My role as an Engineering Dispatcher for 15 years was to enter and dispatch engineering work orders, ensure the work was completed, and assist with all administrative duties. In August 2018, I was leaving the office for good.
All my coworkers had clocked out, but I remained behind to collect my belongings. I used a large black garbage bag. The office was empty, and the phone lines had already been transferred to the Stationary Engineer in the Boiler Room. The silence was eerie, but calming. I was relieved to be able to complete this task in quiet solitude. As I gathered each of my treasured items — every last picture frame, souvenirs I’d acquired on family vacations, a wooden plaque I’d received as “employee of the month,” and even a black and white photocopy of my dog, Max — I felt as if I were leaving an abusive relationship for the last time.
I hadn’t told anyone why I was resigning, keeping silent primarily out of fear of retaliation. It had reached the point where I felt I could no longer stay in a toxic work environment where hateful speech and deliberate discrimination against people of color were prevalent.
But even as I knew it was the right move to leave, it was scary entering my early 40s without a job, knowing that I had to start saving a lot more for my retirement, but I had to meet my immediate needs first. Planning and saving was a luxury I – and too many others in this country – was not able to afford.
My reality echoed that of America’s aging population
Retirement isn’t the top concern when you have to dig into your savings to put food on the table. To survive, I cashed out all my 401(k) funds and discontinued my 401(k) plan with the organization. It was difficult for me to imagine how I would ever be able to retire. Many Americans grapple with that, especially as they edge closer to their “golden years.” For all too many, there’s a feeling of uncertainty about whether they’ll be able to afford essentials like food and shelter once they no longer have a paycheck. As rich as the United States is, no one should have to worry about hunger or homelessness as they age, especially if they have worked for decades.
Yet that’s a reality for many older Americans. Census data shows Americans age 65 and older are the only group in the U.S. to have experienced an increase in poverty recently, and even most middle-class Americans say they can’t afford to save for retirement.
After leaving my job, I fell into more debt when I pursued a full-time graduate degree in journalism, even with a scholarship. On top of the added pressure to maintain my household, I did not obtain my degree. Despite my best efforts, I have been unable to continue my education.
Amid the pandemic, I suffered financial hardship like most Americans, but things have recently improved after I started a new job. It was a few weeks ago that I received a package containing enrollment paperwork for a new retirement plan. In the meantime, I am trying to figure out how to complete the paperwork or whether I should apply for a retirement plan.
Changing realities through the generations
When I consider retirement, I think of my dad. Goldman Sachs hired him as a New York Runner to deliver packages, documents, and other items on foot. I was just eight when he started working for the company in 1982. When my parents separated in the early 90s, my dad was forced to retire early because of health concerns. A few years later, in 1998, he passed away from a heart attack when he was just 62 years old. He would have reached his full-retirement age of 65 in 2001.
Life expectancy was the primary reason for increasing the average retirement age, according to a fact sheet by the Social Security Administration. The full retirement age is now 67. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that males in the U.S. live an average of 73.5 years, while females live until 79. That means that many Americans will need to figure out how to survive financially for at least a decade or more after they stop working — which could include a period before they’re eligible for full Social Security benefits.
To make matters worse, in late April, the GOP-led House of Representatives passed legislation which would result in significant cuts in programs like SNAP, Meals on Wheels, and child care. They claim our only choice is between defaulting on our debt and taking the food out of millions of mouths — completely ignoring other solutions put forward that would make life easier for most working people.
My 83-year-old legally blind disabled mom, who lives on a fixed Social Security income, recently felt the impact of similar cuts when her Supplemental Emergency Allotment SNAP benefits were suspended in February 2023. She also depends on Medicare to pay for the eyedrops she uses daily to treat the high pressure within her eyes caused by glaucoma.
“Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors,” said President Joe Biden in the February 2023 State of the Union address. Biden said Americans had contributed to them with every paycheck since they started working, and these benefits belonged to them.
Contemplating an uncertain future
My concerns extend beyond my retirement to future generations.
For my youngest son, now 22, who works as a journalist and also mentors middle-school students, retirement means being free of workplace pressures. “There shouldn’t be an age limit on when someone wants to retire,” he says. Because being able to retire would mean they would be set for the rest of their lives.”
“I hope to have a growing business that involves all of my passions,” said my eldest son, who is 23. “I want the chance to build generational wealth where my kids and our kids’ kids can all live out their dreams,” he added.
Safety nets like guaranteed income, SNAP, Social Security retirement benefits, and Medicare can help power the economy and support our older citizens critically. Ensuring older Americans can afford essentials and medical care is also cost-effective, as it lessens the likelihood that they will experience a more serious medical issue or urgent crisis such as homelessness. It can also relieve the minds of many families like ours, especially after seeing so much financial loss during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.
Cutting these vital safety net programs or raising the benefit age as Republicans have suggested could weaken our already fragile safety net for Americans like me who have little or no retirement security. Targeting safety net programs makes an already shaky future for older Americans even more precarious.
My hope is that by continuing to fight for economic justice – and supporting leaders who will fight on our behalf, and holding accountable those who don’t – we can give all Americans hope for a secure future as they age.