My husband, Jose Lopez, has had a career few can match — eight years in the White House press corps, photographing Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He’s flown on Air Force One and been in the Oval Office.
He covered the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping in an unheated shipping container, unable to shower for six weeks, his Christmas “dinner” a packet of chicken soup.
He traveled to Rekjavik to cover a summit with Gorbachev.
For a decade, he also chose and mentored young photographers through The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, creating a new generation of talent — some of whom now work at the Times.
He covered two Olympics and five Superbowls and then worked for 15 years as a photo editor in sports, Foreign/National, real estate, business and — lastly — as photo editor of the NYT Now app, working with men and women half his age.
He leaves the newsroom today — 31 years after arriving from his first few newspaper jobs in Texas and Colorado, a cocky young guy with a thick head of hair.
It was a very difficult decision for him to leave — he loves his work and his colleagues — and one we did not make lightly; great journalism jobs within great organizations have become unicorns.
But this buyout offer was munificent, and he still has excellent skills and boatloads of energy he’s bringing to his job search.
It was an emotional afternoon and evening as staff and freelance photographers, editors and reporters lined up to hug him fiercely and to wish him well. I was so touched, although not at all surprised — having written freelance for the paper for decades and knowing many of these people as well — to see how well-loved and deeply respected he is.
There were staffers barely out of college and retirees who came back to the newsroom — and a nearby bar after work — to congratulate him.
Jose blends the unusual and terrific mix of tough-as-nails under pressure and diplomatic, gentle manners. (Very Timesian!)
More essential to a job search in 2015 — he combines the gravitas and deep wisdom of a career news photojournalist with the most up-to-date digital skills he used selecting images for the NYTNow app.
If you want to scare the shit out of almost any American — those who don’t have a defined-benefit pension guaranteed to them — which knocks out most workers, ask them how much money they have saved for their retirement.
The median figure, among those aged 55 to 64, (i.e. an age group, traditionally, potentially planning/hoping to retire within a decade or less), is a mere $63,100.
The median among all Americans is a staggeringly low $10,890, (minus the value of a home and/or vehicle.)
My math works like this — if, when (if) you graduate from college at 22 and start working immediately, you begin saving $5.09 every day, some $36.00 every week, or $144 every month, every year without a break — and with no accrued or compound interest from investing that money — you’d end up with the $63,100 median figure.
Surely we can do better?
For some people, right now, saving $5.09 every day, all seven days of every week, is impossible. Their living costs cannot be trimmed in any way, and/or their wages are too low.
Many fresh graduates, and older workers, are unable to find paid work in this economy. They are stalled, frustrated, broke, angry. Some carry enormous debt burdens of homes underwater or student loans they cannot discharge through bankruptcy. Some people are very ill, or have very ill family members for whom they must add the cost of care and the time it takes — i.e. unpaid labor — to do this as well.
But…for the rest of you, snap that wallet shut!
The culture that most Americans live in is one that continues to glorify and fetishize spending lots of cash, (or credit, mostly), acquiring tons of shit that’s new and shiny and cooler than everyone else’s — whether an Ipad or Ipod, phone, car, house, vacation, clothing, whatever. You can blow easily thousands of dollars on a freaking baby stroller, if that somehow seems essential to you.
Television and social media and the internet bring very rich peoples’ lives into our own. We can press our greasy little noses against the impenetrable glass wall of their luxuries and whine: “Why not me?”
You can go broke even trying to keep up.
I’ve been lucky. I grew up in Canada, a nation that still chooses — with much higher rates of taxation — to heavily subsidize college education. My annual tuition, from 1975 to 1979, (yes, really) was $660 a year. I was able to put myself through university and graduate debt-free.
I’ve also been able, since my second year of university, to sell my writing, photography, editing and translating skills to others — and had the developed skills, delivered on or before deadline every time, to make them want more of my work.
I’ve been fortunate, since the age of 22, to be able to share housing on four occasions, which helped cut my living costs in two expensive places — suburban New York and Toronto.
I’ve been grateful for good health, so I have never lost months or years to debilitating illness(es) and treatments that would have prevented me from working.
But that’s one side of the ledger — the getting side.
I’m also cheap as hell, when necessary, and it was necessary for years on end, especially when single paying $500 a month for health insurance, and facing three recessions in my industry.
I’ve chosen to stay in a one-bedroom apartment for 25 years. Would I prefer a second or third bedroom or bathroom? A backyard and fireplace and verandah? Hell, yes. But did I want to assume a much larger mortgage payment and longer repayment term? No. Nor the stress of fearing potential homelessness. Ever.
I’ve been saving 15 to 25 percent of my income every single year for years.
Our ironing board recently broke. I paid $4.30 at our local thrift shop for another one. Score!
When my income bottomed out to a terrifying degree in 2007 to 2009, I took a part-time retail job ($11/hour no commission) and bought my clothes and shoes from consignment shops.
Until my ex-husband moved in, I had no television. Until my second husband moved in — when I was in my early 40s — I did not have cable or a cellphone ($200/month saved right there.) I drove a used, paid-for car, as we still do.
A friend of mine runs her own company, an investment fund, literally managing millions of other people’s money. She drives a Mini Cooper, not a Mercedes or Lexus or Range Rover, the vehicle people expect.
“That’s how I got a million dollars,” she says, with a knowing smile.
We plan to be mortgage-free by 65. We have no children. We will have multiple income streams, one of which is our savings. Adding to them is a non-negotiable part of our life, as automatic, necessary (and boring!) as brushing our teeth.
I think there’s a comforting fantasy that being “successful” = easy.
As in, life suddenly smooths out into something calm, cool, stress-free.
Awesome! Sign me the hell up!
While in Tucson, I’ve gotten to know some of the Institute students, as well as some of the Times and Boston Globe staffers here working with them. In a long and personal conversation with one local student, a 21-year-old man who is already well-launched in journalism, he wondered why I still struggle.
Aren’t I successful?
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see “success” as a specific and final destination, and if it is, I wonder if that’s really the best way to look at it.
He asked me to define success. (No pressure!) My answer was very different from what it would have been in my 20s (career!), 30s (marriage!), 40s (finding a new partner/husband). As readers of this blog well know, I tend to be driven, ambitious and obsessive.
But success for me today looks quite different. It’s the hard-earned blend of a healthy retirement fund, a lovely second husband, good friends, health, a nice home and — oh, yeah — work! That order surprised me even as I wrote it, but the sub-conscious is a powerful little thing, isn’t it?
Maybe it’s being Canadian or being a Baby Boomer or having lived in five countries or being a journalist whose industry is “in disruption” — (fucking total chaos is more like it!) But I never expect life to be easy.
I wish it were easier, certainly. Struggle is wearying and distracting. Struggle without any visible, measurable progress is deeply dispiriting.
But just because something is difficult — your friendships, marriage, school, work, workouts — doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.
It doesn’t mean you’re not succeeding.
I suspect that most of us rarely publicly admit to struggle; it’s not sexy or slick and it can make us appear ill-prepared or incompetent or dis-organized.
I call bullshit.
Life is sometime just really damn hard. The more we’re willing to be, (optimistically, resourcefully), candid about this with one another, the easier it gets, because then people with wisdom can help (some of them) and our struggle diminishes.
Not everyone is kind or compassionate, of course. But the people who sneer at the notion of struggle, glibly insisting that their path to glory has been 100 percent smooth, are usually lying — or their path is short, flat and well-paved, if not well-funded by others.
One of the editors here said something to me at breakfast I found helpful and comforting. When I told her how many of us in this industry, certainly those over 40, are scrambling to “reinvent” ourselves, she suggested that this struggle, and it really is a struggle, is something attractive, not repellent.
Not if you’re about to lose your home and plunge into destitution, but having to figure stuff out, no matter if you’re 21 or 71, keeps us alive and attentive and connected and paying attention.
I generally enjoy the challenges of my work and life. I’m easily bored. I like to grow and acquire new skills. I like to test myself and see how many new things I can cram into my head.
As soon as I can easily clear one bar — (the high jump kind, not the alcoholic kind!) — I usually raise it by finding something new and tough to learn and potentially get better at. A life spent coasting, happily resting on one’s laurels, is just not very appealing to me.
(This might be something that runs in my family; my Dad turns 84 in a few weeks and plans to go sky-diving to celebrate.)
How about you?
Does struggle invigorate or annoy you?
NOTE: I leave today — computer-free! — for five days travel and into the Grand Canyon. So if your comments go unanswered until Friday, please don’t despair.
Jose may post a pre-written few things in my absence, or offer a guest blog of his own.
Saving money is my single greatest challenge. (That, and earning a lot more — like trying to double my income this year in a dying industry. No pressure!)
Today’s New York Timespaints a grim picture of how tough it is to save money now, especially for younger people:
A new study from the Urban Institute finds that Ms. Brady and her peers up to roughly age 40 have accrued less wealth than their parents did at the same age, even as the average wealth of Americans has doubled over the last quarter-century.
Because wealth compounds over long periods of time — a dollar saved 10 years ago is worth much more than a dollar saved today — young adults probably face less secure futures for decades down the road, and even shakier retirements.
“In this country, the expectation is that every generation does better than the previous generation,” said Caroline Ratcliffe, an author of the study. “This is no longer the case. This generation might have less.” The authors said the situation facing young Americans might be unprecedented.
A broad range of economic factors has conspired to suppress wealth-building for younger American workers; the trend predates the Great Recession. Younger Americans are facing stagnant pay — the median income, when adjusted for inflation, has declined since its 1999 peak — as well as a housing collapse and soaring student loan debt.
I grew up in a family with good taste and the money to indulge it — cashmere and trips to Mexico or France, a nice house, decent used cars, good food. My maternal grandmother inherited an insane amount of money and ran through it as fast as she possibly could, blowing it on jewels and furs and gorgeously-decorated apartments and a limousine service with a thin driver named Raymond.
It’s weird to grow up around a lot of money and develop tastes for luxury — and then choose a field, journalism, that has rarely paid me enough to satisfy them.
Saving money is so boooooooooring!
And so utterly necessary.
But I save 15-25 percent of my income every year, as does my husband. It means a lot of self-denial and self-discipline, certainly if your income is barely meeting your basic expenses, even pared to the bone.
I’d so much rather go to Paris and buy lots of pretty clothes and see Broadway shows and go away for romantic weekends. But to save the dough we need to retire — which we very much intend to do — demands it. Working freelance also means having no idea, most of the time, what my annual income will be. Not even next month’s.
So it means being aware at all times of what I’m earning, spending, saving and carrying in debt, (and at what rates of interest.) It’s only in the past three or four years — and I’m in my 50s — that saving diligently has finally felt worth it, as my retirement fund is now six figures.
It feels good! (Cue James Brown…)
It’s terrifying to plan so far ahead, to hope we’ll live that long, and healthily, to wonder if all this daily self-denial is even worth it. I get why people don’t.
Saving a ton is certainly easier if you also earn the maximum you possibly can. That might mean working two or three jobs for a while.
Many women, though, remain deeply uncomfortable asking for more money, whether in a salary negotiation or freelance gig. No one is going to hand it to us!
One of my favorite books — every woman who works must read it— is “Women Don’t Ask”, which examines the many reasons women continue to receive lower pay than men for the same work. Mostly because we’re too damn scared to ask for more! (Men do, almost every single time.)
The more I make, the more I can save. (And occasionally splurge.) That motivates me every single time to ask for more work and the highest possible rates for it.
I had dinner recently with my friend G, a fellow writer. As we settled into a local restaurant for dinner — the music way too loud for comfortable conversation — we both kept saying “That music is too loud!”
Getting older is a bitch, kids.
What we really were talking about was how to handle the indignities and annoyances of aging.
We’re not that old, but we’re past 40, and things do start to look a lot different by then; friends have died far too young, parents are starting to become frail or ill and the endless mountain ranges of ambition we always planned to keep scaling are starting to just look exhausting.
“I’m going to be such a bitch when I’m older,” she said calmly. Me, too.
Because you’re running out of time, energy, strength and the endless determination to bounce back — from illness, divorce, a crappy betrayal, a crummy job.
Because, for better and worse, you simply have less stamina, physically and emotionally, for bullshit. If someone is petty or cruel or stupid or deceptive, in the old days I would have fake-smiled and sucked it up. Today? You’re gone!
You don’t have to kiss as many butts as in your gogogogogogogogogo 20s and 30s, when you’re desperate to get into the right college/grad school/jobs/marriage.
What’s going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren’t wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
By the time you’re in your 40s and beyond, you’ve done much of that, often several times (see: jobs, marriages.)
And we’re learning (resentfully!) that our energy has limits — even as she and I admitted to sitting at our computers for 10 hours a day when we write a major story.
I still, (thank God), can read without needing glasses. I still head off to jazz dance class and kick as high as some of the praying-mantis-thin chicks in their 30s. I plan to be back on the softball field this summer, after a three-year absence due to injury, surgery and recovery.
I’m also finally happy to see that my retirement savings — mine alone, even as a freelancer in a recession — have hit a number that actually makes all those years of scrimping feel worthwhile.I’d so much rather be in Paris/wear Manolos/drive a new car, but that growing number is deeply comforting.
My role model is a woman on our floor, soon to turn 98. She recently fell, off the toilet, cutting her cheek and shoulder so badly she needed stitches. Her live-in nurse, who I see often, said, in awe: “She’s so strong!”
That’s what you need as you age. Strength: of character, of mind, body and spirit. A network of solid, loving friends. As much cash in the bank, and/or income, as you can possibly scrimp, scrape and save — start now, young ‘uns!
Aging also means less patience for whining or negativity. If you’re healthy, solvent and alive you’re way ahead of a lot of others starting their days with an IV in their arm or wondering when to finish making out their will or wincing in pain with every step.
By the time you’ve done a few decades, you start to feel like a grateful survivor, because you are.
The other night, for fun, I decided to Google a former beau, one of the most fun people I ever knew, a journalist-turned lawyer who fought hard for the rights of workers who’d been screwed over by their employers. Instead, to my shock, I found his obituary — dead of cancer at 57. It feels unimaginable.
Now here’s a seriously depressing idea, working into your 80s.
A recent New York Times op-ed argues this is not only likely necessary for millions of Americans but — seriously? –– a terrific new development:
Retirement seems out of the question for increasing numbers of Americans who are saddled with debt and whose savings evaporated during the recent bust. Today’s workers should expect to labor longer, and companies should expect to employ more older workers.
The numbers supply a vivid picture of America’s graying work force. Between 2007 and 2010, the number of working Americans over 65 years old jumped 16 percent; the number of under-65’s in the labor force shrank. The trend started before the current downturn: the number of Americans over 65 in the labor force increased from 10.8 percent in 1985 to 12.1 percent in 1995 to 15.1 percent in 2005 to 17.4 percent in 2010. Until 2001, most workers age 65 and older had part-time jobs; since 2001, full-time work has been far more common….
Nearly 40 percent of 55- to 64-year-old Americans don’t have retirement accounts. Less than a quarter of this group owns a single stock or savings bond. The median net worth of 55- to 64-year-old Americans has declined during the last years and is now $254,000 (including housing), down from $273,000 just three years ago. American households saved less than 4 percent of their incomes for every year between 1999 and 2008; during this time, thrifty Germans were saving about one-tenth of their earnings. A nation that prefers spending to saving is going to find it difficult to enjoy a comfortable retirement.
Call me lazy, unmotivated, un-American. The thought of working into my 80s — instead of (I hope) being able to wind this thing down in the next decade or so, in my mid 60s — is appalling. I’ve been working for pay since I was 14 and started life-guarding.
Here’s a wild notion: Live low(er). Save more. Focus your goals not on the next set of paychecks, but when and how to extricate yourself from the hamster wheel of working for pay.
Unlike some other nations, for whom the endless drama of “work-life balance” is less difficult to achieve (paid maternity leave for months, for example), Americans are heavily socialized and rewarded (no paid sick leave, short vacations) for working all the time.
Those who seriously value other non-work -related activities — quiet time alone, traveling, volunteer work, spending time with our loved ones or pets, learning or perfecting new skills for the pure pleasure of it — are derided as bohemians or, worse, hippies. Time spent un-tethered to commercial production is considered deeply suspicious.
Don’t you want to workworkworkworkworkwork?!
Don’t you want to keep buying more/bigger/faster/newer stuff?
Jose and I are fortunate, still working steadily in fields we enjoy, to be earning enough for our needs. We save and invest and keep a careful eye on those funds. We have retirement savings, (40 percent of people in our age group have none), and are also lucky enough to likely (just) to be able to collect Social Security payments and a company pension.
Nor do we have children, grandchildren or parents whose financial needs compete with ours, as so many people do.
But I disagree that:
1) paid work is the best use of our very limited time on this earth;
2) saving money is too hard.
I’ve had years, plural and sequential, in which all I was able to do was pay my bills and do almost nothing else, hanging onto my home (which I own) with a white-knuckled death grip. I know it’s terrifying to not have a lot of (or any) spare cash. I’ve dipped into my IRAs more than once.
But I have IRAs because I deliberately save money every year, usually 10-25% of my income. Anything less makes me feel ill. Nothing is worth not having savings accumulating. Nothing I could own, see, do, listen to, eat, hear, wear or otherwise consume, is worth that to me.
In lean years, I buy little, and it’s from consignment shops or only on sale. I use and wear items that are 10, 15 even 20 years old, well-cared for, that don’t look it. Our one car is 11 years old. We have every form of insurance possible to protect what we’ve worked hard to accumulate.
It’s a choice.
Do you want to keep working that long?
Will you have to?
What compromises are you willing, or able, to make to avoid this?
It might be the worst taboo of all — old age. Not middle age, the final decade(s.)
I moved into an apartment building at 30 where everyone — who knew? — was 20 to 30 years older than I. It’s a nice spot, atop a hill, with no steps or stairs anywhere, perfect for people with mobility issues, (aka canes, walkers, even crutches.)
Since I developed early and bad arthritis in my left hip, I get it!
What I like most are the 80-year-olds here who are so stylish, funny and well-dressed. Marie, on my floor, has bouffant hair, great clothes and a booming laugh you can hear down the hallway. Even heading out to a doctor’s appointment, she looks terrific.
When she told me her age, I laughed — I figured her 20 years younger. This has happened so many times in the elevator when I’ve spoken to white-haired women, (and it’s usually the women who are rocking it out) and found them fun, funny, engaging.
My Dad is 81, blessed with tremendous energy and health, and recently started making a documentary, his former career, working with scientists he introduced himself to. His partner is 74, slim, lovely, smart and has lived a life filled with adventure.
There are days I fear old age and there are days I look at the men and women I know who’ve blasted past the worst marker — 65 (if you make it that far, you’re good for a while, stats show) — and are still, healthy and solvent, enjoying the hell out of their lives.
They have surgery, they take meds, some walk slowly. But they’re in it.
I don’t look to the anorexic 15 year-olds in Vogue for inspiration, not that I ever did.