Rushing to work one morning last week, I listened to Mihir Desai talk about his new book The Wisdom of Finance: Discovering Humanity in the World of Risk and Reward. The topic is bankruptcy; the lesson: Life is chaos, and our task is to navigate through the it. He kicked off the interview with an anecdote about American Airline’s 2011 bankruptcy filing (when the stock fell 79%):
The first CEO said for a long time he’ll never go bankrupt, because it was his duty to make sure every obligation gets paid off. Of course, he gets dragged into bankruptcy at the very end, they switch the CEO. The second CEO comes in, restructures all the obligations, guts the pensions. But American Airlines goes on to live another day. So the idea there is, you know, who’s the hero of that story? Is it the guy who said, “I have to stand by all my obligations,” but took the company down? Or the guy who said, “I actually got to manage these conflicting obligations”?
Employees, or many of them, kept their jobs, and shareholders came out way ahead. Maybe the lady wasn’t as advertised, but she was a better option than the tiger. So it goes with the ways we manage not just our working lives, but our personal ones as well.
Conflicting obligations come at you from all directions
Unexpected interruptions — kids, divorce, illness, death — not to mention layoffs, separations and unplanned early retirement intrude. Financial hardship complicates things.
Living longer + Putting yourself last = Poverty
Women are particularly vulnerable to the call of obligations. We tend to put others’ needs before our own, although perhaps this trend will shift as we evolve and more men take on caregiving responsibilities. But as it stands now, Kerry Hanson’s “Money Worries” column is a wake-up call:
Women were 80 percent more likely than men to be impoverished at age 65 or older while women age 75 to 79 were three times more likely to fall below the poverty level than men the same age.
When I turned around after taking time off to care for my parents, I fully expected to step back into a job comparable to the one I’d left. But someone had moved that career ladder. It’s taken years, and a few unplanned twists and turns to accept where I am professionally. I realize now that if I’d been less focused on doing everything perfectly and more on my future, I’d be in a better position financially.
Health care expanses: A ticking time bomb
Changes to health care policy pose a real threat to anyone over the age of 65 who does not have robust retirement savings. Today 60 percent of the elderly in nursing homes are on Medicaid. Many have spent their savings on assisted living and residential care. Getting old is expensive. According to Hanson, a healthy 65-year old woman retiring in 2016 will pay $300,000 on Medicare premiums and out-of-pocket costs for hearing dental and vision care by the time she reaches 89. That, of course, is in addition to living and personal care expanses.
Stay in touch with your possibilities
Do what you need to do to keep a firm footing on that career ladder. But don’t get rattled if something knocks you off. Expand your thinking and your network.
Desai’s interview closed with a tip of the hat to Martha Nussbaum’s “The Fragility of Goodness” and the example set by the ancient Greeks:
Fundamentally, this is about undercutting the idea that you have to follow duty. Most Greek tragedies are about people who have these conflicting obligations, and it’s a mess, and you have to navigate them. And she says that’s a good life. If you don’t have conflicting obligations, you’re doing something wrong.
So, it is as it’s always been. Keep working. Do your best; take smart risks and most of all, take care of yourself.
* Cartoon is courtesy of Harry Bliss and The New Yorker, March 18, 2016.