments were lower. When we sold my parents' 3-bedroom 2 bath house back in the '80s, it was worth less than $50,000.
I know that inflation happens, and that the cost of living is higher where I live now than where I grew up. But it's disheartening to think that here I am, 55 years old, working for my employer for 20 years, and I have so little to show for it. I'm fortunate to have a pension; people who were hired a year or two after me didn't get one. But if inflation continues at the same rate it's currently at by the time I'm old enough to retire, my pension won't do much for me. I probably won't be able to afford to live as I live now. I might have to move into a tiny studio apartment and give up my car just to retire. And my husband, who only works part-time, doesn't have a pension, or any kind of retirement savings. He doesn't earn enough to pay bills and still set something aside for the future. Even though his job is hourly-paid, he's not eligible for overtime, either. If he works 40 hours in a week he doesn't get anything beyond his usual wage, even though he's worked twice as much as he normally does. If he retires he'll have to live on my retirement income. And my employer stopped offering health insurance for employees who retire, so we'll have to figure out how to shoulder the burden of our own healthcare when we're not working anymore. If healthcare costs keep skyrocketing, most of our income will go for insurance premiums and medication. That's not much of a retirement to look forward to.
I'm far from the only person in this boat. I don't know what the solution is, but I do know that in another 20 years or so there are going to be a lot of retired baby boomers like me who need affordable housing and healthcare and something to do with their time besides watch tv all day. And in another 20 years after that the next generation will need the same thing, only they'll all still be paying off their mortgages and student loans if we don't find a way to make those things less costly.