By Betsy Biesenbach
Biesenbach is a Roanoke freelance writer, title examiner and author of “Bits O’ Betsy Biesenbach.”
A year ago, I went to my son’s graduation ceremonies. That word is pluralized because he completed multiple majors, and there was a ceremony for each one — something I don’t remember happening when I did the same thing nearly 40 years ago, but times change. The speakers chosen from the pool of valedictorians — again, something that didn’t exist in my day — were both inspirational and aspirational. They were disabled, minority, or first-generation students who had overcome significant odds to graduate.
But they were speaking to mostly middle-class kids, most of whom had been expected to attend college as surely as they rolled out of bed in the morning. No doubt they found the speeches memorable and valuable, but I wondered if there should be a different message for those who, if not born on third base, were at least on first, with a good chance of making it to second.
This is what I wished someone had told me at my graduation: you will be responsible for your own retirement. Yeah, I know, that’s the furthest thing from your mind right now — it was for me, too at your age. Most of the adults I knew had pensions, and no one ever discussed how they were going to pay the bills when they quit working.
But those days are gone, and you need to start saving right away. It won’t be hard if you have a good job and little to no student debt — otherwise you’ll be spending everything you make just to pay your bills for a while. But then you’re going to need a car, and maybe you’ll get married, and hopefully, you’ll buy a house — though your generation has been slow to take that financial leap. You might want kids, and they’re going to need soccer cleats and dance lessons and help with college debt that will probably be even more crushing than yours is, so that’s where your money will go during that part of your life.
But the kids will grow up and move out, you’ll finally have some extra cash, and if your employer has a 401(k) you can sock it away in that and hope the stock market doesn’t crash again, or maybe you can get an IRA, and deduct some of your contributions on your tax return.
Things will look pretty good for a while, but then age will catch up with you before you qualify for Medicare, and you’ll have chronic medical conditions that need testing, treatment and monitoring which will siphon funds away from your savings. Or you may come down with a catastrophic illness and have to raid your retirement fund to avoid bankruptcy, because medical care is so obscenely expensive. Then guess what? If you ask for help, or suggest legislation or government programs that might assist people like you, you may be told you’ve just been lazy and should have worked harder, or that you’ve made poor decisions and don’t deserve to be helped, or that it’s just your tough luck. You’ll have a Social Security check, provided that program doesn’t collapse, but it won’t be enough to live off of, and it will be constantly threatened by cuts by people who want to use that money you’ve earned and you’re entitled to for fixing deficits or out-of-whack budgets that you had no part in creating.
And this is why you should be thinking about retirement now. You’ve probably voted in one election already, and another one is coming up next year. When you choose your candidates, keep in mind that programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid aren’t just for geezers like me. They’re also for you.
Studies show you and your cohort are more likely to vote for people who support the social safety net and promise universal health care and free college tuition. These are fine goals, but until we reform campaign finance laws that allow wealthy and corporate interests to basically buy congressional seats, your candidates will be working against people who have very little in common with you and have the health, the energy, and the clout to block these programs for decades.
So pay attention to the political scene, no matter how boring it might seem. Inform yourself, vote responsibly, and remember our issues are your issues. You are our present and our future. Please make them both better.
Oh, and congratulations and good luck.