Now that people are living longer, “would you want to live to 100?” is a question more often asked. Some answer it by saying, “yes, but only if I am healthy and don’t run out of money.”

Photo of a piggy bank labeled "Retirement Fund."

Many retirees are so terrified of ending up impoverished and in poor health that they never spend more than a tiny fraction of their retirement savings. Health issues in old age can be costly, that’s true enough; it makes sense to have some funds set aside for future medical bills, assistive technology, and so forth. But in the scenario described above—living to age 100 while staying healthy—why would using up one’s savings be seen as a fate worse than death?

Presumably, many people feel that going back to work in old age would be too hard, so any further years of life after running out of money would be a miserable penny-pinching existence. But if we’re talking about living to 100—which, for most of us, is pretty far in the future—then why make such a negative assumption? The current labor shortage is not likely to go away by then, given today’s historically low birthrates, and I expect future employers will be happy to hire anyone they can get. Age discrimination won’t be much of an issue when companies desperately need workers. Medical advances will make us healthier.

Granted, after having been in retirement for three decades or so, our hypothetical centenarian likely won’t have the skills needed to do the same work as before. That prospect might also seem very unappealing to a person who has gotten used to a completely different way of life. In a future economy where workers are scarce and in great demand, however, we may find that it’s easy to start another career designed around whatever new interests we may develop. Maybe we’ll all have bespoke jobs, tailored to our every desire by happily obliging employers. Such jobs would be available to anyone, including older people who run out of savings in retirement.

This may seem a wild flight of fancy by comparison to today’s workplace, which is not far removed from a decade of brutal cost-cutting. Some managers still can’t wrap their minds around the prospect of a long-term labor shortage, and age discrimination certainly hasn’t gone away. Even so, it’s fair to say that any attempt to imagine the distant future is just guesswork—so why live in fear of one possibility when so many other things might happen instead?

That said, I do save regularly in my workplace retirement plan because it’s always good to have savings, whatever the future may hold. In the interest of present-day serenity, though, I don’t worry about how much of my savings might have been spent decades from now. I prefer to hold space in my imagination for a future world with plenty of choices, rather than problems.

My daughter, who lives in Cleveland’s snow belt, is currently working in Hawaii as a travel nurse and enjoying the warmth and the beaches. As an unexpected adventure, she also got to see the eruption of Mauna Loa up close, and she sent me some photos on Monday. Here’s one of them:

Photo of erupting Mauna Loa volcano at night.

She is a neonatal intensive care nurse, and a few years ago, she worked at Cleveland Metro. Then she discovered that travel nursing paid more, plus the costs of travel and housing. Adventure and more money, what’s not to like about that? And of course, as more nurses made the same discovery, hospitals lost more staff and relied even more heavily on temps from the travel nurse agencies, digging themselves into a hole that I can’t see them getting out of any time soon.

Somewhat related to the hospitals’ woes, I’ve noticed a few alarmist articles in the news recently about the Federal Reserve’s string of interest rate hikes, aimed at cooling off the economy to get inflation under control. Doomsayers warn of recession and job cuts. I think that’s overblown, and as supply chains improve, I expect the economy will do much better. I don’t foresee many jobs being lost other than in the construction and finance industries, where raising interest rates effectively put a stop to housing speculation.

Now that we live in a world of persistent labor shortages, interest rates don’t have nearly the impact on unemployment that they had a few decades ago, when large numbers of workers in the baby boom cohort struggled to find jobs that could easily be sent overseas. We’re never going to see an economy like that again. Employers are realizing that they need to hold onto talent, as I am sure the Fed’s policymakers are aware. Workers also know that their skills are in more demand than in past years.

Of course, the rate hikes are in part intended to make consumers get uneasy and spend more cautiously. Monetary policy has as much to do with mind games as with economic facts. But overall, I’m not worried. Higher borrowing costs are not going to cause short-staffed employers to lay off workers that they desperately need. Workers likely won’t be deterred from job-hopping in search of adventure and better pay, either. We’ll see what happens, but I expect it won’t be anything dramatic.

November 2, 2022 · Write a comment · Categories: Musings · Tags:

Last week, after I went to the optical shop and ordered new glasses, it occurred to me that this was the first time I’d ever bought new glasses when my prescription hadn’t changed significantly. My current glasses are three years old, a bit scratched, and have sparkly decorative dots at the corners that are starting to fall off, as shown in this photo:

Photo of old eyeglasses with missing decorative dots.

I can still see reasonably well with them, however, and in past years I would have kept wearing them because of frugality—or perhaps more accurately, because of a failure of imagination. Replacing glasses that weren’t broken and didn’t yet need to be replaced was an extravagance that never crossed my mind. After all, glasses were expensive and always had been.

That, in turn, got me thinking about some of my past conversations and blog posts about automation, jobs, falling birthrates, and consumer demand. I have to admit I’m a bit leery of making predictions after I wrote an overly optimistic post last year anticipating that stocks would keep going up because the pandemic hadn’t put an end to the party, so what would? Obviously, I didn’t foresee that the Russians would come close to starting World War Three, which was more than enough to snarl supply chains and rattle the markets.

Still, I’d say it is a fairly safe bet that consumers will always find something more they want to buy, so the economy isn’t likely to grind to a halt a few decades from now, when the world has fewer people and most of today’s jobs have been automated. Instead, I expect many of us will be working in careers we never imagined and buying stuff we never thought we might want.

In a wealthier economy, I might have ordered several pairs of glasses in different colors and styles. I can imagine that becoming just as ordinary as having several pairs of shoes. Of course, when shoes were made by hand a few centuries ago, people would have thought it was wildly extravagant to buy more shoes than they needed. And so it goes…

Last week I read Empty Planet, a book about the modern world’s falling birthrates. The authors believe that having only one or two children is becoming a worldwide norm and, as a result, they expect global population will peak soon and then drop sharply for the foreseeable future. The trend of moving to the cities will continue. After a while, almost everyone will live in large metropolitan areas, while leaving the rest of the planet to revert to wilderness. People won’t dream of having a peaceful cabin in the woods anymore.

Some of that makes sense to me, but I have to disagree with the authors to the extent they predict young people will have a lower standard of living because of supporting a large elderly population. That’s based on the stereotype that older folks don’t buy much (thus dragging down a consumer economy), don’t produce much, lack creative thought, and generally can’t do much of anything.

Although it’s a fact that many present-day seniors live on a small budget and don’t buy much, either for fear of running out of money or simply because of long-standing habits of frugality, I wouldn’t assume it has to be that way forever. Rather, I expect it to change along with everything else. Many retirees couldn’t save much during their working years because wages were flat for decades. Those who could invest weren’t getting much of a return on their money. Middle-aged workers were likely to get laid off because of automation and offshoring, which forced them to spend what meager savings they had. With jobs being scarce, employers were picky, and finding a new job after a layoff wasn’t easy.

Now we’re starting to see the first glimmerings of what a world with persistent labor shortages will look like. Because young workers are in short supply, companies are having to rely more on middle-aged employees. Many of those employees, however, feel like they’ve had enough of the rat race after years of being taken for granted and getting tiny pay raises and minimal perks. They’ve noticed that the stock market is way up—which is not surprising, given the obvious fact that the money saved by being so stingy with the workers has been going to the shareholders. People who have stock funds in their retirement accounts are now realizing that they can afford to retire sooner than anticipated.

Companies are frantically automating whatever they can, but they’re discovering that robots are not staying ahead of retirements. Robots do, however, save costs, allowing companies to earn reasonable profits even if they are understaffed. Those profits go to shareholders, the stock market climbs higher, and then more workers can afford to retire and live happily ever after on their stock earnings, even if they’re not yet old enough to draw Social Security payments. We’re in a loop that just keeps feeding on itself.

Of course, it’s possible that a major economic calamity might put an end to the party; but if COVID-19 couldn’t do it, then what would? Stocks may not rise as quickly for the next few years because companies will be forced to give meaningful pay raises to retain their long-term employees. The financial markets will still be in good shape, though, because ongoing automation will keep corporate profits up. Employees with bad memories of having been treated like beasts of burden will keep on retiring in large numbers—and because of low birthrates, every year there will be fewer new workers to replace them.

I expect that by 2030 or thereabouts, we’re going to see an economy the likes of which has never existed. Chronically short-staffed companies will be doing all they can to persuade retirees to come back to work. That’s going to be a hard sell because most retirees won’t need the money, so employers will need to find creative ways to make the work more pleasant. Meanwhile, higher salaries will enable young people to be choosy about their jobs. I predict that in the not-so-distant future, most people will work because they enjoy what they are doing, not because they are desperate to pay the bills. The world will become calmer and more peaceful as we leave behind all that stress—and I expect we’ll buy plenty of new, fun, mostly robot-made consumer goods, both for ourselves and for the small number of grandchildren we may have.

May 18, 2019 · 2 comments · Categories: Musings · Tags: ,

One of the suggestions that financial advisors often make, for purposes of motivating people to save for retirement, is to imagine how an older self would view today’s decisions. That is to say, at 80 or 90 years old, will we feel confident about our finances and believe that we planned well in our younger years?

I haven’t actually done anything that resembles conventional retirement planning because I look at saving in more general terms, as being about future flexibility to make choices. Trying to construct a detailed list of everything that I might need or want, many years from now, doesn’t strike me as useful in such a fast-moving world. The future could—and likely will—turn out to be very different from whatever we envision now.

It’s a pretty safe bet, though, that having more money will improve just about any potential scenario set in this century. Even if the future turns out to be a sci-fi utopia in which robots cater to our every whim for free, it’s going to be a long time before we get there. That being so, I decided to go ahead and try the older self exercise, given the fact that I already have an imaginary 119-year-old self—known as Fannie on this blog—with whom I’ve had several creative conversations.

At first I thought about picturing Fannie at a bank, to be consistent with the topic; but she had her own ideas about that. I found her taking a leisurely walk along a well-kept path in a public park. It was a cool spring morning, and she wore jeans and a light sweater. New leaves and lush grass made everything around us look beautifully green and refreshing.

Path surrounded by greenery in a park.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

A black poodle trotted next to Fannie, with impeccable grooming and a remarkably even gait. It had no leash. A closer look revealed that there was no need for a leash because the poodle was, in fact, a robot. Fannie turned toward me and smiled, opening her hands as if to embrace the surrounding landscape.

“Seriously, a brick-and-mortar bank? I can’t remember when I last saw one of those. Decades ago, I’m sure. Don’t you think this is more pleasant? I was transferring funds with my phone just now, before you arrived.”

I took a breath of the fresh air, which was fragrant with spring blooms, and had to agree that managing bank accounts while taking a stroll in the park certainly was more pleasant than doing it the old-fashioned way.

“So, would you say that the money I saved was enough for you to be comfortable?” I asked.

“That question has both a simple and a complicated answer, as with most things.” Fannie grinned. “By now, you’ve had enough conversations with me that you probably already figured I was going to say something like that.”

A bird trilled cheerfully from somewhere in a nearby tree, as if to share in a little good-hearted amusement.

“The simple answer is yes, I live comfortably, and in part that’s because of your discipline in saving, which I do appreciate. As you know, I have a self-navigating flying car; they’re pricey even in 2083. And of course Maxie here,” and Fannie reached down to pat the dog, “wasn’t cheap, were you, sweetie?”

The robot dog gave a very realistic happy-sounding yip and wagged its tail.

“But the more complicated answer,” Fannie went on, “is that the culture of your time had tremendous uncertainty about the future, and nobody had a clue how to deal with it. Although people had started living much longer, they hadn’t yet created new stories to shape their expectations. So they tried to plan for everything imaginable, which of course stressed them out. Let me turn this conversation around for just a moment, if I may, and give you a question instead: Do you feel totally responsible for my comfort?”

“Well, yes, or at least mostly. Sort of. What I mean, I guess, is that I wouldn’t want to mess things up and leave a future me stuck in a bad situation. You know, this question is a lot harder than it seemed at first.” I made a frustrated gesture, which caused a squirrel in the grass nearby—though evidently unafraid of the robot dog—to hop back a few steps.

“That’s why I asked it,” Fannie calmly informed me. “Now, what would you say to past versions of yourself who felt afraid of making bad decisions about raising children, for instance, or finding the right job?”

“I’d tell them not to worry because the kids and the job turned out just fine.”

There was a comfortable-looking bench to our left, and Fannie took a few steps off the path and sat in it. She gave me a smile. “Sit down and take a load off your feet, both here and in real life. Just relax—you know it’s going to turn out fine, right? You’ve got this.”

Maxie, now sitting next to the bench, yipped again as if in emphasis. I sat down next to Fannie as the scene began to fade; and then, just a moment later, I found myself back in my own time.

About two years have gone by since I rewrote my money story by sending my inner Cinderella away to start a new and happier life in the imaginary village of Channelwood. I’d say that the project was a success because I feel more confident about my finances now. Although my husband and I still have the same jobs with ordinary pay raises, we feel more comfortable talking about money. Expenses seem easier to manage, and in general, we have things better sorted.

Another area of my life that could benefit from revising outdated stories is health. I’ve thought so for a while, but my internal narratives are so jumbled and conflicting that it hasn’t been easy to get a handle on where to start. Objectively, I am in good health: I eat a reasonably good diet, get regular exercise, and have no serious medical issues. For the past few years, though, I’ve felt that my health is not what it ought to be. Annoying, persistent little aches crop up every now and again, for no apparent reason, in various places where I’ve had no injuries of which I know.

Many people would say that after age 50 aches and pains are normal, and I should just get used to that. But I suspect that some of it has to do with cultural expectations of decline—that to some extent they become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the body subconsciously adjusts its physical condition to match whatever image the mind perceives.

What was I to do, then, in rewriting my health story? The logical starting point was no different than with the money story—that is, identifying the archetypes that shaped the narrative and deciding how best to plot a new trajectory. There didn’t seem to be any single character who represented my health story when I thought about it, however.

One major positive influence on my view of aging has been a family history of longevity. My maternal grandfather, who was an active, ambitious world traveler, appeared to be in perfect health until he died suddenly at age 90 of a heart attack. If anyone had asked me then how I felt about getting older, I would have said that I expected good health and a long life. That archetype includes Star Trek’s Vulcans, who often lived for centuries and greeted each other with “Live long and prosper,” and the almost-immortal elves from Lord of the Rings, with their patriarch Elrond relating tales of long-ago battles: “I was there, Gandalf, three thousand years ago…”

Obviously that wasn’t my whole health story, though, or anything close to it. Our culture has such deeply ingrained expectations of failing health that it has become nearly impossible to think outside that box. Although I couldn’t specifically identify any older characters with aches and pains who might have taken up residence in my subconscious mind, the general old-woman archetypes have been around for millennia: the poor old lady hobbling around with a cane who depends on charity; the cackling village witch who stirs her cauldron with gnarled hands; and the Crone, who imparts wisdom to younger generations while sitting most of the day to rest her weary bones.

I decided to sit down and have some imaginary French Vanilla coffee and blueberry scones with the Crone in a sunny breakfast nook. The reason I chose coffee was because my judgmental younger self, who disliked the taste and never drank it, thought that if you needed coffee to wake you up, that meant you were old. I didn’t start drinking coffee until the long road trips to my daughter’s college soccer matches gave me more appreciation of its benefits.

Sunny breakfast nook with brightly colored cushions on a bench.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

While I brought the coffee and scones to the table, the Crone settled herself into the brightly colored cushions. She looked sort of like me, but with deep wrinkles and thinning hair that had gone mostly gray. On the table in front of her sat a big untidy handbag like my grandma carried.

She was not one of my older selves, to be clear on that point. Every once in a while, an older self shows up in a dream or while I’m half asleep and gives me a few words of advice, but I’ve never gotten a clear view of what a future me looks like. To be precise about it, the Crone, as I saw her, represented a present-day guess as to what my younger selves might have thought I’d be like when I got older.

“I don’t mean to bother you,” I said, as she picked up her coffee cup, “but I’ve been trying to get a few things sorted in my own mind, and I’d be grateful if you can help. May I ask you to share your thoughts on what people often call the aches and pains of old age?”

“That’s not something we ever talked about in our family,” the Crone calmly noted, highlighting yet another inconsistency in my internal narratives. It was true—when I was growing up, I never heard an older person say that in real life. Although I’d seen plenty of written descriptions of old folks who complained at great length about their many ailments, how much of that was reality and how much was stereotype? And to the extent that some of it was reality, that still left the question of how much was culturally determined.

Sunlight streamed in through the broad window as birds twittered riotously in the shrubs. Branches waved in a gentle breeze. I ate one of the blueberry scones, which were fresh-baked and still hot, while I worked on untangling my thoughts.

“Whether or not something is part of a family story,” I said, talking as much to myself as to my companion, “that doesn’t necessarily mean it is real for people in general, or even for those in the same family. There’s so much that goes into our perceptions of reality—what we hear from family and friends, what we learn from teachers and others in authority, our own experiences, and the cultural stories that create a framework to hold it all together.”

The Crone quietly sipped her coffee, nodding as if to encourage me to go on, but not speaking.

“What I’m looking for is not so much to understand how people decide what weight to give each of these factors,” I continued. “That gets into psychology, and cultural anthropology, and the social sciences in general, all of which have their own particular research studies and metrics. Rather, what I have in mind is just to explore where I might have gotten some of my own ideas about health, and how they can be changed in the realm of imagination.”

“Ah,” the Crone exclaimed, now looking quite pleased indeed, “you want me to tell you a story!”

I thought about it for a moment before I realized that this was exactly what I was asking. “Yes, please.”

After I brought her another cup of coffee, the Crone arranged herself more comfortably in the seat cushions and began, “Once upon a time…”

(continued here)

When I wrote last winter on the topic of sorting out my subconscious narratives about money, I imagined packing off my inner Cinderella to start a new and happier life in the abandoned village of Channelwood from the computer game Myst. After she sailed off into the sunset, I thought that maybe I would feel more comfortable with spending money.

It didn’t quite work out that way, though. This winter, I still felt that my subconscious money stories weren’t what I needed to feel confident about my finances. What was I missing? Then it occurred to me that I hadn’t crafted a new story to replace Cinderella. Just sending her away was not enough; I needed to fill the space with something better, or else those old anxieties would creep back into their familiar haunts.

So I decided to go visit Cinderella and see how she was settling into her new home. I’d promised to bring her some playmates anyway, whenever I found similar characters wandering around in my mind. The journey began with a leisurely carriage ride through the foggy streets of nineteenth-century London, accompanied by young Sara Crewe from the children’s classic “A Little Princess” by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

Sara was a well-mannered and thoughtful child, with dark hair and big green eyes, who had been left with nothing but her pride and her imagination upon being orphaned. All at once, she went from being the most pampered pupil at an exclusive private school to a bleak existence as a half-starved drudge living in the school’s attic with the rats. She never complained, but got through her days by pretending that she was a princess in a fairy tale and that there would be a magical happy ending (which of course there was, since this is an old-fashioned children’s story).

The author’s main point was that with enough imagination, anything is possible. When I read the book as a child, though, it also gave me the message that life is precarious. No matter how good everything seems to be at the moment, it all could vanish tomorrow. Fate is fickle, and even if the story may eventually have a happy ending, there’s no way of knowing how far in the future it could be.

Sun setting in orange clouds over the ocean.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Once aboard the ship, Sara gazed quietly out over the waves with a little smile, as if remembering happy travels in her past. We arrived at Channelwood just as the sun was about to set in a gorgeous orange sky. A small figure ran to greet us at the dock, with rosy cheeks, bright eyes, and strands of golden hair escaping from a simple bonnet.

“You’re looking very well indeed, Ella,” I greeted her. “The sea air and the peace and quiet certainly do agree with you! Here’s a young friend I brought to keep you company.”

After making our introductions, we walked up a neatly swept wooden path to the wicker tree houses of the village, set high in the branches above a bayou. Waves lapped gently at the thick trunks. Flower boxes at intervals along the path were bright spots of color in the fading sunlight. A breeze carried the inviting scent of ripe peaches from a well-tended orchard on higher ground not far ahead, where a windmill spun briskly.

“I’m used to keeping things tidy,” said Ella in a matter-of-fact tone, when I complimented her industrious work. “Really, it’s not that hard. There are oysters in the bay, and sometimes they have pearls, which I can trade for cloth and whatever else I need. The ship comes by often enough that I haven’t felt too alone. It will be lovely to have Sara here, though!”

We both turned toward Sara, who had tilted her head to one side and was gazing up into the branches. She declared cheerfully, “These houses are so tiny, I think they were built by a tribe of monkey people. I can imagine them leaping along the walkways between the trees and swinging from the branches, can’t you?”

Ella’s momentary look of bafflement made plain she hadn’t imagined anything of the sort, but she gave Sara a good-natured smile anyway. “If there once were monkey people, they’re not here now. We have the village all to ourselves, and with two of us, we can fix it up twice as nice!”

The girls chatted enthusiastically by the flickering light of peach-scented candles, over a simple dinner of baked fish and vegetables, about all the things they could do with an entire village to themselves. Then we all slept comfortably, up in the trees, on wicker beds heaped high with down-filled cushions. (In real life, I took a break from writing this post to eat pizza for dinner when I wasn’t sure how the ending would go, and after a while I went to sleep in my usual bed.)

When I woke up much refreshed (in both this story and real life), I noticed a positive shift in my mental energy, which can best be described as an “it’s not that hard” feeling. At first I wondered where it had come from, and then I realized it was the change I had intended to set in motion with this story! After I left Ella’s description of her new life to sleep on last night, it soon found a place in my subconscious where I wanted it. Pearls and orchards—a world of abundance for the picking!

I thanked Ella for her hospitality, said my fond good-byes to both her and Sara, and returned to the ship to sail back into reality—which, as all good readers know, is always intertwined with the realm of imagination.

When my family was living in our starter house in 1998, our old washing machine broke. We decided to give the dryer to charity and buy a new matched set. I stepped outside to the driveway on a warm spring day while I waited for the truck that would collect the old dryer.

The house across the street was a mirror image of ours. They’d both been up for sale at the same time, and we picked the one that had an updated master bathroom (which meant there was a cabinet under the sink, rather than just the original bare sink). The neighborhood in general didn’t have much variety; it was mostly small bi-level homes, and the plat had been only half finished when the developer abandoned it, leaving weedy vacant lots and crumbling curbs just a few streets over.

The truck arrived, and the driver loaded the dryer into it. He was middle-aged and looked tired, like every day was a hard day at work for him. When I mentioned that we’d just had a new washer and dryer set delivered, he nodded as if that was what he expected; and then he said, “So you’re rich.”

“No, I’m not,” I said in astonishment, looking around at the cheap cookie-cutter houses and thinking about the rust-bucket Chevy Cavalier that my husband had driven to work until a few months ago, when he started getting overtime work regularly enough to feel comfortable buying another car.

“You’re giving away a dryer that still works,” the guy observed. “That’s what people do when they’re rich. So you’re rich.”

He drove off, and I went back inside to start a load of laundry in the dusty, unfinished utility area of the home’s lower level, which was all the space we had for the new washer and dryer set. “Rich,” I said out loud, almost laughing as I shook my head, looking at the cheap little water heater just a few steps away, under the harsh light of a bare bulb.

The washer and dryer gave us good service, both at that house and after we moved into our current home. By the spring of 2014 our kids were through college, and we bought the fancy front-loading set we’d been jonesing for. We thought at first that our daughter might ask for the old set, so we put it in a corner of the basement, where it looked quite forlorn with a carpet remnant tossed over it.

Old washer and dryer, unplugged in a basement corner. 

After a while we realized the old set was nothing but clutter, and we called the thrift store last fall to schedule a donation pickup. My husband put each piece on an appliance dolly and trundled them up the stairs and out to the garage.

A truck with two young guys showed up early in the day. When they saw that the washer and dryer already had been put in the garage, rather than being left in the basement for them to carry up the stairs, one guy turned to the other and said with a big smile, “This is a great start to the day!”

“Yeah,” agreed Dude #2, “it doesn’t get much better!”

They quickly put the washer and dryer in the truck and drove away, grinning like they’d won the lottery. I stood there watching them go, as I thought about how little it really takes to be rich.

I read a few blog articles last year about the subconscious emotional stories we tell ourselves regarding money, which can affect our choices and finances in the present even though they generally come from long-ago childhood experiences. That made sense to me; but when I first thought about it, I couldn’t identify any such stories that might have gotten stuck in my head.

My finances seemed okay—both my husband and I had fairly good jobs, which we had been able to keep through the recession, and a nice house. The only issue was that we had spent a lot on our kids’ tuition, room and board, etc., while they were away at college, and before that we had sent them to Catholic schools. As a result, there never had seemed to be quite enough money left over for me to feel comfortable spending it on clothes or other fun shopping for myself.

So I asked myself, what kind of story from my childhood would fit that pattern? The houses where I lived as a child were all good places, with plenty of space for me to run around and play. My parents were divorced in the ’70s, and after that I lived with my mother and stepfather. I often wore hand-me-down clothes from a cousin when I was little, without thinking much about it at the time.

The internal narratives that we rely on to make sense of the world are drawn in large part from archetypes—that is, familiar characters representing various aspects of the culture. When I thought about what character might have taken up residence in my head, Cinderella came to mind. Although Cinderella lives in a nice house, she is a stepchild who doesn’t have much that she can call her own, and the money always gets spent on other family members.

Girl dressed as Cinderella in old-fashioned clothing with a pumpkin.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

Whether or not there had been any reasonable basis for such feelings when I was a child, they certainly didn’t need to be part of my life now, especially after my kids had graduated from college. So I decided to have a little chat with my inner Cinderella and explain a few things to her.

I found her playing with a rag doll family she had made to console herself for being left at home, with the village hag as the babysitter, while her stepsisters enjoyed a lavish trip to France. Sitting down on the rug in front of the fireplace with her, I said, “You know what, Cinderella, it’s time for you to grow up and find a place of your own.”

Dropping the dolls, she stared at me fearfully, no doubt imagining herself cast out to be eaten by the hungry wolves of the forest. After all, she wasn’t the Disney Princess version of the character, but instead came out of the old-fashioned books of fairy tales that I had read before modern revisions took out the gruesome and violent stuff.

“Don’t worry, I’ve found a good place for you to live,” I quickly reassured the poor frightened girl. “There is an abandoned village called Channelwood on an island that’s no longer inhabited. It has lots of pretty houses built high in the treetops, safe from wild animals; and you can gather fruit and vegetables from the village’s old overgrown gardens, catch fish and dig clams. All yours, with nobody around to take it from you or bully you, and a lovely ocean view to give you more perspective on the world. I’ll even send you off with a suitcase full of brand-new clothes for the trip. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

She gave me a hesitant half-smile. “But how…”

“Oh, it’s easy to get there!” I told her cheerfully. “I’ve already made arrangements with the captain of a cargo ship that sails past the island regularly. I know him well—he often carries away my shipments of emotional baggage and my consignments of mental clutter. You’ll be in good hands. And there’s no need to worry about getting lonely; I’ll send you a few nice playmates after a while, as soon as I discover where they have been playing hide-and-seek in my psyche.”

The fire crackled loudly, sending up bright sparks. Cinderella stood up, straightened her ankle-length skirts, and began putting on her big wooden shoes. She still looked just a bit worried as she asked, “Please, may I bring my pet mouse?”

“Yes, of course you may. I wouldn’t dream of leaving him behind.”

An investment advisor that offers its services through my employer’s tax-deferred savings plan tried to drum up more business recently by sending employees a retirement evaluation. Mine had a cutesy red-light graphic and criticized my investment choices as too aggressive for someone my age. Having more stocks rather than bonds apparently means that I can’t be confident of turning into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight upon reaching the magic age, or something of that sort.

Pumpkin with carved face and skeptical expression.

(Creative Commons image via flickr)

At the risk of branding myself a modern-day heretic, I’ve never had any desire to create either a bucket list or a retirement activities list because no matter what I might put on such a list, I can’t see myself staying interested in it forever. I contribute regularly to the investment plan because it’s always good to have savings, no matter what I might decide to do with them, and because the company match is free money. But I never could make sense of the cultural expectations that every responsible adult should work like a beast of burden for several decades, with the goal of never working again, and that everybody’s life should be fully planned out.

Of course, some folks are indeed happily retired and enjoying the activities on their list. If that’s you, well then—more power to you! But all too often, people retire just because they were told it’s what everyone should want, and then they have no idea what to do with themselves. Maybe they thought they’d enjoy something, but then it ends up not being as much fun as they imagined. It’s a sad fact that depression and suicide rates spike among the newly retired. Shifting gears all of a sudden and leaving behind a busy career can result in feeling lost and adrift, with no meaningful purpose or identity.

Instead of making conventional plans for retirement, Millennials tend to prefer the “financial freedom” approach of keeping their expenses low while they’re young, so that they can build up hefty savings and change jobs or start businesses whenever they feel like it. Buying a house is not the major accomplishment that it was for past generations, but is an expensive burden to be avoided. This works great for people who enjoy frequent travel and the challenge of becoming acclimated to new environments, as well as for minimalists who are not emotionally attached to their stuff.

I would describe myself as somewhere in the middle. I like the comfort and stability of owning a house and keeping a job for a longer period, but I also value new experiences and flexibility. I wouldn’t want a lifestyle of constant travel, but it might be fun to live and work in another country for a year or two. At some point I’ll want to build a new house (I sketched out a floor plan for fun last month). With so many career possibilities in the modern world, it seems likely I’ll develop other work-related interests.

So, what’s my best approach to finances? Never doing any work again is not my goal, and I can reasonably expect to be around for another half-century because of a family history of longevity, so all those computer models based on actuarial tables are not much use to me. Freedom to pursue any interests I may develop is a much more appealing prospect, but how can I put a number value on choices I haven’t yet made?

I suppose finances are like anything else—moderation and incremental changes generally tend to work best, while making course corrections as the need arises.