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The Monday holidays inevitably throw me into a frenzy the week before because--for reasons that are too arcane and silly for you to worry about--the early deadlines they necessitate play havoc with my routine. The week before a Monday holiday I basically have to write twice as much as a normal week, so as to enjoy a day off.

And because I don't write on Labor Day, I don't get to stuff away a throw-down Labor Day column to use every other year. That's all right; I've never been a union member, so carrying on about Joe Hill, Cesar Chavez and Samuel Gompers might feel a little odd anyway.

While all us wage earners benefited from the labor movement, I never wanted to join a guild that would keep me from pursuing endeavors I wanted to pursue. I have never been a clock watcher, preferring to selfishly allow myself to be exploited.

When it came right down to it, I wanted the byline and the forum more than less work and (potentially) more money. I am a bad comrade.

Maybe it's coincidental that around this time every year I get an email from the Social Security Administration suggesting I log onto its website to check my statement and estimated benefits.

These notices are disconcerting. They're like seeing your name and birth year in print next to a dash holding a blank and inchoate space. Like someone is just waiting to type close-paragraph-period on you. Still, I try to be a good citizen and do what's asked, though I have a pretty good idea of what it's going to say.

Reading my statement is going to encourage me to keep working until achieving full retirement age (66 years and eight months now) and beyond.

But more interesting is my earnings record, which stretches back nearly 50 years or so to a year when I earned (or at least reported to the Internal Revenue Service) $289. I made about 10 times that amount the next year, and nearly doubled it the next year.

Had I maintained that pace for a few more years I would have been launched into what Paul Fussell called, in his invaluable book "Class: A Guide from the American Status System," the "Top Out-of-Sight class."

But a graph of my early earning years would not swoop smoothly upward; instead it would look as a particularly skittish Chihuahua's electrocardiogram might--it would skip and skitter before stabilizing about 40 years ago.

From that point it climbs slowly, though not without stutters, most of which resulted from choices I do not regret--there's a precipitous drop at the end of the 1980s that corresponds with a tour of duty in alternative journalism.

In recent years there's mild stagnation that corresponds with the prevailing economic weather. But I can also identify years when freelance opportunities and side hustles provided little spikes here and there.

While I would not suggest that my career path has been typical--there are few writers who don't at some point have to hold other jobs to support their habit--the general shape of my earnings curve might be unremarkable for a college-educated American of my age.

Throughout my working life the economy has seemed volatile, but has not yet collapsed, and it has been possible for prudent people to achieve a measure of security.

Still, it's wise to have backup plans in place. Having never felt completely secure in any position I've ever held, I used to have a chauffeur's license and looked into being certified as a golf pro. I might be qualified to work in a liquor store.

Though inflation has undermined our gains (it is sobering to think that when I started working in earnest, a $20,000 annual salary was equivalent to about $90,000 today), most of us were lucky enough that we were always able to support ourselves on the paychecks provided us.

While the stock market is not the economy, it has been a source of comfort for a lot of 401(k) holders. Barring another economic catastrophe--which, depending on your sources, may or may not be likely--most of my generation might make it to the finish line with a degree of self-determined dignity.

I don't know about my friends' children and grandchildren. They ought not have any expectation that their incomes will increase from year to year, or that they will be able to count on one employer to keep them occupied for a decade or more. Even the best and brightest of them will face challenges we didn't have to face.

Our world has changed in a lot of ways. I was born in an era when a working person had a reasonable expectation of finding gainful employment, buying a house and raising a family on a single income based on a 40-hour work week.

That was over by the time I came of age, and the world young adults enter today is meaner yet. They have to be smarter than we are, more vigilant and alert. They have to look out for themselves; they will not be afforded the luxury of ignoring technological advances in their field or shuttering themselves off from the world beyond our borders. They cannot put their heads down, do their jobs, and trust that they will be appreciated.

Human beings are increasingly being seen as replaceable components as opposed to unique assets. Global corporations are faceless entities driven by pure self-interest to seek the least-resistance path to profits for their shareholders.

And not only are they driven by greed; they are structured to exist beyond any traditional bounds of national fealty--multinational corporations are beholden only to themselves and respect only their own internal culture. They have grown too large to fail as the individuals who comprise them have become too small to matter. They are beyond the law, they have outgrown Adam Smith's "invisible hand," the force that was supposed to ensure they ultimately operated to the benefit of society.

I have no solution to proffer, just the observation that this too shall pass. (Even people who can't make a living wage can usually scrape together enough money for a gun.) The problem is, we don't know what will succeed these dinosaurs.

I look at my SSA statement online and don't worry so much. It says I have fully qualified for benefits.

My generation cares far too much for money and the things we could buy with it. Maybe the discipline required to navigate a harsher world with fewer guardrails and safety nets will make coming generations more resourceful and nimble than we are, and cause them to value things other than what we value. If impending disaster heightens the senses and concentrates the mind, these kids will be warriors.

Why do I feel like the deadbeat dad in "A Boy Named Sue"? Maybe we boomers should prepare for ourselves for the inevitable kicking and a'gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at


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