Stirred, not too shaken, not shy, not retiring

Bishop’s Mantle column by Jim Bishop

Yikes, another birthday looms ahead – “another year older and deeper in debt,” as the ole Pea Picker, Tennessee Ernie, observed so astutely years ago.

And it’s largely financial realities that prod this aging baby boomer to keep on keeping on at my job and other responsibilities, even though it occurs to me that I could retire this year.

Retirement – that’s a sobering thought in itself. The word wasn’t in my vocabulary until more recently, especially as wife Anna and I had several rounds with a financial counselor who helped us review our fiscal state and basically confirmed what we already suspected – that we really can’t afford to retire anytime soon.

We learned, if present projections come to pass, that when we do enter that next stage of life there will be enough bucks in the bank for basic necessities – barring any medical emergencies – but there won’t be any reserves for the very thing we very much want to do in retirement: extended travel. We’d best be content to keep returning to good ole Ocean City, N.J., with our family in tow.

The counselor also recommended that we purchase long-term care insurance, which is a lot like gambling. The companies are betting that you won’t need it, and you’re wagering that you will. It seems to me that if one can afford this coverage with its exorbitant monthly premiums, then you really don’t need it. This may sound like a misguided notion, but what do I know?

Meanwhile, our investment portfolio is as thin as a communion wafer. Over the years, we invested what little we’ve had in our daughters, major home repair/improvement projects and replacing vehicles.

So, we press on at our respective workplaces, praying that our health and mental faculties continue to bear the aging process. I fully expected government Social Security to go bankrupt by now, but it’s still operative. The reality is, the monthly amount that I’d receive if I wait until age 66 to retire, just four years away, is only $400 more a month than if I’d retire immediately.

Either way, Social Security income and my retirement fund – with its quarterly statement that tends to follow a cycle of “one step forward, two steps back” in assets – simply won’t allow much breathing room.

I’m not sure that I should take any comfort in a recent major research study done on behalf of Mennonite Church USA that indicates I’m not the only one ill-prepared for retirement. Steve Martin (not the comedian), senior vice president of marketing with Mennonite Mutual Aid, and several associates warned that a “perfect storm is brewing” for Americans because of relatively low retirement savings (an average of $53,734 per household), health-care costs rising at double the rate of inflation and projected funding shortfalls for Social Security and Medicare.

According to data they gleaned, Mennonite baby boomers, ages 50 to 60, have accumulated slightly more financial assets than other Americans in the same age group. Martin noted that 32 percent of Mennonites of this age have net worth, including equity in their homes, of at least $100,000. Another 38 percent have net worth of more than $250,000. Only one-third of retirees have created a written plan to convert their financial assets to retirement income.

More than 8,000 Americans reach age 60 everyday. Aging baby boomers will have a significant impact on institutions such as health care, retirement communities, charitable giving, the labor force and congregations. Their large numbers will strain services for the elderly, but the boomers will also offer society wisdom gained through life experience.

So, here’s my word of knowledge – let he who has ears to hear, let him/her hear – don’t wait until retirement starts sneaking up on you like tight underwear. Seek professional counsel when just starting your career and do some long-range goal-setting and estate planning accordingly.

I pray that Anna and I will be able to do some part-time work after we retire – we have to! – and will have the needed physical and mental health to pursue it. I want to pursue some radio work, write stories that need to be told and get involved with more volunteer assignments.

This aspiration echoes an encouraging note in the churchwide study: As they become 60 and older, Mennonite boomers expect to continue working and to remain active. While boomers have fears about encountering poor health and the adequacy of their savings for their retirement years, they anticipate serving the church, especially at the congregational level.

For boomers, “faith is part of the air they breathe,” said the MMA researchers.

I’m just thankful that air, albeit increasingly polluted, remains one of the few things still free in this world. Plus, I’ll be happy if I can give a straight, lucid response when asked, “How are you at 62?”

Happy, happy birthday, baby boomers!

 

Jim Bishop is the public-information officer at Eastern Mennonite University.

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