Golden Years Optional
Why a generation of freelancers and entrepreneurs is unlikely to end up with the condo in Florida (and why that’s totally fine)
Whenever people start talking about bucket lists, I joke that the one thing that I will definitely accomplish before I die is living past 100. If I keep saying it, maybe my body and subconscious will follow suit.
But recently it hit me: even though I’ve been planning on living more than 100 years, I haven’t exactly been planning how I’ll pay for it. In 2080, will I be able to afford whatever emission-free hover-chair is being sold to convey my futuristic-but-aging body between doctor’s appointments and spa trips (to say nothing of all those VR games my grandchildren will no doubt be begging for)?
Single, self-employed freelancers like myself don’t really have the luxury to think about retirement. We don’t have pensions or 401(k)s. If we’re lucky, when tax time rolls around, we’ll maybe have a few hundred dollars to pay an accountant and shove a couple bucks into a savings account or an IRA.
I’m not alone, of course. If you’re under 40 and reading this, chances are, an article (or six) has yelled at you about how screwed your generation is when it comes to your future. Millennials are saving at a negative rate, have less than $1,000 in their savings accounts (on average), don’t earn much income to begin with and have student loans approaching $30,000 (on average). Even when new statistics seem to contradict this grim outlook, there’s always a catch that keeps the forecast gloomy. Combine that with the rising rate of contingent and contract work over full-time employment, and it’s hard to shake the feeling we should be freaking out.
But now that I have been thinking about it, it’s starting to seem like all that worry might be misplaced. “The concept of ‘traditional’ retirement is changing,” assures Anu Chatterjee, an economist and fellow at the Milken Institute, where she researches the economics of aging. “As people live longer, there will be a growing need and want to [stay] economically and socially active. Yes, many can’t financially afford to retire at 65, but there is also a growing group that wants to be productive as long as they can.”
Indeed, the idea that my friends and I might pack up and move down to a deluxe retirement community in Florida at age 65 sounds extremely unlikely. That dream was sold to earlier generations of workers who often worked one job their whole career, a condo on the beach being their light at the end of a long, often unfulfilling tunnel. Millennials, on the other hand, have prioritized meaningful work above all, turning hobbies into careers and creating their own jobs when they couldn’t find them. Which means, maybe we won’t want to stop working altogether. And while previous generations might have done so out of physical necessity, maybe our bodies won’t need to.
“Technology will make working from home easier, so aging populations won’t have to drive to work and cities will be more prepared for age-specific needs than they are now,” says Chatterjee. She describes this shift as an evolution toward an “age-neutral” workplace. Communities, she explains, are opting to invest in more accessible options in sectors like education, healthcare and housing; the idea is to neutralize age and disabilities as a factor in one’s ability to continue working and participating in public life. “By the time millennials reach ‘traditional retirement’ age, much of this age-specific infrastructure will be available,” Chatterjee adds.
It’s hard to plan around technology that isn’t invented yet, however, which is why CPA Christine Haviaris gives her clients advice that’s more grounded in their bank accounts. “My mantra is, ‘How much you save is the one single variable you can control,’” says Haviaris, a member of the XY Planning Network, for financial planners specializing in Gen X and Y clients. “Boomers were allowed to believe that their future security rested primarily on someone else’s shoulders for much longer than was in their best interest. If anything, I want to build more flexibility [for millennial clients] by encouraging even more saving and investing [than Boomers did].”
One easy way to envision your future as a senior millennial is to not think of it as retirement at all; just call it what it is, which is saving to ensure you won’t be totally screwed when that inevitable unexpected payment pops up — even if the bill comes next month rather than in 40 years. And there are many ways to do that, even if they’re not exactly traditional. Consider the “fuck off fund.” Initially popularized in feminist circles as a rainy day fund for workplace discrimination or harassment, the concept is simple and works just as well for “retirement”: the more money you can scrape from each paycheck into your fuck-off fund, the less crap you’ll be forced to tolerate just because you need the paycheck.
“The best thing you can do for yourself is have cash, period,” says Sophia Bera, a financial planner whose clients are almost exclusively millennials. “You could call it retirement saving, but I like to think of it as ‘saving for the future.’ A lot of my clients don’t even know what their jobs will look like five years from now, but my happiest and least stressed clients have options.” Options because they save as much as possible, but also because they’re more committed to their business of one—themselves—than to any one company.
“I truly believe entrepreneurialism is the new job security for our generation,” adds Bera. “To me, that’s really exciting.” This generation’s flexibility, adaptability and expectation for the economy to keep sucking are what makes us more likely to survive without retirement. (Retirement, after all, is just a fancy word that means “financial independence,” which many of us are already learning through self-employment and contract work.) The bright side is, our biggest problems — in particular, the unpredictable nature of our jobs and incomes — now will also be our greatest strengths when we, too, ascend to the Society of Olds.
So, sure, consult a retirement calculator. Follow its advice as best you can, when you can, but remember: we’ve never had what our parents’ generation has anyway, so if we want to make it past 100, we’re going to have to stay flexible no matter what.