Boomers Sweat Retirement in the Age of Uncertainty, and Beyond

At a financial planning seminar, near-retirees gaze into a future where Social Security is under siege and defined-benefit pension plans are up in smoke

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The Science and Business branch of the New York Public Library is housed in the shell of the old B. Altman department store on the corner of 34th Street and Madison, a short dogleg from the Empire State Building and two blocks south of the palazzo that J.P. Morgan built. The library's own renovated interior mimics the offices of a financial services firm, right down to its corporate-style mix of wood and steel, an ample supply of Aeron chairs, and an air-conditioner set to meet the thermal needs of alpha males in business suits.

On a pleasant Thursday not long ago, the atrium was filled with the murmur of many sober conversations about money. (According to prominent signage, the atrium had been "created through the generous support of UBS," which was in the news for a $2.3 billion-loss by a trader gone rogue.) Photocopies affixed to various surfaces announced that today was Financial Planning Day, one of several financial literacy events the library hosts throughout the year.

The prospect of planning one's finances is likely to elicit feelings that veer from mild to moderate boredom in the most placid of times, but the upheaval of the last few years has made planning either wholly futile or wholly necessary, depending on whom you ask. (Jeffrey Goldberg's reaction to the financial crisis was to fire his broker and hope for the best, a process he detailed in The Atlantic a couple of years ago.)

The events scheduled for Financial Planning Day, which included classes on "Understanding your Social Security" and "Medicare Basics," all sounded sensible enough, though not without the occasional burst of exuberance: one of the seminars was called "Mortgages!" (needless to say, the exclamation point isn't mine). Three miles downtown, the Occupy Wall Street protests had entered their third week, but you wouldn't have known it from the itinerary for the day's events, which presented the financial system as a neutral realm that the ordinary American could navigate and even exploit.

The library's atrium was ringed by tables offering pamphlets and flyers from various agencies. Considering that nearly a third of retirees depend on Social Security as their main source of income, I wanted to talk to the woman at the Social Security table. She, however, did not want to talk to me. "Ah, you see, I'm not supposed to speak to the press," she said, declining to tell me what she did with the Administration. She handed me a piece of paper. "You can find all of the information you need right here." Her finger pointed to the top of the sheet, which instructed me to BOLDLY GO TO SOCIALSECURITY.GOV.

The Social Security Administration has adopted a Star Trek theme to promote its online resources, and I could see George Takei, aka Mr. Sulu, grinning from another pamphlet on the table. I thanked the woman and put the piece of paper in my bag, which already contained a DVD on "Deposit Insurance Coverage" from the FDIC (the DVD turned out to be as compelling as you might imagine) and a pack of playing cards from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, a self-regulating organization of investment banks whose name makes it sound like the government agency it isn't. The top card read, "We stacked this deck for you."

I suspected the gambling innuendo owed less to an ironic sensibility than to a certain obliviousness. Still, it turned out to be of a piece with the financial-planning advice being given in the seminars I attended, which emphasized that Americans could count on few guarantees for their income during retirement, if they could count on any guarantees at all. Social Security was under siege, defined-benefit pension plans were as elusive as unicorns: preparing for the future required "understanding your risk tolerance" and placing your bets accordingly.

"The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Also, the greater chance of losing money," said Kathleen Floyd from the Securities and Exchange Commission, speaking about the need to "Save and Invest Wisely."

And even avoiding risk invited its own risk. Keeping your nest egg in a bank account made you vulnerable to inflation. Putting it into a high-yield CD through a brokerage would be "betting on the solvency of the company behind it." Park it in an annuity, and "you're banking on the staying power of the insurance company."

I took a coffee break with Tom, 65, a retired parole officer who had walked into the "Keys to a Dream Retirement" seminar carrying two cardboard boxes filled with Financial Planning Day swag. (I've omitted his last name because, somewhat inexplicably, he told his wife he was playing golf that day.) Tom was attending the seminars rather than presenting, but he had much to say about economics, beginning many of his sentences with "Let me tell you something" before going on to tell me what that something was. "Let me tell you something, if they don't start practicing austerity here, Greece is gonna look like a cakewalk." His favorite cable channel was the stock market channel -- "I monitor it constantly." He lamented the fact that people weren't paying enough attention to the pickle we were in. "People are too busy working and not understanding how bad the situation is."

Still, that didn't mean he had much sympathy for Occupy Wall Street. "Look, what's your definition of capitalism? I'll tell you what mine is. It's survival of the fittest. That's the deal. You come here with nothing as an immigrant, you open up a frankfurter stand, you break your ass for 20 hours a day, you save enough money, you invest, and then you open up a four-star restaurant." It was the second time in our conversation that he mentioned this apocryphal frankfurter stand.

We talked about his investments (municipal bonds and gold -- gold coins, to be exact, because he feared bullion was vulnerable to government confiscation), as well as his enviably secure situation -- as a retired state employee with a strong union looking out for his interests, he will have an adequate pension for the rest of his life. His advice to those who didn't have such guarantees? "I think they need to go out and work three jobs like my father did. I never saw my father. He worked 18 hours a day."

Back at the Social Security table, a man who looked to be in his 50s, his gray ponytail visible underneath a baseball cap, was asking the representative a series of emphatic questions.

"But will the money be there?" he asked, loudly.

The woman from the SSA, who seemed perhaps a decade younger than her interrogator, was nodding her head. "It won't run out in our lifetime." A pause. "Now, I said, 'In our lifetime.' The younger people, I don't know, they're not here. Nobody here is in their 20s."

True. It was 11:30 a.m. on a weekday, and so I suspected that everybody in their 20s was at work or looking for work. Or else camped out at Zuccotti Park. Absorbing the financial-planning lessons on offer assumed the possession of finances to plan and time to burn, which, for a 20-something living in New York City in 2011, is asking quite a lot.

Several of the speakers at Financial Planning Day made mention of a bygone era of pension plans and postwar prosperity. But between Tom's comments about incessant toil and a Social Security rep too nervous to talk to me about Social Security, I found myself thinking of an even earlier time, when labor was consumed by the incessant demands of industrial fires. An 18-hour workday (or longer, were you to go into the frankfurter business) would mean having six hours to do everything else: sleep, eat, bathe. Spend time with the family. Go to the library and watch the stock market channel, for that matter.

When the day's events began, I had assumed that planning for the future entailed moving forward rather than looking back. By the time I left the library that night, the Star Trek campaign was beginning to seem appropriate in ways that were never intended, a gesture toward an unknown future that was nevertheless trapped in the past.