In a challenging new essay for Eudaimonia & Co., Umair Haque names 5 social pathologies of collapse. And I think they can kickstart a conversation around our culture’s greatest needs. This is my reflection of the third pathology: nomadic retirees
When I was little, my grandparents moved to Arizona. They left Detroit, where there sons lived. Leaving them, their extended family, and nearly their entire adult life together behind.
Annual visits faded with age until they couldn’t come home anymore. The desert retirement community in the delusionally-named Green Valley would become the scene of a permanent separation—and division passed down to their sons.
Both of my grandfathers came home from World War II to a country which didn’t just claim to support them. We backed it up with healthcare and education and meaningful work. Promises kept, not only to veterans, but to all parts of society.
Time and indifference have eroded those promises.
While my grandfathers had education paid for, their children didn’t. The life-time careers with early retirement spent living on good pensions and personal investments they could afford to make during their careers retired with that generation.
Still, my parents could pay for school while working. Something far beyond the means of the high-loan college education of their children. And they are lucky enough to be in a position to have a good pension.
But things are so different for their peers.
Pensions were traded for 401(k)s. Even its early proponents admit this was a mistake. Early retirement is disappearing and more septuagenarians are working menial labor than ever.
My grandparents moved away to retire. Many of today’s seniors are moving just to survive.
Nomadic Retirees aren’t pursuing a dream
“Well, consider another example: the “nomadic retirees”. They live in their cars. They go from place to place, season after season, chasing whatever low-wage work they can find — spring, an Amazon warehouse, Christmas, Wal-Mart.
“Now, you might say — “well, poor people have always chased seasonal work!” But that is not really the point: absolute powerlessness and complete indignity is. In no other country I can see do retirees who should have been able to save up enough to live on now living in their cars in order to find work just to go on eating before they die — not even in desperately poor ones, where at least families live together, share resources, and care for one another. “
The levels of chronic homelessness, those living on the cusp of losing their supported housing to medical bills, or those who worked 50 years without any means of saving for retirement are well beyond the norm for every other wealthy country.
But this pathology, this particular expression of dysfunction is weird. That people, these nomadic retirees would travel to survive in “the land of opportunity” is a new and genuinely troubling phenomenon. And it isn’t an example of pursuing a dream, but warding off a nightmare.
“This is another pathology of collapse that is unique to America — utter powerlessness to live with dignity. Numbers don’t capture it — but comparisons paint a bleak picture.”
It’s almost as if we can’t recognize that this actually is a problem. We can’t see that it isn’t a bug in the system. This is the system now.
The image of the nomadic retiree is so abstract and unknown, we might not believe it. Like so many other things, it is so easy to dismiss or explain it away. But we do so without taking it seriously.
Or for the signal it offers us.
That people can’t afford to retire. And we just went through a generation, like my grandparents, who pioneered retirement. With pensions and savings, they could leave the workforce and live full lives. Much longer lives than any other generation. Some living longer in retirement than in the workforce!
But this is no longer the norm. People can no longer afford to save. And these nomadic retirees are a visual example of a huge flaw in the entire American lifestyle: that not all people have a chance to live a full and productive life.
As it is often said by Europeans, “Americans live to work, and we work to live.” In other words, people in other countries see work as providing opportunity to have a decent and dignified life. While we’re stuck working our butts off and that doesn’t even guarantee that same decent and dignified life.
“How did America’s elderly end up cheated of dignity? After all, even desperately poor countries have “informal social support systems” — otherwise known as families and communities. But in America, there is the catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Extreme capitalism has blown apart American society so totally that people cannot even care for one another as much as they do in places like Pakistan and Nigeria. Social bonds, relationships themselves, have become unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries: this is yet another social pathology unique to American collapse.”
These are two parts of one common pathology: people experience a lack of dignity in life and declining social connection.
We’ve all read the think pieces about social cohesion and division. Most of them pretend like its a new thing or something created by social media.
Facebook didn’t get us in this mess. Nor is it making things worse. Facebook is just the symptom of a pathology growing all on its own.
Our anti-social economy
This is a pathology born of an anti-social economic ideology and its desire to punish the poor for their poverty. It isn’t based in reality. Or a sense of decency. It champions indecency and indifference to the plight of our neighbors.
The non-retired retired: nomadic retirees and septuagenarians working jobs we derisively cast for teenagers: this is the side effect of indifference and indignity. The intentional withholding of support for our neighbors, the American Dream, or Christian values.
As we embark on remaking our society into a meritocracy of frustrated dreams and spoiled humanity, we won’t see “good” or “worthy” people rise in a zero-sum game. Because all of it is fashioned upon a lie.
Instead we’ll see good people sleeping in their cars and septuagenarians asking if we want a drink with our own dollar menu burgers and fries.
And if we’re lucky, maybe we can whore ourselves for a reality show to get our big break.