The Retirement Bookshelf: Two Uppers and a Downer

Approach something new and unfamiliar…my knee-jerk response is research.  Gather, read, process, and because it’s usually some aspect of history, write about it to understand it, put it in context, and file it with the familiar and known.    Retirement has kicked this approach into gear.  And I am building the retirement bookshelf – the books and articles that will help me make sense of life without the department and the office (and the paycheck).  In the past few weeks I’ve picked up three additions, each viewing retirement and aging with a different lens, but each with useful messages about managing the late years of life.

Finances, as many earlier posts attest, scare me.  So I am always on the lookout for helpful guides to 403(b)’s, Social Security, and other assorted post-paycheck income sources. (The bookshelf contains more than one “Dummies” book on the subject). How to Make Your Money Last by Jane Bryant Quinn is a godsend.  A clear explanation of finances for folks like me…with retirement savings (but definitely not wealth) and a terror of having to organize and spend it.

Quinn begins where many finance books do, with advice to make a budget and gather records of all income sources.  It’s a dose of realism…most of us will likely have to reduce some items on the budget debits list to live within our new means.  Her recommendations, however, go beyond the platitudes that tell me I will no longer need “professional clothes” and I won’t have the expense of a daily commute.  (I teach at a school where jeans can occasionally be professional attire and the commute is 2.5 miles one way.  Not likely the changes here will be cost-saving.)  And her advice does not foster the fear that bubbles up whenever someone mentions downsizing.  Instead Quinn talks about “rightsizing,” a word that captures positive changes to address myriad needs – health, family, lifestyle, and yes, the budget.  Rightsizing requires some imagination; it also asks me to prioritize needs and wants.  Rightsizing lets me entertain the idea of moving from house to smaller unit, shedding maintenance expenses and taxes.

Along with “rightsizing,” “simplify” is the second word that shapes Quinn’s approach to retirement.  Collapse, consolidate, make it easy to see where the money is in order to create a familiar paycheck-like structure for taking money from retirement funds.  Thanks to Quinn’s clear explanations words like “annuity,” “reallocation,” and “RMD” make sense. Having absorbed her discussion of “bucket” investing, for example, I think I now understand the relationship between stocks and bonds and the place of each in my “retirement portfolio.”  (You can grasp here just how truly ignorant of the finance world this near-retiree is.) Picture my retirement stash in 3 buckets – one with liquid assets for emergencies, one with stocks, one with bonds.  Her explanation of how to decide from which bucket to make annual withdrawals was for me worth the price of the book!   Given my Pennsylvania Dutch farmer ancestry, I can understand buckets.

Quinn isn’t talking off the top of her head; her advice comes from years of writing about finance (her columns appear in AARP publications among other venues) and she builds her advice on the work of other researchers. There’s much more in this book than I’ve described here, and it is likely one I will go back to often in the next few years.

My second read was recommended by an acquaintance met at a talk I gave to psychiatric personnel at the Salem Veterans Administration Hospital.  This woman, about to retire herself, told me to check out How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free by Ernie J. Zelinski.  Zelinksi says his book provides “retirement wisdom that you won’t get from your financial advisor.”  And it is certainly retirement for a different perspective! His message:  retirement is the last chance I will have to “remake” myself, and deciding in advance what that identity will be is crucial to creating a retirement with a “purpose” but one that is free of the workplace-generated “need to achieve.”  The upbeat motivational approach to the “active retirement” can be a bit over the top at times, and Zelinski has aimed his advice for folks whose retirement age seems to be far younger than my own.  Nonetheless, his suggestions for list-making resonate with this academic’s approach to making order from chaos,  my need to prioritize activities and choose which activities to prioritize!  Zelinski identifies “boredom” as the number one enemy of a happy, wild, and free retirement – the retiree must not allow retirement leisure to be defined by “the couch, the TV, and the fridge.”   Not much here that can’t be found in many other guides to surviving the transition from work to retirement.

I can recommend, however, two take-aways from this one:  the “Get-a-Life Tree” and Road Scholar.  Why have I not heard of Road Scholar: Education Travel and Learning Vacations? For someone who has always said “travel and explore” would be part of retirement…and quaked at the thought of how to make it happen…this program might be a solution.   It is definitely on my list of necessary retirement information to gather sooner rather than later.  The “Get-A-Life Tree” is a mind mapping exercise to identify and draw my attention to interests that somehow got lost as I was creating the historian’s career, interests that can be rediscovered once the “career building/maintaining” demands have been put aside.   At the center of the map – a box labeled “options for retirement” with lines branching out for:  current activities I want to continue;  activities that “turned me on in the past” but haven’t had a place in my life recently; and new activities I’ve thought about doing but haven’t tried yet.   Zelinski recommends putting at least 50 leaves/activities on these three branches.   It’s an engaging exercise for my pre-retirement stage—helps to visualize (and organize!) the swirling mass of thoughts about how I want to shape living after work.   And has very much made me aware of how much I have allowed the demands of work to narrow choices and possibilities.

If Quinn and Zelinski construct “retirement” as something to pursue, something to embrace, and definitely not something to fear, Susan Jacoby provides the reality check to their optimism.  In Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age she reminds me that while retirement is a social and political construct, this stage of life is also bounded by the physical experiences of growing old.  Advertisements and commercials have created a model for “successful aging.”  Actors are vibrant, fit, active, often look far younger than the age group they supposedly represent.   It is a concept sold in many guises, and I’m guessing that includes books like Zelinski’s.  And while our “success” is dependent on a marketable product, nonetheless, these ads tell what our “senior” years will look like. As Jacoby interprets the ads and the advice, however, successful aging “means only that a person has managed to put on a happy face for the rest of the world” smiling through the physical aches and pains, hiding memory loss, and demonstrating “a consistent willingness to try anything new.” To age successfully we must never “voice any fear about future dependency,” or show too much need for companionship (just as we must never be content to be alone), and we must not display strong emotions, passion being a privilege of youth (xii-xiii).

This book shows how our emphasis on successful aging  is reinforcing an untenable image of “old age” as a single stage of life (an image equally promoted by the idea of “retirement years” I might add).  A stage that marks only the first years of being “old.”  It is preventing us, individually and as a society, from addressing directly and creatively the problems of “old” old age, or even acknowledging that they are painfully real.   “The reality” she writes, “is that we are all capable of aging successfully – until we aren’t” (xii).   There is a time between this new-style successful aging (“young” old age) and death when a retirement of independence, leisure, and a need to counter boredom will likely become a period of frailty and dependency when physical care trump other needs. “As a people,” Jacoby admonishes us, “we need to face reality and base both our individual planning and social policy on the assumption that by the time men and women reach their eighties and nineties, not the best, but the worst years of their lives generally lie ahead” (5).

As I processed Jacoby’s sobering chapters (and there’s much more to the book than recounted here), this baby-boomer, about-to-retire, still physically fit reader really needed the soothing tones struck by Quinn and Zelinski.  But wishing it weren’t so only works in fairy tales, and so as I create my 3 retirement finance buckets, and draw my “Get a Life Tree” I will remember the difficulties faced by my parents and my neighbors in “old old age,” berate myself for being less understanding than I could have been, and hope that Jacoby’s optimistic prediction has merit:  that as we grow older, we baby boomers (raised in a spirit of social activism) who are now coming into young old age will demand a political response to  the problems attending those who have reached  “old” old age, the problems that face us in the future.

The Bookshelf:

  • Jane Bryant Quinn. How to Make Your Money Last;  The Indispensable Retirement Guide.  New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016.
  • Ernie J. Zelinski. How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free. Edmonton: Visions International Publishing, 2015.
  • Susan Jacoby. Never Say Die; the Myth and Marketing of the New Old Age. New York: Vintage Books, 2012.

 

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“Medicare and You”: A Review Essay

Disclaimer: I support government-provided health insurance and would vote for anyone committed to a single-payer system. I’ve always thought of Medicare as the doorway to a single-payer system for all.

Disillusionment: Medicare is not a “single-payer system” (and I am no longer in Kansas); it is a public/private hybrid of base and supplemental coverage premised on the participant’s ability to anticipate health needs and compare incomprehensible descriptions of private insurance plans.

Discovery: Medicare is decidedly more expensive than the health care coverage provided by the university to its employees, and navigating the costs and benefits of health care post-retirement it is unimaginably more complicated than my current insurance.

Despair: My years of training in research, critical analysis of data, deconstructing texts, and questioning arguments are woefully inadequate for the task of navigating Medicare. Sorting out health insurance options for retirement has reduced me to a level of wall-punching frustration usually reserved for reading the nth draft of a student paper (that has yet to incorporate the comments made on draft #1).

~~~

I am fortunate that my primary care doctor is also a “senior” because that’s how I learned about the need to sign up for Medicare when I turned 65. (Apparently – based on a sample [not random] of 2 friends who, if they had not been recipients of my Medicare rants, might have missed the date –this component of Medicare is not widely known.) Not signing up would have resulted in a “penalty” of higher payments. Since I have continued to work after age 65 in a job that offers employer-covered health insurance, I am only a member of/recipient of Medicare Part A. Just a toe in the insurance pool. I have not yet had to unravel the mysteries of parts B, C, and D. But, retirement looms in less than two years. So when the letter carrier dropped in my mailbox a fat booklet from medicare.gov with the promising title “Medicare and You” it seemed like a good idea to investigate my future relationship with government-supported health insurance for “seniors.” Oh, big mistake! Opening that book was like opening for the first time anything written by Foucault: Anticipation, excitement, insight, confusion, irritation, hostility, and the weighty realization that like Foucault’s influence on the historian, medicare.gov will not go away and will frame all future health care decisions. So, I will have to unpack its meanings and learn to use its framework to structure future relationships with illness and medicine.

“Original Medicare” offers participants like me some percentage of coverage (of many services) for which I will pay a monthly fee, that, I learn, will be deducted automatically from my monthly social security payment (and reduce my monthly retirement income by a bit more than $100). The fee covers Medicare’s “share” of the cost of health care (this connection is not drawn in the book…rather, “Medicare” pays a share and the Medicare-insured individual pays a share). Before Medicare pays its share, I will pay a “deductible” or set amount I pay only after which will Medicare kick in its share. Once the deductible is paid, the “sharing” begins. My share of the cost of medical care is my “coinsurance” – and for most services described in the book, the coinsurance is usually 20% of the fee Medicare has contracted to pay for the service (with a service provider who has agreed to provide services at the Medicare-determined rate). With me so far? I visit a physician; first I remit a “copay,” Medicare and You” says its usually $10 to $20/visit). The cost of the service is paid a) all by me if the “deductible” hasn’t been met; or b) 20% by me – my coinsurance share – if it has. But, good news. I don’t have to write the coinsurance check until Medicare has paid its share. This fee structure isn’t terribly different from the private health insurance plan offered through the university. The cost of any service is negotiated by Medicare, and presumably it is substantially lower than what I would be charged without insurance. This is Medicare part B – my interaction with the services provided by a physician or other medical personnel. (Part A, that’s for hospitalization and “Medicare and You” suggests I’m “fully covered” for these services.)

“Medicare and You” provides a long list of services “covered” by Medicare Part B, but in an aside (no big deal, right?) mentions that key body parts are either not covered or the “fix” isn’t covered. That would be the things likely to “go” as I age: teeth, eyes, and ears. Not part of the Medicare package: dental coverage; the hearing aid likely to be prescribed after the hearing exam; and eye exams for prescribing glasses (but one pair of glasses – per year or per lifetime? not states — seems to be partially covered? I put a question mark here because eye information is found on pages 54 and 71 and what exactly is an eye exam “for prescribing glasses”). Apparently I don’t need to chew, see, or hear well. But I can definitely get a colonoscopy, “depression screening,” and “obesity screening and counseling.” And if I “have a question or a complaint about the quality” of services covered? “Medicare and You” advises calling my “Beneficiary and Family Centered Care Quality Improvement Organization,” a number not provided in the booklet but one I can retrieve by “visiting” Medicare.gov.

But, you ask, what about all the drugs prescribed to keep the aging body going? That would be Medicare Part D; though it seems drugs are not really part of Medicare (with a very few exceptions). If I want Medicare’s level of prescription drug coverage, then, as the booklet states, I “ must join a Medicare Prescription Drug Plan.” Where do I get this plan? “Available only through private companies under contract with Medicare,” each of which has a “formulary,” with drugs divided into different pricing “tiers.” So I’m to understand that the state, representing all retirees, has contracted with private companies to make drug coverage ‘more affordable.” (And I’m urged, as with Medicare Part A, to join a Prescription Drug Plan as soon as I’m eligible, or risk a late enrollment penalty.) But this information is on page 83, and a quick glance tells me that later in the booklet I can read a  whole chapter on part D. Sigh….

I am now barely half-way through “Medicare and You,” and I’m floundering, but by now I’m convinced that unpredictable medical costs will drive my retirement budget. The teacher in me thinks…where’s the multiple choice exam that checks my understanding of “Original Medicare” before I tackle the rest of the booklet. Such an exam would likely be an assessment nightmare for the authors of “Medicare and You.” I suspect it would reveal high levels of confusion, misunderstanding, and definitely a failure to grasp the intricate balance between public and private medical insurance that is the cornerstone of Medicare. In lieu of an exam, readers are instructed to direct their confusion to medicare.gov or a Medicare expert at the end of Medicare helpline. Oh authors, surely you jest!

Since I do not have to make insurance decisions immediately, I am closing the booklet for the moment before tackling the authors’ discussion of Part D and Medicare Part C, the supplemental and simplified way to confront medical expenses post retirement. Since I’ve already learned from TV commercials that my Part C decision “all depends on what you need and what you want to pay,” surely there’s not much more to figure out!

“Medicare and You” promises to demystify the retiree’s health insurance structure. My review….it’s hard to imagine the authors could have written a less user-friendly guidebook. And I’m not convinced that my summary of the book’s information accurately expresses Medicare or the discussion provided by “Medicare and You.”

Should I invest in the 2015 edition of Medicare for Dummies? (Yes, Amazon.com offers this publication and several others that promise to clarify things.) Please, all of you out there who have tamed the Medicare demons and turned them into your servants, HELP! I need your reassurance that eventually the proverbial light bulb might shine, despair might pass, and Medicare, like Foucault, will become just another tool in the coping-with-retirement toolbox.

TIAA-CREF and the Superannuated Professor

Last week I met with a TIAA-CREF “wealth management counselor.” The good news . . . I’m not as retirement poor as I thought. The less good news . . . I will be working for the next four years in order to reach my retirement “goal.” My friend Marian reminds me that those of us who began academic careers in mid-life have a lot of catching up to do!

Prepping for my wealth management meeting got me thinking about TIAA-CREF, where it came from, why an account dedicated to college teachers, how is it part of a history of retirement. Of course, as college teachers we now have many options for retirement savings. When I hired on as an assistant professor, the state pension system or this private company were my only choices for investing the university’s “retirement benefits.” We were strongly advised to choose TIAA-CREF and I did so without giving it much thought. After all, the TIAA account was portable, and pre-tenure insecurity had already kicked in. What if, god forbid, I did not get tenure and had to find another job? What would happen to a Virginia state pension?? So, I invested my future in this company about which I knew very little, and I remain invested there as I move toward retirement and begin to restructure finances to create income after income stops.

A cursory search for a history of TIAA-CREF turned up a skimpy bibliography. But one book, William Graebner’s History of Retirement,* describes the beginnings. Graebner is a cynic, distrustful of motives couched as humanitarian – he positions pensions as part of the early twentieth century drive to improve workforce efficiency. Older workers, it seemed to efficiency experts, could not keep up with the young in the fast-paced, mechanized modern world. Replacing them made good economic sense to profit-driven industrialists. As Graebner saw it, retirement was rarely conceptualized as a way to alleviate the physical burdens of growing older, though proponents may have resorted to that rhetoric at times. More often the rhetoric was akin to that spouted by the physician, William Osler. “I have two fixed ideas,” he told an audience of medical men in 1905. “The first is the comparative uselessness of men above forty years of age. . . .[The second] is the uselessness of men above sixty years of age, and the incalculable benefit it would be in commercial, political, and in professional life, if as a matter of course, men stopped work at this age. . . .” More than a decade earlier Osler had described the changes related to aging as a “loss of mental elasticity,” and “ an inability to adapt oneself to an altered intellectual environment.” “Superannuated” was yet another descriptive term for 60-year-olds in the workforce. (Graebner quotes Osler in the book’s first chapter.)

Superannuated, a new derogatory for “old.” Obsolete, unable to adapt to new ideas and new technology because of …age! (Note to self: explore “Luminosity,” the app designed for brain training, rapid perception, attention, focus, and quick decision making based on the “science of neuroplasticity.” Train my brain for $6.95/month, surely a bargain to prevent being seen as superannuated.)

If older workers were “useless,” as Osler charged, the problem became how to rid the workforce of the “superannuated.” The answer was never to adapt the work place to accommodate the life cycle (witness here, too, the tepid results of more recent efforts to provide women and men in the US with maternity leave, yet another stage of life). Instead the solution to the problem was “superannuation,” or retirement with a pension that paid older workers to leave the workforce and barred them from reentering. In the early twentieth century different industries tried different systems to create a pension system to retire older workers, with the various paths described in Graebner’s account culminating in the Social Security Act of the 1930s (designed as a tool to combat unemployment of the young according to Graebner). TIAA-CREF was one of those roads, for a specific group of superannuated workers – the college professor.

TIAA-CREF began as a post-retirement project of the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, the same Carnegie who busted unions at his steel plants then funded local libraries and other assorted humanitarian endeavors to save his soul before he died. One of these projects was an endowment that would fund college retirement pensions. I’ve always liked teaching about Andrew Carnegie, a bundle of contradictions who captured well the conflicting mentalities of the late nineteenth century. Who knew he saw himself as a benefactor of poorly paid college professors? In fact, Carnegie thought professors were so poorly paid that saving for retirement was impossible, forcing older professors to remain in positions better filled by younger teachers. Pensioning off older professors who otherwise could not afford to retire would infuse higher education with a “spirit of enterprise and efficiency,” the same spirit Carnegie had employed in the manufacture of steel (Graebner,111). Henry Pritchett, the director chosen to run the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT), saw college pensions in a much broader light. Pensions were a way to “reshape higher education.” Vetting college professors who applied for a pension and holding the pensioner hostage to foundation-approved good behavior would, Prichett believed, ensure professorial adherence to the social values of Prichett, Carnegie, et al. (The National Education Association, in contrast, thought this plan an insidious attack on academic freedom!) Eventually funding individual pensions for individual professors became too costly even for Carnegie’s endowment wealth. In 1918 the pension plan of CFAT was replaced by the Teachers’ Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA), a privately held company for which CFAT agreed to foot the administrative bills. This agency would evolve into the contributory pension plan we have today.

Whether intended to create efficiencies in higher education or meant to constrain the views of college teachers, either way, Graebner found the origins of college retirement rooted in a larger history of labor and management, profit and loss, and corporate welfare. His is a story that highlights the generational casualties of capitalist economic development driven by reliance on manufacturing speed and technological innovation. College retirement funding shows just how ubiquitous was the rhetoric of efficiency promoted by early twentieth-century scientific management. CFAT was, it seems, the first string in the net that binds rewards for college teaching to the fortunes of American corporations.

Sometime I’d like to follow the history of TIAA beyond the 1910s. (I did find an interesting website, part of a “Frontline Report” from April 2013 on “The Retirement Gamble.” This segment about “Five Moments [since the 1960s] that Shaped the 401(k)”** speaks to recent tax and policy developments that led to the replacement of corporate pension benefits with independent 401(k)/403(b) plans.) But, the history of TIAA-CREF will keep.

I am much more intrigued at the moment by the figure of the superannuated professor and the drive to achieve efficiency and profit by “disemploying” (that’s my word, not Graebner’s) the old and the obsolete. The charge of being “superannuated,” though rarely phrased as such, is still a potent weapon against older professors in a job market with far more new PhD’s than full-time academic positions. We seem to take on faith that innovation belongs to the young, and often it does. Yet faced with 4 more years of employment, I hope to engage a department and university culture in which the young and the old, the innovative and the obsolescent, will coexist. Who knows what joining the experience of the superannuated and the inventiveness of the freshly minted might accomplish.

*William Graebner, A History of Retirement; The Meaning and Function of an American Institution, 1885-1978 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).

** http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/business-economy-financial-crisis/retirement-gamble/five-moments-that-shaped-the-401k/