How did Tom Coomer of Wagoner, Oklahoma, end up working as a Walmart greeter at the age of 80? “If I had planned harder when I was younger and if things had went better, I wouldn’t be going to work this morning,” he told CBS News.
The network profiled Coomer as “one of the nearly 10 million Americans over 65 who are still working.” The number is so big because now people “are reaching retirement age in worse financial shape than their parents.”
Coomer described this as his own failing—“I blame myself” was the headline quote—but that just raises the question of how 10 million other people all made the same sort of mistake, and why more of them made that mistake than their parents did.
The answer is that Coomer did in fact plan for his retirement. He chose to work for McDonnell Douglas, a large and prosperous corporation, which offered a pension to its employees. “Pensions,” for those of us under 50, were a job benefit in which, in exchange for workers spending their healthy and productive years at a particular company, that company would continue paying them money after they retired. (“Retirement” was when people were deemed to have done enough work in their lives, and were permitted to spend their last decade or decades doing other things.)
The particular deal Coomer had with McDonnell Douglas required him to spend 30 years with the company. After he’d been working at the company’s Tulsa factory for 29 years, he told CBS, an announcement came over the loudspeaker telling the workers that the plant was being shut down, leaving him unemployed and one year short of the full pension.
Thanks to generations of institutional theft and mismanagement, pensions are mostly discussed today as unreasonable burdens that employers are stuck with, out-of-control expenses that can’t be sustained under current fiscal conditions. It’s money going out the door to people who aren’t even working.
But those people already paid for their pensions. When companies offer benefits to attract employees, they are asking them to work for less cash up front, in exchange for some other monetary benefit: you take a smaller paycheck, and in exchange you get a health plan that makes your costs more predictable. Or you take a smaller paycheck now, and your employer pays you more later on, when you’re not getting any new paychecks.
Coomer’s generation has no money in its old age because companies (and governments) figured out they could break those deals and get away with it. Would Coomer have spent those 29 years at McDonnell Douglas, rather than somewhere else, if he’d known the company would deny him the chance to get year number 30? It’s not as if there were some way he could go back and change his mind. The company had already used up his prime working years for him.
So now he’s at Walmart, on the job at 80, thinking he did something wrong. Meanwhile, people are sharing around a Washington Post business trend piece about those ever-troublesome millennials, and how they (and others) are “ghosting” on their employers:
Applicants blow off interviews. New hires turn into no-shows. Workers leave one evening and never return.
How did America end up full of people who refuse to make any real commitment to their bosses?