Near the End of the Road–Or Rope

Probably like a lot of people in my sub-generation, I read Catherine Rampell’s New York Times piece over the weekend on the plight of those nearing but not yet at retirement age during the Great Recession with a conflicted sense of anger and relief: anger at yet another development showing that the stereotype of the selfish, pampered Baby Boomers was not entirely accurate, and relief that someone was paying public attention to the situation of people with neither employment prospects nor retirement resources.

These Americans in their 50s and early 60s — those near retirement age who do not yet have access to Medicare and Social Security — have lost the most earnings power of any age group, with their household incomes 10 percent below what they made when the recovery began three years ago, according to Sentier Research, a data analysis company.

Their retirement savings and home values fell sharply at the worst possible time: just before they needed to cash out. They are supporting both aged parents and unemployed young-adult children, earning them the inauspicious nickname “Generation Squeeze.”

New research suggests that they may die sooner, because their health, income security and mental well-being were battered by recession at a crucial time in their lives. A recent study by economists at Wellesley College found that people who lost their jobs in the few years before becoming eligible for Social Security lost up to three years from their life expectancy, largely because they no longer had access to affordable health care.

So at a time in life when the chronic health conditions most likely to cause loss of access to private health insurance tend to become apparent, employer-based health insurance is disappearing, and even those with the right to continue such coverage for a short while via COBRA are realizing they can’t afford the premiums. The Obamacare on the horizon only offers a lifeline to the minimum extent it guarantees access; “affordability” is another question.

Yeah, a lot of Baby Boomers may be depressed because their current state in life so vastly falls short of the expectations formed early in life or in the Long Boom of the late 1990s. A lot of them are in far better shape than the very poor regardless of generation. But I cannot tell you how often I hear people at or near my age quite seriously say “I guess I’ll work til I drop dead, if I’m lucky enough to have a job.” Hoping to have the opportunity to work oneself to death is not exactly the American Dream in action.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.