Gold Watch

November 29th, 2018

“Here’s your gold watch and the shackles for your chains
And your piece of paper, to say you left here sane
And if you’ve a son who wants a good career
Just get him to sign on the dotted line and work for 50 years”

“Gold Watch Blues” by Donovan

My dad worked for decades as an operating engineer for the City of West Allis (Wisconsin). He retired at the age of fifty-five, or maybe fifty-seven. I’m not sure. I can’t remember any more. He received a full pension for the City. He got checks every month until he died. That’s thirty years worth of pension checks. He was a lucky man.

Not everybody in my father’s generation retired with a pension, but many did. Far fewer people in my generation have pensions, and quite possibly nobody from the Millennials will get one. A person from my father’s time could reasonably expect to retire with some level of financial security. With my generation, retirement is kind of iffy. As for my kids, well, they’re screwed. My children are convinced that they will be working until they die, and they are probably right.

That doesn’t sound quite like the American dream? What happened?

I remember when I got out of the Army, back in 1986, I got hired by a company, and they were so excited to tell me all about the 401k program. They thought it was some sort of miracle. They kept telling me about how taxes would deferred on my account, and how the company would chip in some money. They really pushed the idea that it was “portable”; that it was all my money, and that I could take it with me, if (God forbid) I should leave. Okay. That’s nice.

Shortly thereafter, I quit that job, and then I got hired by a trucking company in the Milwaukee area. That was in 1988. The trucking firm had a pension and they had the 401k. Well, they did for a while. After maybe ten years or so, the company quit offering a pension. Long time employees (like me at that point) were vested, and could get a smidgen of the pension at a much later date. The management of the company blamed government regulations for their decision (because that’s what corporations do), and they promised to pump a bunch of money into everybody’s retirement fund.

They did.

Until the Great Recession of 2008.

Once the recession hit, all bets were off. The company stopped contributing to the 401k, and basically told every employee,

“You’re on your own, bitch!”

Of course, we all knew that already.

At the end of 2015, by some quirk of fate, I was still working at this same trucking company, and I suddenly qualified for the elusive pension. I took it and ran. The pension really wasn’t (isn’t) that much. It just basically covers the cost of the health insurance for me and my wife. Somehow, at that point in time, we were debt-free and we had money saved. I retired.

I would like to say that I was able to retire because of the astute handling of our finances. That would be a lie. For years I never even looked at what was in the 401k. To me, all of that was like Monopoly money, that is, until I actually pulled the plug. I was able to retire because of a combination of frugality, dumb luck, and good karma.

A lot of people don’t have that combination. The dream of a happy retirement can be derailed by a medical crisis, or by the sudden loss of a job (think about all those poor bastards being laid off now by GM). A lot of things are out of an individual’s control. A person cannot plan for everything. Life happens.

Maybe in our time the retirement funds are a better solution than pensions were. However, for the corporations there are unanticipated downsides to 401k’s. The companies told the workers that these plans were portable, and that fact made the employees more likely to leave. And they did. A pension tends to keep an employee with a particular organization. A 401k makes for a transient workforce.

The 401k represents much of what is wrong with corporate America. A pension plan has obvious drawbacks, but it always demonstrated a long term commitment from the company to the employee. It likewise required a strong commitment from the worker. The 401k says, “We don’t care about you, and you don’t need to care about us.” That is the message, loud and clear.

A few weeks before I retired, I was called into HR for a meeting. The company had a chronic morale problem, and the folks at Human Resources wanted to talk to people to find out what could be done. I don’t understand why they wanted to speak with me, especially since I was ready to abandon ship, but they interrogated me anyway.

I remember the woman from HR asking me, in her soothing, singsong voice,

“So, do you feel appreciated here?”

I replied, “No.”

Awkward silence.

She cleared her throat, smiled, and said sweetly,

“Why not?”

I told her, “I have the same value here as a forklift. I am very replaceable.”

Another awkward silence.

She said, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.”

“No, you don’t. You don’t give a fuck about me.” That part I did not actually say, but she could read my body language.

My kids job hop. They move from place to place. They sign up with whoever can offer them 50 cents more per hour than their current boss. I have been told that all of their generation does that. The corporations show them no loyalty, and they return the favor. It makes me laugh when management types complain that they can’t keep good people. Really? No kidding? If you treat a person like a commodity, they will respond accordingly. If you treat a person like a person, they might just hang around.

“Here’s your gold watch and the shackles for your chains
And your piece of paper, to say you left here sane
And if you’ve a son who wants a good career
Just get him to sign on the dotted line and work for 50 years

This story that you’ve heard, you may think rather queer
But it is the truth you’ll be surprised to hear
I did not want some job up on the board
I just wanted to take a broom and sweep the bloody floor.”

“Gold Watch Blues”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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