October 31, 2019

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 (again!) 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 not at all 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 the 1930's.

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 know 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.

Now, an economy that has been growing for almost a decade is starting to show some wear and tear. a recession isn't expected by most economists, but those are the same folks who missed the warning signs in 2007, so.....

Where does all this leave us in 2019? 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 over a half century ago (wow, is that possible?) and see if there is anything that translates well to 2019.

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. Once we were given a regular allowance, our own saving became part of the process. 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 too 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 sat on the desk until it finally quit recording on that little tape cassette. 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 60 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 is 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. Great post on a topic dear to my heart. I live in Switzerland, the richest country in the world. Yet, the Swiss are wise. They could afford to waste and waste, yet as a society they highly value their renewable sources of energy, their best-of-class public transportation system where you can to ANYWHERE, even to the most remote mountain village, in a bus. The country just had federal elections and move significantly towards electing women and women of the green and socialist parties. The Swiss are not suffering the way Americans are from our environmental degradation, eg California and elsewhere, yet they acknowledge climate change and are taking massive steps on a personal and societal level to combat it. All households are encouraged to sign up for only 'local and green energy' for their personal use...it's more expensive but many people sign up for that. I personally try to do my part of taking public transportation most of the time, or walking (which the infrastructure here is perfectly built to encourage, by the way); in our building of 6 apts, there is ONE washing machine and dryer for us all to share, so people are not washing/drying every day and I personally almost never use the dryer but air dry my laundry, even sheets and towels, etc. Never leave lights on when not in a room; keep the house quite cool and wear sweaters and layers to keep warm in the house. Minimize purchase of new clothes and shoes...only when needed, even if I could afford it. I also hate clutter and dusting worthless things, so I could really relate to your mother. We're all in this together. People in the US must march and campaign for a change in leadership to those who will be good stewards of our common earth...the sooner the better!

    1. Thanks, Lynn, for a fascinating look into the choices made by the Swiss. The citizens and their leaders understand what is required to protect the environment and still prosper. Oh, and the country is drop-dead beautiful.

      Frankly, seeing all the protests and marches from other countries around the globe, I am disappointed that Americans have not become more visible in protests against the things that threaten our way of life.

      I was part of the 1960s-70s war protests, including a march on Washington. Things today are even worse in many ways, but I don't sense any public outrage. Too many people are just too comfortable or believe "they" will fix things.

  2. Great perspective. I was just thinking this morning, when we downsized I knew I would be less interested in making home repairs, or buying new stuff for the house or myself. Now, two years later, I'm amazed that I'm even LESS interested than I thought I'd be. We went to a discount mall a couple of weekends ago. I wandered around, telling myself, I have to buy something. But I couldn't find one thing I needed or wanted, that wouldn't just clutter up the house and cause more trouble. Uh oh. I'm an American. If I'm tired of shopping, am I tired of life?

    1. No, Tom, just more aware of the costs of consumption. My kids tell me the coffee table in our living room is badly out-date and screams 1980 because of its rounded corners. I shrug and note that a) it still performs its function, b) it isn't broken, and c) what's wrong with the 80s? So far, my rounded-corner coffee table sits proudly in the living room.

  3. The past---for our generation, at least---taught us many valuable lessons as you've pointed out. But we do all tend to put on our rose-colored glasses looking back, don't we.

    As for your question about knowing what part of the past should stay in the past and which concepts should endure, you're right that's key. My mom told of a time when the mothers in our neighborhood reported a woman who had all the young boys coming to her house for their first sexual experiences and the police told them it was up to them to keep their boys at home and there was nothing they could do about it. Along with the fun stuff we remember from the past there were other things like child, spousal and workplace abuse that was swept under the carpet that are now exposed. Good changes in many areas of life were hard fought but are part of the accomplishments of the generations that came after we were in our formative years. I often wonder if our Baby Boomer persona of all Happy Days, all the time adds to the resentment coming from the Millenniums.

    1. Sometimes when a society is undergoing changes the pendulum swings too far in a different direction. That over-correction is scary and unsettling to some who struggle to hold onto the past. But, it is almost a necessity to make a clean break and show the choices available in stark clarity.

      At least in America, the 1950s and early 60s put a premium on conformity, but at the cost of human rights and respect. I am glad we are shaking things up even though it is uncomfortable at times, as it should be.

      I hope most of us have zero interest in returning to the days of Ozzie & Harriet or Leave it to Beaver.

  4. My family did not have health insurance until the 1960's- actually it was accident insurance. I know mom paid $5 a year for each of us at school. Our doctor was paid when we went or we were put on a plan. I do remember seeing the doctor occasionally- certainly not yearly. Vaccines were newer and given en mass. I just paid my first (of many) doctor bills (with insurance) for my shattered elbow. I am just grateful my cap is $3,000 because we have already hit $20,000 without an over night stay. My husband and I speculated what my arm would be like if I had done this 70 years ago....
    Saving a quarter of a million dollars for the last five years of life is so new. When old people got sick, they were allowed to pass. Most of my elder family members passed away at their homes. Which is better for us and the earth?

    We also grew up knowing not to waste, because there was always someone who needed what we might throw out. We bought as local as possible- including the arts. Everyone needs to eat. Unplug, turn off, close the door were all a part of our lives-- our children and grands live the same way.
    Now travel---that is my biggest exploitation of the world. I have given some serious thought to it and have to admit---it is a very wasteful luxury. AGGGG!

    1. Travel is wasteful on a basic level, and it can cause serious problems if let to grow without any controls. But, travel can also be enriching and expanding. If it can be afforded, I wouldn't beat yourself up over travel. it can be one of the nicest parts of retirement.

      Yes, medical care was very different in earlier days. Remember house calls? Remember not needing a referral? Remembering a doctor who treated your whole family and stayed in practice for 40 years?

  5. Boy, Bob. Along with another excellent post of yours, it's nice to see so many of us who share the same attitudes. Maybe we ARE too comfy in the US in spite of all the negative media reporting and "the sky is falling" rhetoric. Too many have it too cushy. At 71, reading today's article helps me be more thankful and have gratitude for my union pension, our lifetime union health plan (wife and me), my Social Security benefits and Medicare. And we can afford to keep living in Burbank, CA if we choose.
    The good health we enjoy is also a blessing so thanks to you all for sharing your thoughts.

    1. Thanks, Bruce. Hopefully the never-ending wildfires will stay away from Burbank. By the way, the Burbank airport used to be my favorite when I came to L.A. for business. Small, easy to navigate...very unlike LAX!

      Having a solid pension and health plan are disappearing benefits for retirees. Be very thankful you and your wife have a solid foundation like that.

      I do believe many of us have become too comfortable. Overall, especially compared to most of the world, our lives are blessed. I remind myself that this is not because I am special, rather it was just an accident of birth. I must live with a sense of gratitude and a desire to help others when I can to pay back for my good fortune.

  6. We were raised in relative poverty, but had no idea at the time, of course. In our very rural small town setting, my mom loved music. So she joined the Columbia Record Club (no idea how they afforded it - it must have been a priority) and we grew up listening to Broadway sound tracks, Classical music, and Viennese waltzes. In retrospect, it seems out of place, but all six of us played the piano (her rule - one year of lessons minimum) and instruments in the school band.

    We only got new clothes when we outgrew smaller sizes, and that was usually spring for warmer weather and fall for school and cooler weather. Once I was 12, I was expected to earn money to buy my clothes, and we made an annual trip to a larger "city" to buy them. It was a huge deal and I still remember some of my trendy choices. The closest city was Duluth, MN, and we all loved Target, which was really in its infancy. My mom once locked eyes with Jessica Lange across the table at a show sale at The Glass Block (the local dept store).

    At this point, I'm just profoundly grateful for my upbringing and this stage of my life.

    1. I remember the Columbia Record Club. I think albums were really inexpensive (like a penny) but the shipping and handling cost was high enough the company made a profit. As a family we did that for awhile, too. Like you, we were raised with lots of show tunes..my parents favorites.

      My grandkids are being brought up with mainly hand-me-downs, from child to child. Josh, now that he is a teenager, gets new clothes, but nothing outrageous or remotely trendy!

    2. Now that you mention it, I think when you joined you could get 12 albums for a penny, but then they came every month until you cancelled. Good memories!

  7. I've often thought that the "good ol' days" were not good for everyone. You had to fit in and be part of the crowd to be accepted. Then maybe it was good. And of course if you were "other" according to any category, then you were definitely not going to be included. For me, I'm happy to leave the past in the past. My sister observed once that I never look back. I think that's because I always think where I am now is better than where I was.

    1. I don't mind looking back if it helps me see a way forward with a problem. But, like you, I have no interest in living there. Mostly what I see are years I squandered, or put my family in second place behind my career. Those days are best left in the dust. Hopefully, I have moved forward.