Thursday, February 26, 2009

Portrait: Indianapolis, Indiana

My portrait is actually the story of my father-in-law. And it’s not the story of foreclosures or falling home prices or even investment portfolio nosedives. Rather it’s the story of one man that I think is representative of his generation. Of the pitfalls they’ve faced, even though they made good choices and sound decisions.

His life, until nearly 4 years ago, probably followed the trajectory of many Midwestern blueish/whiteish-collar Boomers his age. He grew up in a tiny mid-century yellow ranch in a small burg on the outskirts of Indianapolis. Had a fully intact set of parents, 3 brothers, a competent, if not top-quality, Catholic education. Entered the National Guard when he graduated high school, did his 1 weekend and 2 weeks while attending a local college. Fell in love with his wife-to-be, decided it was time to be able to care for a family, married her, quit school, got a full-time job, and supplemented his pay with his service in the Guard.

After a short move out of the area and then back again, started working for a company he would serve for more than 30 years. What he did isn’t actually all that integral to the story, but mostly it was sales; specific, rather technical sales to a very distinct customer base. It was a smallish company that grew and grew and his career grew and grew right along with them. He started at the very bottom and eventually became Vice President and regional manager.

As my mother-in-law will tell you, with no prompting whatsoever, he sacrificed his life and gave so very much to his company. He had to travel most weekdays, and often wasn’t home for days at a time. She was a single mother with a husband, and it was difficult on them all. But it was all worth it. Sure, she had to work to supplement their income. They made a deal, though, she might not get to be a stay-at-home mom, like her peers, but instead, she could be an early retiree, with lots of time for herself later. Maybe she could have to opportunity to be a stay-at-home grandma. But eventually, as the kids grew up, and the school tuition stopped, and his salary increased, she just kept working, not because she had to, but because it gave her the chance to supplement their leisure and luxuries. As a matter of fact, she had taken a part-time job in his office, working on some of the accounting; a perfect arrangement.

For two people without college educations, or even specific vocational training, they had really made it: beautiful house in a rather exclusive neighborhood, bought one son a brand-new Mustang, and sent the other to four years of college without a single student loan to his name. They both drove cars they loved, vacationed twice yearly at their timeshare in St. Maarten, and made pilgrimages to the jeweler’s, where he stocked up on her gifts for the year. They had little debt, a low mortgage payment, and were saving diligently for retirement.

Then, four years ago, his company decided he was replaceable, his salary too expensive. Now, of course, the official reasoning was that they were downsizing top level management and wanted to combine regions for cost savings. They told him over and over again that he was a great employee that they would hate to lose. And that they were so very grateful to him for his years of service. They didn’t know if the company could have grown so exponentially without the contributions that he had made. But the reality was that they had hired a recent college grad and could pay the young man less than half of my father-in-law’s salary, with little risk to their health insurance and a lifetime before they would have to pay out any retirement. Not to mention, my father-in-law had trained him, and had already passed on everything he could.

They offered him a severance package, worth exactly one year’s salary, but with no other benefits. But, if he accepted the package, he had to sign various contracts agreeing to not discuss his ‘resignation’ outside of immediate family and to never sue them for any reason, including age discrimination.

Their life as they had carefully built it, brick by brick, spit shined to a gleaming polish, was over. The company wasn’t going to fire my mother-in-law, but she couldn’t exactly stay, either. If they agreed to the package, it would give them a year to get things back in order, but wasn’t what they were doing wrong? Shouldn’t they maybe talk to an attorney? In the end, he took the package. And he spent the year, not reordering his life, but in a deep, unending depression.

He would never call it depression, of course. He would just say that he was ‘enjoying his time off’. This was a big fat lie. He barely showered most days, and when you talked to him, you’d have thought that the company took his balls when they took his office. The boundaries of how he defined himself were gone. They told friends and distant relatives that he had chosen early retirement, and that he wanted to try a new career path, you know, for fun. Toward the end of that year, he finally began looking for a job. And what he found nearly drove him back into his depression. Sure, he had a lifetime’s worth of experience, but no degree to back it up. Absolutely, his resume showed that he was a great manager of people and resources, but someone with that kind of experience should’ve gotten his MBA by now. And anyway, his prior salary was in no way commensurate with what they were offering. It would be an insult to his talents if they offered him this job.

It’s now three years later. He did go back to school after his year of depression, and graduated in May 2008. He has found a job, part-time, contracted work with no benefits, and little guarantee of, well, much of anything, but it is employment, and it gets him out of the house. My mother-in-law went back to work for the same agency that had hired her when her children were small. She hates it, and dreams of the sunny beaches of St. Maarten. She misses it, they haven’t been back, she hasn’t gotten any new baubles, and the cars that they loved so much are looking a little worn. She keeps sprucing up the dream house, though. Paint and creativity is cheap, she says. It’s best to keep the house looking current and fresh, she says, you never know when you might have to sell.

They are still adrift, in many ways, in their current life, even as they are holding it all together. They’re bitter; it’s hard to realize that the son you put through college makes far more than you now. They see their friends actually heading into early retirement: buying long dreamed for boats, taking month long vacations, having plenty of time for babysitting beloved grandchildren. They know where it went wrong, but how can you even begin to reconsider, for any length of time, choices that you made a lifetime ago?

The future they have planned for themselves is much bleaker than the one they had planned at 40. He’s returned to college again, this time to get his master’s. Maybe, he hopes, when he graduates, he can find something close to what he was forced out of. Or at least he hopes, he can find something to challenge him, something to make waking up in the morning bearable. He doesn’t hope too hard. There are more and more job seekers everyday, and his working experience just keeps getting more and more stale. But he has to keep moving, has to keep doing something. She’ll keep working for the agency. Hoping and waiting for the day she can be the stay-at-home grandmother that he promised she could be all those years ago.

Indianapolis, Indiana