The Great Depression was the defining event in the lives of my wife’s grandparents, and of many people in “the Greatest Generation.” Grammy and Grampa worked hard and saved and over a lifetime, were able to achieve a comfortable lifestyle. But even in this, they were extremely frugal. They always lived well below their means. While they didn’t mention the Depression, this didn’t mean it was forgotten.
Skip ahead to the 2008 Financial Crisis. I just finished Timothy Geithner’s Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises. While I don’t claim to understand the particulars of CDOs, Credit Default Swaps, mortgage-backed derivatives, and quantitative easing, it was interesting and informative to read a memoir of one of the main architects of the economic policies of the Obama administration. Whether one agrees with the actions of the administration or not, it was clear that the financial world was in uncharted waters, and that the global economy hung in the balance.
Our family experienced a “voluntary recession,” in 2006. I left the pastorate I was serving in Cincinnati to accept a call to be a missionary. We had to raise our own financial support. To not drain our support account too quickly, we lived on a stipend that was one-third of what I had previously made. During much of that time, we lived with Amy’s parents, hoping to finish out our support raising. However, as churches and individuals were feeling the financial pinch, we would lose supporters as soon as we added them. Circumstances forced the dream of serving as overseas missionaries to die, and the job that I obtained following our departure from the missions agency barely paid more than our stipend.
This may have been the most difficult time in our life as a family. But God was good. He blessed us and taught us many lessons during this period that have carried forward to this day. I’ll talk about others in succeeding posts. We were blessed with the mission agency requirement to get out of debt, and to stay out of debt. So, while I was not earning much, our overhead was low as well. We still see God’s provision in this.
So, the first lesson I learned was if you keep your overhead low, you can do anything you want. There are two ways to do what you want with your life. Either generate enough income so that you can accomplish your dreams, or keep your overhead low enough. Most advice seems to center on generating enough income. The problem is, most of us are not gifted in that way. But if you can lower your overhead, if you can eliminate debt and cut spending, you are free to serve the Lord in the way that you desire.
The next lesson I learned was how to work hard. This was a gift from God. I recognized that in a tight labor market, I must distinguish myself. Jobs were hard to get and harder to keep. I knew many people who were “downsized” by the Great Recession and were never able to find professional employment again. After serving as a professional engineer at the director level of the government agency she worked for, she was demoted to an entry level position, and soon afterwards, accepted a disability package. The market trend was that jobs were going to younger people who could be obtained more cheaply. Working hard, making myself “indispensable” (although cemeteries are full of people who thought they were indispensable) was going to be necessary in that labor market.
While the American economy has lower rates of unemployment than in the 2008 Financial Crisis, those statistics may be deceptive. Once people are out of the workforce and give up on finding work, they are no longer counted in the unemployment statistics. Some states aggressively pursue unemployed people to move them to disability benefits, because the Federal Government pays for disability benefits.
So, even though the numbers report otherwise, older professionals with extensive experience and the salary requirements commensurate with that experience, must continue to regularly justify their employment with hard work. “Coasting until retirement” is not an option for many. If you stop working hard, and you stop learning, you become irrelevant. Companies will still go “younger and cheaper.”