Say goodbye to retirement, health care

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comSeptember 17, 2011 

A few decades back, I figured I’d retire at 65, like my father.

I changed that view as the years passed, mostly for financial reasons. I upped the cash-in-the-chips date to 67, then 70.

Now, I’m hoping I can afford to hang up my word processor by the time I’m 90.

I can see me now, shuffling into the newsroom on my walker, and the Ancient Morem-ner saying, in his tremulous voice, “The Mayor was shot!”

“Eh? What’s that? The fair’s too hot?” I will reply.

My old pard, the Ancient Morem-ner — aka Bill Morem — has his own vision. He figures the janitor will come in early one morning and find him face-down on his computer, gone to that great newsroom in the sky.

Morem, however, believes a legend will form around his departure, as researchers down through history seek to learn “what could that ‘qwerty’ on his forehead mean?”

Think Citizen Kane and Rosebud.

What’s that you say? I’m making light of a serious issue — the fact that people who expected to retire in their 60s no longer can?

I might as well laugh — it’s one of those chortle or sob situations.

What has happened to the American workplace, the larger ones in particular, is disastrous, made all the worse by the realization that our children and grandchildren, if and when they find jobs, are going to have it tougher than we have it.

That goes against a goal that all parents have for their children — to leave things in better shape than they found them.

Grandpa Simpson

I don’t want to go all Grandpa Simpson here and prattle wistfully about the ferry to Shelbyville. But the inescapable fact is that when you approach the later years in your life, you look back.

And while I see some accomplishments by my generation, events that moved the nation forward in major ways — the civil rights, women’s and environmental movements, for example — I also see a lot that went sideways.

That is nowhere truer than in the workplace. An entire generation has grown up not realizing that the workplace once was a better place for employees — and, by implication, could be again.

I don’t have statistics — only anecdotes from my own life and other folks I have spoken with. I don’t think they are atypical.

How has the American workplace declined? Let me count the ways.

First, finding a job.

I got my first newspaper job by undergoing a telephone interview and sending a résumé. I got another by repeatedly visiting a newspaper that I wanted to hire me until, one day, I passed an angry man leaving the building as he was tearing off his necktie.

He had just quit. The city editor asked me if I could cover a meeting that night. Yes indeedy, I certainly could.

I’m not offering this up as nostalgia. The point is that persistence by the would-be employee and gut instinct on the part of the person doing the hiring once mattered.

Today, as everyone who seeks a job knows, you have to take all kinds of tests, from drug to psychological, and be interviewed by everyone except the family dog.

(Psychological tests, while they might be wise in the arms industry, have always amused me in the news profession, which should hire independent thinkers, not conformists. I still recall fondly an old-school editor in Boston draping his arm over my shoulder, eyeballing the newsroom’s abundance of carefully tested college graduates, and saying “You know, Bob, we’re getting far too many well-adjusted people in this newsroom.”)

What are you worth?

As far as working conditions go, is anyone out there being paid what he or she is worth? I’m not talking about workplace grumbling over being unappreciated — it’s a serious question.

Everyone I know, in any profession, is producing more “product” without a corresponding increase in pay. His health care costs are going up — if he has health care: My sons are adjunct professors at a community college and they don’t have it.

Oh, and did I mention outsourcing? What is a company saying to its American workers about respect when it is willing to give their jobs to someone thousands of miles away simply to save money?

And now we have the phenomenon of not being able to retire. Again, personal anecdotes: My father worked for a bank, my father-in-law for a pharmaceutical company. Both retired at 65, and their employers were helping them with health care costs well into their 80s. Can you imagine that happening today?

Here is one other thing today’s worker does not have: recourse to do anything about any of this, other than to leave. You all know the mantra: “You’re lucky to have a job in this economy, so shut yer pie-hole.”

That brings us to the “U” word.

It is fashionable these days to bash public employee unions. They deserve much of that reproach. But it would be wise for everyone working in any industry to ask himself or herself what their working conditions would be like without unions.

Start with Upton Sinclair’s expose of the meat-packing industry, “The Jungle” from 100 years ago, and work your way forward. Don’t forget to read up on Teddy Roosevelt, who fought the oligarchies and stepped in to help coal mine workers because health conditions were so terrible.

A few weeks back, I wrote a column about women who hurt their backs changing the sheets at motels, and a reader wrote that there is a solution — unions.

I don’t think so. I think that, in the public mind, “union” has become a dirty word, like “liberal” or “terrorist” or, back in the day, “communists.” We just celebrated Labor Day. How many of you read or watched anything in the mainstream media about the value of unions?

Will any of this change? Yes, I think the engine of history moves inexorably forward and eventually runs over the very powerful status quo forces that try to derail it. It just takes a while.

But in the current political and media environment, I don’t expect much of an advance any time soon.

So, circling back, it looks like bad news for you, Ancient Morem-ner. You’re going to have to put up with me for a lot longer than you had hoped.

Pass the Metamucil.

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