Call Me Pensioner

Back in 1997, Lifelongnewyorker left a job, and a career, she’d been in for 18 years.  Lots of reasons:  desire for novelty, fear of doing the same thing–in the same place–for the rest of her working life, oh, and wanted to be able to retire someday.

You see, Lifelongnewyorker was a teacher and, despite being in New York, didn’t have the wisdom at age 24 to go work in the public schools. No, she kinda fell into teaching the year after she finished her Masters.  She intended to continue in grad school and get her PhD and, of course, teach in college.  But meanwhile, earning some money was a good idea.  She made a fresh decision every year, she said, about whether to sign that contract or not. 

It turned out to be a pretty cushy teaching gig.  Lovely college-like campus, classroom with a (non-working) fireplace and pier-glass mirror in a converted mansion, interested and generally smart students, and got to teach the subjects I loved.  Oh, atop a hill overlooking New York Harbor.  And five minutes from home. 

The downside?  Well, as I mentioned, it wasn’t a public school, and there was no union.  This school operated under a system that might be described as medieval and patriarchal, except that it was run by women.  The people who originally staffed the school, and schools like it, were motivated entirely by service for others and for God.  They were replaced by folks like me with more mercenary impulses, but believe me, no one was going to get rich there. 

In fact, no one could support a family on the salary.  My choice to teach was, essentially, subsidized by Mr. NYer, who made more than I did.  In a sense, the education provided by the school was subsidized by the spouses–mainly husbands, of course–of the dedicated people who made the long-term decision to teach there.

Although I loved what I did, I always chafed at the fact that the job embodied so much institutionalized sexism, and that in a sense I was supporting it by my participation.  But there was that cushiness …

The school was private, but the benefits were provided by arrangement with a larger, related entity in the same industry.  Let’s call it  the A—hd–c-s- of NY.  Fortunately, we wives tended to enjoy our husband’s health insurance.  And we were young, so we didn’t think too hard about the, er, retirement benefits.  I knew there was a retirement plan, and that after five years I was vested in it, but frankly this system wasn’t built for long-term employees, and I am willing to bet that few people actually cash in. 

The vast majority of teachers fell into one of two groups, neither of which contained the retirement-minded.  The first group, recent college grads, got a few years experience under their belts and then either jumped ship to real careers in the public schools or just plain left.  The second group included women who were returning to work after having stayed at home to raise children. 

Not exactly breadwinners, none of us.  And the system depended on exactly this kind of labor, and on the unspoken assumption that we were motivated by something beyond making a good living.  About twelve years after I arrived, a group of us approached the administration about setting up a 401K, or whatever the non-profit equivalent would be.  They’d never heard of such a thing (I will simply note that the people running this institution fall into the category of religious communalists).  But after examining the idea for well over a year, they discovered that the A–hd–c-s- of NY did offer such a thing, and had done so all along. No apologies for having not known this.  And then there was the pension. 

The pension, and even the idea of retirement, were always a kind of distant joke.  There were rumors, urban legends we thought, of people who had actually spent their entire careers teach settled into impoverished old age.  Once I entered my 40s, the prospect of NOT being able to retire comfortably loomed larger, and I didn’t like it much.  So, in search of novelty, new opportunity, more money and, perhaps a chance to retire, I left.

Soon after my last day in front of the chalkboard, an envelope arrived at home from the A–hd–c-s- of NY with information about my pension benefit.  It had been actuarily determined and printed in black and white on the paper I held in my hand.  It was a fixed number, one that would not grow with inflation.   The amount of my full pension, the munificent amount that I was entitled to beginning in the year I turned 65, was, well, let’s put it this way:  the monthly pension amount I would begin receiving in 2020 equalled the amount I earned working in two and a half days in my new job in 1997. 

But there were options!  I could wait over twenty years to cash in, or I could choose what was behind Door Number 2.  The second choice was Early Retirement:  take half the munificent amount at an earlier age.  I did some back-of-the-napkin math and decided I should take the early choice option.  I would salt it away–interest rates were a lot higher when I made this decision–and would no doubt come out ahead in the long run.

Well, the earlier age has arrived, and I have just filled out the paperwork to have my pension deposited into my checking account like clockwork every month beginning at the end of July.  My math skills have improved, as has my salary, and I’m afraid I made a poor choice (depending, of course, on how long I live).  First, I have to pay taxes on this sum, and after taxes it’s pretty paltry.  And put it in the bank where it can earn 0.5% interest?  Not going to contribute much to the nest egg.  I figure it’s good for a really nice dinner every month, or maybe a new pair of shoes.  If I catch a good sale, maybe both.


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