Chris, a baby boomer in his 60s, has his roots in Pullman, WA. After leaving Kansas during the dust bowl in the 1940s, his parents were able to build a comfortable middle class life for their eight children.
Chris has owned a small business as a general contractor in Olympia, WA for the past 13 years, where he paints and remodels homes. But even with the privileges of a middle class upbringing, Chris has faced an economy that is unfriendly to workers. “[It’s] harder to make money these days than it has been in the past—lot of competition—lot of self-employed people out there.”
Throughout his career, Chris has had occasional benefits. But no job has ever offered him a pension or retirement savings plan, making it hard for him to save. He’s tried to save on his own, but with limited success. “I never had any pension, so I got started late—about 2008—with a Roth IRA, that was the year that the market crashed, so I pulled my money out even though I didn’t have that much there.”
Even after a full lifetime of employment, Chris doesn’t see retirement as a possibility. “I don’t expect to retire—that’s the thing—I expect to keep on working. I’m worried about it… Perhaps I can manage it when I turn 66 and go on Social Security, if I continue the business and have people working for me—I can do that until I’m unable to, but I don’t think retirement is a realistic option for me—in terms of full retirement—cause I don’t have a pension. I don’t have much saved. I don’t think the economy will improve that much.”
Even with a successful small business and no debt, Chris just barely breaks even every month, leaving nothing extra to save for the future. “The cost of living has gone up, so you can make the same amount of money and your standard of living goes down, you go in debt or you can make more money and basically just keep even without necessarily having retirement income.”
Chris’ dad was able to retire comfortably because he worked at a time when employers still provided pensions. However, with the changing structure of the economy, where fewer employers offer this benefit, Chris knows he won’t be able to follow in his dad’s footsteps. “Nowadays it takes two people instead of one, even if you’re a professional, you still have to have someone else working to help or else you’re going to go in debt.”
After a lifetime of working and paying the bills, Chris may not be able to afford retirement, even as he continues to age and face physical limitations – leaving him at risk for living in poverty as he ages. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Policy solutions, such as strengthening Social Security and building workplace retirement savings programs, can ensure we take care of our elder members of society. Investing in protections for workers means every generation can retire with dignity.
For more about economic mobility, including other Ladders to Opportunity stories, please visit this page.