I was reading my parent’s TIME Magazine this week (that I usually swipe to read on the train) and they had polled Americans on the state of the economy and their take on how they plan to personally “get by” in the coming years. You can read the survey results and the article about this concept of a social contract online at TIME.com.
I had never heard of this concept of a “social contract” that business and government have with America. I work in a recruitment related field so if it existed, I thought I would know about it. As a human being I was aware of it as a colloquial dream we have perpetuated by the stories told by our parents and grandparents.
My family history doesn’t go back that far here in America. My great grandparents arrived from Poland and the Ukraine pre-WW1 and went to work in the gritty factories of Chicago because it was a better living and opportunity than they had back in Europe. (poor peasant potato farmers I usually say) and the economic opportunity has kept us here in Chicago ever since.
My grandparents generation went on to slightly boring but consistent blue collar jobs with pensions and my parent’s generation went on to white collar jobs after getting college educations. Some of them got a pension and health insurance and others did not. My generation doesn’t even get a shot at a pension. Companies have found that they can hire good people without it and they tell us that a 401K is really the same thing. (for reference I am 33)
So, we have these 401Ks that seem to never make money fast enough to accrue enough funds to equal what a pension would. They plummet in value every 10 years or so in recessions, and someone changes the funds available without asking or telling us. Most of us have health insurance through our jobs. We pay handsomely for it, between $100 and $300 per month per person. And then when something happens that requires medical care, the insurance only covers 1/2 the costs. It is totally possible to go bankrupt with health insurance coverage these days because most coverage is crap compared to what my family had back in the 1980’s.
TIME says that there is an “implied” social contract in America where you give a company (or number of companies) your time and energy and they give you “a basic level of economic security provided you work hard and took responsibility for your family”. (direct quote from TIME July 28, 2008 p 42) And I think things have changed. This contract implied or not doesn’t really exist anymore. I see businesses every day making decisions to give workers less and people have to get more creative trying to survive.
I think the social contract is more like this now.
1. A company promises to pay you as little as they can for your time. This sounds pessimistic but I have seen the proof on paper that you are paid what they can get you for with your experience rather than what you are worth or how much “the job” pays. You have to wait years to work your way up the ladder to make a good wage and then marketers and your neighbors taunt you daily to buy everything in sight to keep up with the Joneses. 56% of the people who made over 100K a year said even they can’t expect to afford health care, college or a secure retirement anymore. And 100K a year is a lot of clams. (I don’t make anywhere near that. ) I do realize that these businesses have to keep costs low in order to compete with India and China, but somehow I’d rather see the cuts come from other areas that don’t erode the culture in America and impede our ability to raise families.
2. Marketers will prey on you from every direction. A lot more people could make it through hard times if they had savings but the national savings rate is negative now. All the “stuff” and services you “must” have seems to replace the financial security your grandparents achieved. Just say no didn’t work for reducing drug use in the 80’s and I think that the disposable consumer culture will probably continue here too.
3. Health Issues will cost you. Most young people don’t need much care because you haven’t gotten to the age where things start falling apart yet and we don’t have any concept of how much it costs to survive a serious health issue like cancer or bypass surgery. Both my parents had heart surgery in the late 1990’s and they were 50 & 60K each. We paid about 10K each of those costs and the insurance paid the rest. I just heard someone at my dad’s workplace had bypass surgery last month and it cost $100K. I know they have really poor health insurance there, and I can guess that the guy might have had to pay 50K out of pocket. Even dental issues are expensive. I need have needed a crown for about 5 years and because there is no pain or damage being done since the root canal and filling, I am holding off on the $1,000.00 price tag since dental insurance is only going to pay 1/2 and I would rather save the $ for a real emergency like fixing the 7 year old car I have or paying for the radiator heat to be fixed in my condo.
4. Retirement is going to be difficult. Very difficult. Some people wonder if social security will be around in 2040 when I turn 65. I personally, think it will be. It may not be nearly enough though. Most of us will have some 401K savings but as the Frontline Retirement special found, most people make crucial mistakes with managing their 401K and end up loosing a lot of money and getting little out at the end. (and then have to go back to work) Some tips include, never take a lump sum benefit, due to the tax penalty, never just let it ride and not watch the performance and watch for trading and management fees eating up your money. It also helps not to own a McMansion when you retire and live within your means before retirement. Saving money (like 10% of after tax income) on the side and investing it in some low risk but higher than inflation yields is also a smart way to prepare. And well let’s hope medicare still exists in 2040 also, and that doctors and hospitals still accept it as payment.
5. Creativity & Leverage are the new working hard. Money makes more money, it’s all who you know and being clever with side jobs or side businesses usually helps. Yes, saving a large percentage of your income by living simple and investing it can help you have the “power of compounding interest” as they say. Keeping in touch with people and maintaining your network helps with job opportunities and side opportunities to make some income. Starting weekend jobs or part time businesses online or otherwise helps too. I find people living simply and leveraging clever ways to work in more than one place are the ones that will have what they need later on. Getting into an industry that is doing well in the economy also helps but that may take pro-active skill re-training. Paying off your mortgage early and not moving also helps. You loose thousands of dollars on the services and fees associated with that transaction every time you move, and we all know you pay 3x the value of your loan in interest if you really pay your mortgage over 30 years. After that you are seriously in the hole.
The only contract I think we really have now is that everything will change by the time the 30 somethings reach retirement age. The only thing we have to rely on is ourselves. In general business is struggling because the US has passed it’s peak and we will be in a pack of “also rans” soon. Companies in the US will not see the skyrocketing growth that they saw post-war in the last 60 years with China, India and Eastern Europe emerging as super-economic powers. This coupled with dwindling natural, energy and food resources will make the next 50 years a post US dominant era that will be much harder and more global.
I actually believe if the US was more competitive with skills and education we would do well in a world economy but I haven’t yet seen the expertise or drive to innovate. All I see every day is the drive to reduce expenses and cut resources in business and make short term gains with little or no thought about long term survival. I feel like the country is being run by the lowest common denominator MBAs right now and the next 10 years for us commoners are going to be difficult as a result, as we all lack the jobs/growth that they sucked/poached out in the short term and ran off with the profits.
So, enough about all that negativity.
How do you plan on coping with the changing game living and working in the US in the next 50 years?