When you read that this story is by a baby boomer who wonders and worries, “Will my kids ever retire?”, you might think it’s going to be a farce. But no, it’s anything but. It’s by a retired attorney now teaching in an alternative high school in Seattle, Phyllis Coletta, who can’t see how her own kids will ever be in a position to get ahead of last week’s paycheck. In this Boomer Opinion piece, Phyllis asks, Is this our legacy?
Last week my youngest son, Joe, called me at 6AM, in intractable pain from recurrent knee swelling. My strong, fabulous 31-year-old kid was leveled (again), unable to help with the kids, go to the bathroom, or put on his uniform to get to work. Despite all that suffering, what was the biggest source of stress for him? He knew that a $100 ER copay would throw him into his next paycheck. He was in despair, not about his health, but about his unending uphill battle to meet his family’s most basic needs.
Joe and his wife work hard— he in law enforcement and Kaya in her family’s automotive repair business. They’ve scraped to pay down almost all debt and live very simply, but like 78% of Americans (according to surveys), they get by paycheck to paycheck and often, like this time, there’s more month than money. How could it be that they work this hard and yet know that they are always just one ER visit, medical bill, or car problem away from the financial precipice?
It broke my heart that he was in pain, which was made even worse by his financial distress. Of course I told him to go to the ER and then I transferred a couple hundred into his account. But he hates that. The family has excellent health insurance, but an ER or doctor-visit copay just won’t fit into the tight budget that requires them sometimes to choose between food and the mortgage payment. I started thinking about all this when I finally lifted my own head up from full-time work and raising three boys as a single mom. Suddenly I noticed that the world had changed dramatically, and my hard-working sons were struggling all the time.
In my mid-50s I started to panic. People were saying I’d need more than a million to retire. If that’s the case, how much will my kids need? How can I ever help them get to a place of financial peace and freedom? The economy has changed so drastically that most people are treading water and many kids heading into mid-life are burdened by endless student loan and other debt. There is something so profoundly unfair about this.
So, I did what boomers do when they want to vent. I posted this dilemma (and my frustration) on a Facebook page for a political candidate I support, and you know what happened? Hundreds of posts in reply, telling me the same story over and over and over. Posts about how people keep their fingers crossed when kids get sick because they can’t afford a doctor’s visit. How folks work when they’re sick because they can’t afford the time to get well. How one medical event can send a family spiraling into bankruptcy. While I knew Joe and Kaya were not alone in their predicament, I was overwhelmed by what I heard, saw, and read in response.
Is this our legacy? The vast majority of Americans are struggling financially, our kids and grandkids included. Joe went to the ER and his knee pain was treated, but his unending financial stress is no doubt eroding his overall health. What are we going to do?