catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 13 :: 2011.07.08 — 2011.07.21


My comfort tomorrow or someone else’s today?

I graduated from college one year ago, and started my first real job two months ago, and…I’m already wondering about retirement. Why, you ask? Not because of significant government social service cuts in the UK, not because I’ve got market-minded parents bedazzling me with the magic of compound interest (I don’t — I’m the numbers one in the family), and not, thankfully, because two months in I’m already fed up of working. No, there is a more positive reason for me to start wondering about retirement — suddenly I’m stewarding an income, and suddenly I’m faced with a choice of pension plans.

In fact, I’ve been pondering it for a while. While I think it’s important for Christians to consider what changes should take place to make our societies better places, it’s also important, if only so that we stay grounded in reality, to think hard about what a “good” society might look like — and not in a bleary-eyed kum-ba-yah way, but a “who’s going to clean the parks” kind of way. It’s very easy for us to talk about giving everything away and scorn savings plans, and I might end up going down that road further myself, but we also have to think about alternatives — realistic and sustainable alternatives.

How the retired and the elderly are cared for is of crucial importance when we try to imagine (and then anticipate) a just world. Care for the elderly is a frequently forgotten issue for a few reasons. First, those who are in the best positions to be fighting for rights and government attention tend to be the younger and more mobile citizens in a population. It’s easy to treat older people as a kind of afterthought — less able to stand up for themselves, less able to see that they’re mistreated. Often forgotten to some extent by their own families, the elderly are easy to forget when setting out a fiscal budget.

Second, we have a distorted way of valuing others’ (and our own) lives, viewing careers as the absolute peaks of life — almost the whole point of our lives. So often, life pre-work is simply treated as a long training and preparation period for our careers, and then life post-work is the vacuum, the waiting room, the deserved “rest.”

Retirement (from work, not from life — perhaps we need a new word) is important to anticipate because it has significant implications for how we arrange our finances. How we approach our finances in turn is one of those challenging, but so crucial, questions of Christian life — one that frankly feels like a wild goose chase sometimes. Post-work planning suffers from a dearth of discussion, at least from a “radical” counter-cultural Christian point of view. There is a bounty of inspiring literature on radical Christian discipleship that seems relevant to our working lives and before, but questions about what retirement might look like and how we might be provided for tend to go unanswered. I don’t have any answers myself, but I’ll briefly touch on a few issues I’ve been considering.

We’re currently in a period when large companies are phasing out employer pension plans and transitioning to employer-contributed savings schemes managed externally. To some extent in the context of this discussion, the significance of this change is minimal insofar as the new kind of retirement preparation is just a different kind of saving than what we were used to before. On the other hand, preparing for retirement is beginning to look a lot more like standard investment, and as such is more vulnerable to some of the same risks and moral questions surrounding investment.

My own work is for a faith-based international development organization.  As a new employee, I’ve been offered a selection of varying pension options, with some highlighting slightly greater rewards with greater risk, some based more on property, and so on.  One of the options is a “socially responsible” investment plan. This seems bizarre to me in the same way it seems ludicrous for airlines to tackle their environmental impact in part by offering optional “CO2 levies” (absurd enough to me that I refuse to pay them – I can think of far more trustworthy recipients of money for environmental work than an airline).  It seems to beg the question of why a morally concerned organization would offer, by its own phrasing, a series of de facto “not socially responsible” investment options.

I have the benefit of delaying my decision over whether to sign up for one of the schemes, but only because I have significant student loans (with significant interest payments). And so for both financial (interest payments trump savings rates) and stewardship (it seems right for me to live debt-free, even if I live simply) reasons, I’ll postpone my decision for a year or so. However, the time will come when I have to decide and how to approach the problem is, well, problematic.

Most mainstream, middle-of-the-road Christian financial counselling seems to look for a middle ground between saving and giving. Saving too much is hoarding, and we should trust in God, not our investment plans. On the other hand, prudency and stewardship are virtues of the wise, and we are called to take care of our dependents. This is a classic Christian gray area, and which doesn’t necessarily make such a balance a poor response to the problem, but those trying to live counter-culturally may find it a rather too subtle variation on the standard approach to retirement planning — essentially the same, but perhaps budgeting for a 3-star instead of 4-star retirement home.

The question I ask myself is: if I put a certain amount of money away for my livelihood post-career instead of giving it away, does that reflect that I only “sort-of” trust God to provide for me later in life? Of course there’s a problem with making it an either/or question for a particular portion of income. I might similarly ask: if I buy a music CD for $15 instead of giving it away, am I a slave to personal pleasure and possessions? The line of questioning where we ask what the “most Christian” use of any given dollar is quickly becomes unproductive.  The more foundational question at stake is not how exactly we use the income we have, but if we are truly trusting God to take care of us. This is a really difficult issue to wrestle with, but as with other questions which relate to our trust in God, it is one of the most important ones.

One could begin conceiving of changes in government retirement provision, whereby some set-up of increased taxes in return for guaranteed good care would magically solve the problem — but I’d suggest this isn’t a fruitful or realistic route, at least in the foreseeable future. To begin with, raising the political will required for such changes would be a colossal task. (I don’t think it would be unfair to say that in America, effective climate legislation will come before a more socialist approach to care for the elderly). Furthermore, we wouldn’t particularly be putting our trust in God in this case, but in government. Trusting government to build a just society is not wrong, but we may need to look beyond legislation to start tackling questions about leaning on faith as we consider retirement.

The increasing emergence of committed Christian living communities highlights some possible answers, allowing us to account for a full life and yet not feel the need to hoard individual savings. When communities share income partially or fully, those who are past their working years can trust their fellow members to care for them. There is no guilt, and no sense of indebtedness — instead all community members contribute as they can when they can, and all afford each other the dignity, welcome and home that it is right they have. There are any number of wonderful reasons to participate in such a way of living, and truly it occurs to me as the only path that avoids compromising on saving up nest eggs.  Instead of trusting our own strategies to provide for ourselves, we trust in the promises of others to care for us as we promise to care for them — in all circumstances.  But today is not the day when we all live in income-sharing Christian communities.  Such a community is hugely attractive to me, and at some point I would love to be part of what is an admittedly challenging attempt at something similar, but for now, I’ve got to decide what to do in between.

You might be thinking, “If you do end up saving, wait until later! You’re young now — you don’t need to think about retirement yet!” To that I would say: fair enough, but that’s just postponing the decision. And putting off the decision might be a good idea, but if I AM going to save, then as anyone who has basic math under his or her belt will tell you, the time to start is now. To say that this would be greedy would be unfair; it would simply be clever, prudent, stewardly. So then to some extent the time for thinking is now. What IS true of course is that grappling with questions of finance, stewardship, comfort, trust is undoubtedly a lifelong process, and hoping to figure them out now would be foolish and naïve — presumptuous, even.

For now then, where I inevitably find myself at the end of each period of contemplation on this question is that the only way to live is to trust completely in God. To me, this seems to mean living and giving, but not saving for a distant future when I might not be provided for. I can’t avoid the idea that to give my life to God means to give it with abandon. It’s true that some small investment in my own future might mean that I don’t have to be dependent on others down the road, but one of the things I’ve learned over the last few years is not to see dependency as a negative thing. Even more so, I wonder about the wisdom of setting aside income for a safety blanket decades down the road, when today, my neighbor simply needs a blanket. I don’t think this falls into the trap I mentioned of comparing every micro-use of money with all the competing uses. Instead this is a very real question: do I secure my comfort tomorrow at the expense of the comfort of so many around me today?

I end, I suppose, with a sort of answer, but I’d be false to pretend I’m at peace with it.  It’s simply the biggest bubble in a steaming pool of questions surrounding the issue. All feedback is appreciated!

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