January 7, 2013

Back To The Future

Still one of my favorite movies, Back to the Future, gave us a fun way to escape the mid 1980's and watch Marty McFly travel back to 1955 and almost mess up his own future and his very existence.

Recently I re-watched the movie and thought how much today's satisfying retirement could be described as going back in time to save our future. Most of us agree that retirement today is very little like it was for our parents and grandparents. The concept of retiring did not exist until the Industrial Revolution and didn't become possible for many until Social Security was implemented in 1937.

For the period after World War II until the mid 1990's, retirement usually meant a decent company pension and medical coverage until death. It meant a safe and secure time after 30 or more years of working for one or two companies.

As we all know things this scenario began to show some cracks during the huge dom.com bust of 1997-2001. Many companies failed. Retirement plans were put in jeopardy. But, that upheaval was nothing like the 2007-2009 meltdown. The underpinning of millions of retirement accounts, pensions, and real estate holdings were wiped out. Massive financial failures brought us as close to another Great Depression as we have ever been.

Where does all this leave us in 2013? Do we have to go back to re-discover our future? Unlike Doc Brown and Marty we can't adjust a flux capacitor to change what happened to us. But, I can certainly look at how my family lived almost half a century ago (wow, is that possible?) and see if there is anything that translates well to 2013.

A few memories spring to mind:

...Stuff can't replace relationships and the gift of time. My parents always made time for each boy and the family. Dad was always home for dinner and we ate together at least 5 nights a week. As I have noted in earlier posts dad was unemployed for various stretches of time during my youth. But, that never affected our family time.

We were not a family of shoppers. Mom did like to buy clothes, but overall we had a home uncluttered with things. When one of us boys wanted something there was almost always a waiting period. That taught us the importance of delayed gratification. 

The biggest gift our family received from each other was that of time and attention. Mom and dad were never too busy for us, as a family and as individuals. Sadly, that doesn't seem to be the case in many families today.

...Waste not, want not. For most of their married life, my parents each held a job, raised three sons, and did it with just one car. We had a television set for over twenty years that was rather small, a little green in its color mix, and kind of tinny. Leftovers at least twice a week were normal. Clothes were replaced when we outgrew them or something become too worn to wear. Hand-me-downs were standard operating procedure.

We were a frugal family, sometimes by necessity, often by choice. The thought of throwing away food bought at the supermarket a week or two earlier just never happened. The idea of buying new clothes just because we could never entered our minds. Dad's 20 year old telephone answering machine just broke last week. His first response was to get it fixed, not replace it. 

The reality is most of us have all we need to be happy and satisfied. Making do, re-purposing something, and using an item up before disposing of it makes as much sense today as it did in my family's home in 1959.

...The less clutter the less stress. Our home was rather minimal in its decorations and furnishings. We had the normal sofa, easy chairs, coffee table, dining room set and so on, but nothing "extra." Generally if something was in the house it had a function. A console stereo set remained in the living room for at least 15 years after it quit working. It became a plant stand. I remember a rolling portable dishwasher that had to be hooked up to the kitchen faucet and plugged into a wall outlet to work. Well after built-in dishwashers were considered normal kitchen equipment we used this rolling monster because it still worked.

Mom was not fanatical about house cleaning so things stayed dusty for periods of time. Of course, this was well before men were expected or even encouraged to do "women's work" around the house so things were often less than spotless. Dad would have been glad to help out, but I'm pretty sure mom insisted that was her domain. This reality meant the fewer belongings the less cleaning to be performed. The fewer possessions the less stress to repair, replace, or upgrade.

In at least one instance going back would not be wise.  So, one trap I would avoid if I could go back to the future:

...Follow the crowd and lose yourself.  This time of American life was all about conformity. Television networks started showing the same entertainment to millions. Commercials told all of us what to buy to be happy and successful. We dressed the same and drove the same cars. Sexism, racism, and a very strong uneasiness around people who might be different were a part of daily life. Those problems continue today but at least aren't buried and shushed up like they were 50 years ago.

No one who wants a satisfying retirement today wants it to look like everyone else's. We realize retirement is an adventure we just can't wait to start. We aren't stopping anything, just moving to other passions and interests. Don't follow the crowd and find yourself is much more like it. Following the crowd and blending in one part of the 1950's that none of us miss.

Sometimes it is good to remember our past. There were approaches and concepts that worked well then and still make sense. In other instances, the past should remain "past."  Isn't the key to be able to tell the difference?


  1. Sounds like your parents ran a family a lot like mine ... heavily influenced by the Depression. I agree, a lot of those virtues could serve us well today, as we face a faltering economy and an overtaxed environment. Also ... love your last line!

    1. History has this annoying habit of repeating itself. Those who do well attempt to learn from the past but to not dwell there. Those who struggle either ignore the lessons history wants to teach us or insist that nothing good happened after (fill in the blank).

      Much of the Depression mindset would help us, both personally and as a country, as we struggle with a sour economy and a deficit that threatens to bankrupt us as a country.

  2. I've never been one to dwell in the past. There's nothing I would want to re-visit. I am definitely onboard with de-cluttering. That's my goal for this month, to clean out, donate, throw out...whatever it takes to find clarity.
    I agree with you it's good sometimes to remember our past. For me it helps as I realize how lucky I am.

    1. Except for my "wild" days as a rock DJ, I have no interest in going back either. Can I take some things I experienced as a child and use them today? Absolutely. But, retirement has proven to be so great I have no interest in living in my past.

  3. I am convinced of the truth in the saying "The more things change the more they remain the same." I likewise refuse to hang on to the past - remember "Spare the rod, spoil the child?" My childhood was far less rosy than yours was Bob. And I know both of my parents' childhoods were filled with physical abuse received from their parents. All occurring quietly in the midst of "the greatest generation."

    There is no such thing as the good old days if you really go looking beneath the surface. Some of us we're fortunate while growing and some of us were not. I would offer that is as true today in 2013 as it was in 550, 1550, 1750 and 1950.

    I happen to love my current life even as others are proclaiming this to be the end of the USA. How to account for the difference in attitude? Perhaps it's as simple as that - the difference in attitude.

    1. The "good old days" were filled with illness and serious diseases, abuse, racism, sexism....all sorts of things that we have slowly grown out of as a people (though certainly nowhere near eradicated).

      I like to take what worked well for folks in the past and can be part of my lifestyle today, blended with all the benefits of technological and social advancements.

      As a person I have grown more in the 11 years of retirement than in several decades of my life before then. I love where I am right now but am always looking for ways to improve my experiences and my impact on others.

  4. Your family was far richer in material things than mine, but they were the same in that my parents never let us feel neglected. Our lives are not richer, but so much more comfortable than my parents' lives were that I have no interest in turning back the clock. I like to think we should learn from the best of the part and keep moving forward.

    1. My mom really held things together when dad lost his job a few times and lost his entire retirement savings at one point after investing in a business that failed in less than a year. But, we were comfortable and didn't feel like we lacked for anything. My brothers thought everyone wore hand-me-downs!

  5. I'm thinking about the rolling dishwasher. I could probably attach the thing to our faucet right now!

    I suspect we're all more aware of happenings in the world now than back then because of the constant media presence. I've been disconnected for about five days (very, very bad wifi) and I have no idea what's going on. It is all happening without me. I kind of like it.

    1. I am sure that big monster rolling dishwasher hasn't been made for years. But, I have seen small ones that are designed for an apartment. It sits on the counter and uses the same type of hose hookup to the kitchen faucet.

      Yes, we were in a pretty safe bubble of unawareness. Three TV networks and newspapers meant a lot of the world's ugliness stayed hidden. No more.

      No computer for 5 days...and you are still functioning? I'm not sure I could do that anymore. Welcome to the sunshine. It's very cool but at least there is no rain!

  6. Steve in Los AngelesWed Jan 09, 01:22:00 AM MST

    Bob - Our family rarely changed furniture or appliances. Furthermore, my parents owned the house where I spent the overwhelming majority of my growing-up years for almost thirty years. My parents had the same bed and two dressers with a separate mirror for one of the dressers during those years. We had the same living room sofa, two chairs, corner table with a large lamp, and circular table (with lamp) with book cases filled mostly with "Readers Digest Condensed Books". I myself kept my parents' dressers, the corner table, circular table with the books, and both lamps. I will keep these items as long as I am around. I also have the console piano that my parents bought in 1957, when I was a very young toddler, originally for my two sisters, who were getting piano lessons. I also received piano lessons (at my request), starting in the latter 1960's through the early 1970's from the same wonderful piano teacher (who was a magnificent lady) who gave piano lessons to my sisters. Thanks to this wonderful lady, my love for the instrument, and my love for music, I will continue to play my piano, even if I live past age 100.

    Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression. My parents were my best teachers about life. In each of their unique ways, they prepared my sisters and me for adulthood. Although my retirement has been and definitely will be different from their retirements, their influence on me has been tremendous.

    By the way, the five of us did eat as a family usually at least five nights a week (Sunday through Thursday). I usually was the last one to finish dinner (and I usually ended up washing my dinner dishes, which was a good thing as I now am an expert on washing dishes!!!!!) After dinner, my parents watched television and I could watch television once I finished all of my school homework. At 8:30 PM, after I finished bathing, I went into the kitchen to prepare a three-scoop circular dish of ice cream (either vanilla often with chocolate fudge, neapolitan, coffee, or chocolate chip ice cream) and would join my Mom in the den to watch television. At 9:00 PM, I had to go to bed (although when there was a good program on television, I sometimes would go into my parents' bedroom where my Dad usually was sound asleep and I would lie on the floor and watch the program usually until 10:00 PM).

    Those years generally were wonderful and amazing.


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