Life’s Work

The surprising pleasure of the annual Social Security statement.

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Despite the tsunami of dire economic news — 401Ks washed away in a matter of days, home values nose-diving to less than the value of their outstanding mortgages — one buoyant piece remains on the personal finance front: Social Security.

Until now, I’d ignored the Social Security statements that arrive in my mailbox with the dead certainty of a homing pigeon each year and get tossed on the junk mail heap. Retirement, after all, is more than two decades on the horizon for me — probably three, now that I’m counting my piggy bank nickels. By the time I do reach the finish line, I suspect the first wave of baby boomers will have picked the federal security coffers bone dry.

This past month, though, I spent nearly an hour poring over my last statement. Suddenly, the prospect of this pot of gold waiting for me after my final punch of the time clock is making me bullish on America, bullish on the golden years.

For a government document, the four-page Social Security statement is an upfront read, far easier than the monthly 12-page phone bill and definitely more clear-cut than the quarterly 401K statement. The benefits pages have a deceptive reading ease, like whipping through a Kafka novel and wondering how a classic work of literature could be so simple. Maybe this is because my statement has a flunky quality to it. My employment record over the past 33 years — 1975 to 2007 — has been patchy at best. And chances are that if I’m optimistic about my numbers, the rest of the boomer pack is uncovering even sunnier figures.

My wife says it’s in bad taste to expose home finance records to the public. But now that millions of us have gone back to jail on the Monopoly playing board of life, I don’t find a problem with it. Over 33 years, my total income amounts to $439,478. This is an average annual salary of $13,317. Let me explain. From 1990 to 2000, the decade when the flush grew flusher, my total income was less than $75,000. Half of this era shows a row of 0’s on my statement, a result of riding my wife’s coattails when she worked in Europe, singing in a Phantom of the Opera troupe.

I started the ’90s teaching sixth-graders in a catholic school on the North Side of Chicago. The school closed its doors the year after I quit. In 1993, my annual salary was $12,192. In hindsight, I’m not sure what my wife saw in me. The year we met, I was parking cars for yuppies in Chicago’s Loop, on the graveyard shift. Total earnings in 1989? $1,968.

Again, however, part of the joy in poring over the Social Security benefits sheet is that it affords multiple interpretation. I think of my benefits chart as a sort of monetary photo album. I can go to any year between 1975 and 2007 and pinpoint exactly what I was doing that year, strictly by the numbers. Besides a death certificate from the vital records office, no other document puts one’s life in such stark terms. Yet, like that Kafka novel, you can actually read between the lines, between the numbers in this case.

For example, in 1975 — the first year I contributed to the Social Security tax — I was 15, one year below the legal age for employment. The $270 in Social Security-taxed income from that year reflects my first job at the Pheasant Run Playhouse in West Chicago, Illinois. As a hatchling member of the “housemen” crew, I wore an olive-green jump suit with a walkie-talkie in the breast pocket. I lugged six-foot tables and chairs to meeting rooms while getting autographs of famous actors who snuck through the back stage door. Diana Rigg from The Avengers gave me her autograph that year. So did Charles Neilson Reilly.

Beyond my star search, though, 1975 symbolizes an early worker’s zeal, a desire to be part of America’s employment force. Politicians’ references to “more jobs” are incessant enough to lend a certain passé quality to the idea of real work, as if anyone is queuing for the factory job or the bellman’s post at the hotel. I’ve worked in both positions, however, and subsequent jobs as bartender, cook, retailer, and teacher have each been tied to what Social Security commissioner Michael J. Astrue refers to as a “compact between generations.”

Astrue’s missal on the statement’s first page, “What Social Security Means to You,” carries one troubling condition, similar to the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette boxes, which smokers would just as soon ignore: “For decades, America has kept its promise of security for its workers and their families. Now, however, the Social Security system is facing serious financial problems…In 2017 we will begin paying more in benefits than we collect in taxes. Without changes, by 2041, the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted and there will be enough money to pay only about 78 cents for each dollar of scheduled benefits.”

2017 is just about the time I’ll be thinking of payback time. But I’m looking at Social Security’s future another way. The federal program has an almost magical, tooth fairy hand in our public and private fortunes, one which will rely more than ever on this goodwill compact among generations.

So why, with an average annual income of  $13,000 over the last 30 years, do I remain optimistic? My “estimated benefits” section reports that if I stopped working at age 62, at my current earnings rate ($70,000 annually — it took me 30 years to reach $40,000 and another five to reach $63,672), my payment would be $1,115 a month. If I continue working until age 70, then the benefit more than doubles at $2,333.

I can work with these figures, figuratively speaking. This amount adds up to more than my average annual income over the last 33 years, after all. Old people want less; they need less. (The X factor, as always, is one’s health. But this doesn’t dramatically alter the Monopoly game board much, either. If I do come down with a terminal illness at 50 or 70, I’ll arrange a quick and appropriate exit, stage left, without tarrying.) Beyond a bigger stock of wine bottles, I want very little. Aging forces a certain acceptance, a certain cheery resignation to the way things are, sometimes anyway.

Social Security is as American pie as it gets. And this is where commissioner Astrue’s “compact” reminder should take hold on anyone with a job. Instead of bemoaning the current bust in our personal finance, we should think about buttering up the younger generation, instilling them with the same enthusiasm for work as I recall having at age 15.

Surely, this idea reeks with hypocrisy. We’ve saddled the younger generation with a tonnage of national debt, which will stalk them well into their working lives, and we’ve performed a thorough job of removing the backbone of American industry. Meanwhile, we’re publishing a spate of books about young people under the motif of the “dumbest generation.” None of this bodes well for retirement, much less for dishing out providence over the generational gap.

Sometimes you have to look back, not ahead. The chips I’ve anted over the last 33 years are the same chips feeding retirement reserves as we speak. (My mother is 85 and perfectly content with her $1,700 per month.) I never thought the bombing of Hiroshima was a good idea, nor Reaganomics, nor cementing the American landscape with interstate highways, but I still toil and contribute in good faith.

For my money, I’m betting that generation X, Y, and Z can do the same. • 12 February 2009

Thomas Washington’s essays appear or are forthcoming in The Common Review, Sport Literate, and The Antioch Review, among others. He was a 2008 Yaddo fellow.
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