Tuesday, June 20, 2006

There's No 'Retirement' Crisis in Bluegrass

So the big news in popular media as well as our own hometown Pee Dee is that there is a crisis in America because folks might have to work longer before they retire.

Now anyone who understands that more young Americans are graduating from college with debt, delaying the start of marriage and families, holding off on buying homes, or even taking longer to finish their first degrees knows damn well that this is not news. Combine today's economy with all these other indicators, and maybe it's yesterday's news. But another thing's for sure. It's not a crisis. Americans having to work longer is not a crisis. Americans having to hold off on filling prescriptions to buy food is a crisis. Americans having to pick which kid gets shoes is a crisis. Someone's 401k falling short of what was hoped -- disappointing, maybe a little scary, but, not a crisis.

Our society is not so quietly obsessed with consumption and leisure. The reaction to so-called news like this feeds into this mentality of accumulation that offends my sensibilities. I do respect the fact that it's good to plan for the day when we're too old and frail to work. But lots of people have lost everything on their first week of retirement because of a heart attack or natural disaster or whatever that entirely ate up whatever they had saved. So we have the illusion of security, and now, the illusion of a threat to a security that really is only tenuous.

I love to work, and I am very, very fortunate that I have a job I enjoy thoroughly. It is a thrill to help people and organizations succeed every day. And I meet the most fabulous people -- interesting, creative, extremely talented and capable leaders both young and seasoned. And I work with the most amazing organizations, organizations going through difficult change, enormous growth, wonderful success. It's been a real treasure because it taught me that whether it's a government, private, or nonprofit gig, I love working with good people who do great work for organizations that are well run.

I don't get paid as well as I probably could, and a few years into single motherhood it's not likely that I'll retire. I don't have a 401k, and most of what I have saved would last me about a year or less if I had a real health crisis that forced me into not working. But I'm not unlike a lot of Americans as you'll read here. At least I enjoy working and am lucky enough to be able to work, and whether I'm comfortable or eating tuna out of a tin can when I'm 80, hopefully I'll still be able to make a contribution without someone having to take care of me.

Bluegrass and traditional musicians, don't make a whole lot of money -- ok, some do, but not many, and they pay their way when it comes to health care and other benefits just like any entrepreneur has to, or they still have to work for somebody else to feed their kids. But they manage to stay alive, pass on some good learnings, have a good time, do really good work, and give a great many people an enormous amount of joy. And most of them don't stop doing that just so they can play golf (although I understand Doyle Lawson does enjoy his golf!). Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Curly Seckler, and Jean Ritchie are all in their 80s, as is folk legend Pete Seeger. Stanley and Seckler each have brand new releases out. The younger crowd--the Grismans, the Rices, the Dels, the Doyles--well, they're all pushing 60 or better. But they're not ready to lay down that weary tune just yet. As my friend Stephanie Ledgin wrote in her book, Homegrown Music, you don't retire from bluegrass.

So the headlines roll right on by me.


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