Not long ago, I dropped my 13-year-old daughter off at a girlfriend’s house and met her mother for the first time. A charming woman in her 50s, she introduced me to her son, who was in his early 30s, and then to her infant grandson, who appeared to be on the verge of taking his first steps.
At the time, I thought it a bit unusual that someone could be dealing with a daughter’s adolescent angst one moment and coaxing a grandchild to accept the wonders of solid foods the next. But I’ve come to realize that in many ways, her life patches together the crazy quilt that makes up one’s 40s and 50s.
For years, those of us in this age group have heard about the impact our “bulge” in the population has had on everything from real estate values to the health care industry. Yet despite widely reported broad demographic trends and generalizations, the past and current experiences of the baby boom generation defy easy categorization. From the music we listened to as kids to the world events we witnessed, the framework that helped shape us varies. Tail-end boomers born in the late 1950s or early 1960s probably spent their teenage years listening to Stevie Wonder or Eagles albums, while those born in the mid- 1940s might have danced to songs of Paul Anka or The Four Seasons. Some can recall the Vietnam War as vividly and passionately as they did when they were soldiers or college students, while others can only remember the era as grade-schoolers viewing grainy black-and-white war footage on TV.
Just as our past experiences differ, those of us in our 40s and 50s are also going through the full spectrum of life stages and financial concerns. One 50-year-old’s greatest challenge may be figuring out how to pay for a son or daughter’s wedding, while another may be just starting a college fund for his pre-schooler. His slightly older neighbor might be scratching his head about how he’ll ever be able to pay for his daughter’s dream wedding, just as his company has announced yet another downsizing in which early retirement is being “encouraged.” And the woman down the street in her early 40s may be trying to regain her financial footing after a messy divorce.
Even with all these variations, people in their 40s and 50s share some similar financial concerns marked by new and sometimes daunting realities. Chief among them is a shortened time frame for reaching one’s goals. In our 20s and 30s, with the luxury of decades to play “catch up,” it was possible to put off saving in favor of spending without too much thought. With large expenses either at our doorstep or soon to arrive, procrastinating becomes a much less palatable or viable option.
Each generation faces a unique set of money issues, and those facing us are very different from those of our parents, many of whom came of age during World War II. Sure, colleges were expensive back when we populated campuses from the 1960s and early 1980s. But the cost of higher education has greatly outpaced the rate of inflation over the last 20 years, making it more difficult than ever to foot all or most of the bill for our children as our parents might have done.
And then there’s retirement. For our parents’ generation, early retirement was more of an option than an ultimatum from an employer. Employees retired when they felt ready, or at age 65, whichever came first, and could rely on a pension plan and Social Security to see them through their golden years.
Today, companies in downsizing mode—a group that encompasses almost all companies at one time or another—frequently sharpen their cutting tools on candidates for early retirement. Sure-thing, fixed pension plans have given way to savings plans that depend heavily on contributions from employees and investment success to provide retirement income. And the “security” of Social Security becomes less and less certain as the number of individuals supporting the fragile, pay-as-you-go system shrinks in relation to the number of people collecting from it. After years of paying taxes into the system, many of us rightly have serious doubts about whether we will ever get anything out of it.
Of course, the financial picture for today’s baby boom generation is, in many ways, brighter than it has ever been. Many of us have hit our peak earning years in an economy that, for most of our lifetimes, has seen healthy growth. Two-income families have provided greater financial security and a safety net in the event of job loss. And despite the recent bear market, decades-long bull runs in the securities and real estate markets have allowed many of us to accumulate substantial personal savings, as well as ample equity in residences and vacation homes.
Many of us have rewarded ourselves with attractive homes, fun vacations, late-model cars, or other status symbols we could never afford when we were younger, and which our parents may not have indulged in to the same degree. Does this mean we are wealthier than our parents were at our age? It’s hard to say. But judging from outward appearances, we have become much more in tune with the spending side of our personalities.
And there is not necessarily anything wrong with that. Even with all the publicity surrounding Internet-made millionaires barely out of college, statistics show that people with more years under their belts generally have more money in their bank accounts. Why shouldn’t we enjoy it?
For many of us coming to terms with (gulp!) middle age, the key is to strike a balance between providing for large, imminent expenses that loom around the corner, such as a child’s college education or wedding, with the rightful desire for here-and-now self-fulfillment. The two goals need not be mutually exclusive. With some careful planning, it’s possible to enjoy the fruits of our labor in the present while creating financial security for ourselves, our children, and perhaps even our grandchildren in the future.
Marla Brill, author of Windfall! Managing Unexpected Money So It Doesn’t Manage You