Getting Worse?

Richard Quinn

LEAVE IT TO ME TO become entangled in Twitter “discussions.”

I’m often driven to comment on those Tweets that contend that the opportunity to get ahead in America no longer exists, and that it’s impossible for many to save money or pay off their debts.

Recently, my confrontations resulted in a 30-something—who wanted more than $50,000 in student loans forgiven—informing me that, “I am not interested in an old (@#X?) man’s point of view.” What was so offensive about my point of view? I’d mentioned working two jobs, mortgaging the house and using most of my savings to pay for my four children’s college education. My young antagonist then dismissed me as “privileged.”

This old man thinks taking responsibility has a great deal to do with economic success. I recall a news story about a married couple who decided they wouldn’t repay their student loans. They claimed they were misled about the value of their training to become phlebotomists and couldn’t find jobs. Seems they neglected to investigate that the starting salary is about $23,000 and the average salary $31,000. My obsessive self went searching—and found several job openings for phlebotomists in their area.

Frequently, I’m told things are different. Things are different for sure. More and different opportunities abound. Consider the people who took advantage of the pandemic to make money. My teenage granddaughter earned $1,200 making and selling a necklace that helps folks avoid losing their face mask.

Incredible technology allows people to earn a good living from just about anywhere in the world. It isn’t just computer whizzes who have abundant opportunities. Skilled crafts people are also highly valued. I just remodeled the kitchen at our vacation home. The electrician charged $200 an hour and the plumber $285. I’m about to paint five rooms in my house. That’ll be $10,200, please.

My favorite Tweet so far: “The days of starting in the mail room and working your way to executive are over.” This one hit a nerve because that’s exactly what I did. Over? Why? Maybe it’s because they don’t want to cope with the setbacks, broken promises or disappointments that go with the journey. My journey took more than 45 years. Hey, if you can’t wait that long, invent a new app and become a millionaire by next Thursday.

I know corporate paternalism is long gone. My former employer has made many changes to employee benefits since I left. I don’t agree the changes were necessary, and they clearly shifted financial responsibility to employees and retirees. But I suspect the same thing could be said about the benefit changes I initiated 30 years ago, when I was working in human resources.

I wear a watch with the Mercedes logo on the face. The engraving on the back reads, “Richard D Quinn, Faithful Service, 4-30-77.” It was my father’s watch. He was a car salesman. That watch is what the company gave him at age 67 when he was told he must “retire.” No pension, no 401(k), no health benefits. My parents lived on Social Security for the rest of their lives. They lived through the Great Depression, they were leery of banks and had no interest in the stock market. I compare their life experience with my “things are different” Twitter friends. Have things really got worse?

Today, we complain about high health care costs. When I started working in 1961, there was no insurance coverage for services outside the hospital and no coverage for prescription drugs.

Talk about fair pay. Back in the good old days, my department manager was given a merit pay budget to allocate among his employees—and himself. Any guess who received the largest raise?

And opportunity? In the 1970s, I decided to look for a better job and interviewed at a different company. When I returned to the office the next day, my manager told me I wouldn’t be getting the new job. The person who had interviewed me called my manager, who told him not to hire me. Should I have been flattered? Twenty years later, I had the manager’s job.

We hear a lot about the inability to save for retirement. My contention: Virtually everyone can save and invest if they set the appropriate priorities. In January 2020, I wrote about the concept of “financial fasting” as a way to accumulate the money needed to invest. And the fact is, you don’t need much to get started as an investor. Some mutual funds and brokerage firms don’t even have required investment minimums.

No denying it, I’m old. But I firmly reject the notion that the world is so much harsher today than it was a few decades ago—and that opportunity in America retired when I did.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, he was a compensation and benefits executive. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments and check out his earlier articles.

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