Saturday, February 24, 2018

Adversity Is The Norm

We tend to think good times are normal and that when bad things happen, that is the exception.   This is not really the case - adversity is the norm.

A reader writes that he is in his mid-40's and has a good-paying six-figure job with a financial firm.  While he and his wife are doing well, they have not saved as much as they would have liked to.   And his boss has told him that within a year, he needs to find a new job.  No doubt the firm is finding it a lot cheaper to replace him with two 20-somethings who will work for cheap and the have stars in their eyes about working for such a big, important firm!   Well, I know I did, at that age.

I wrote before how my Dad was forced to retired at age 55 - a decade before he thought he would.  And this happens to a lot of us.   Even though I voluntarily retired this year, the reality was (and is) that my practice has gotten smaller and smaller and I no longer wanted to do the work, and in some ways could no longer do the work.  The stress was literally killing me.

So expect to be laid off when you are 55 - it is the new norm.   Your "experience" and "wisdom" don't count for much in our new economy, when being current and up-to-date is more important.   And while "early out" at 55 was the norm for the last few decades (this has been going on for a long while), I suspect our reader's experience in his mid-40's is maybe the new norm, as the cost of health care and wages for even a 40-something (particularly with children) ratchet up, and younger people, although less experienced, may have a more current skill set and will work for cheap.

But in a way, even this "new norm" is nothing new.   I mentioned before how we moved several times as a family, as my Dad took new jobs with new companies.   Sometimes, he quit in a fit of pique, as his Irish temper got the better of him.   Other times, he was forced out - perhaps as an incompetent, I don't know.   All I do know is, that "Jetson, You're Fired!" was something that we grew up with in the media and our family.

And each time this happened to my Dad (and by my count, he was fired or quit or changed jobs at least four times when I was a kid, and maybe four more times before I was born) he dusted himself off, looked around, and found something else to do.   And indeed, this is what happens to all of us when we lose a job.

Even in my own practice, I had to "reinvent" myself several times.   I started off as a solo practitioner.  I expanded and tried to "go big" which ended up making me less money.   I went back to a solo practice, flirted briefly with a big firm (back when they were throwing money at Patent Attorneys) and then decided that a solo practice was maybe not such a bad thing after all - from a low-cost home office, instead of a firm with a secretary and office building.  And who knows?  Maybe I'll end up as an Uber driver (Lyft, please) escorting the Little Old Ladies (LOL's) around the island to their doctor's appointments and hair dresser.   We all reinvent ourselves.

The problem for all of us, as human beings, is that we tend to view the good-paying job as the "norm" and not the exception.   We lull ourselves into a sense of complacency about our jobs.  We get a job, hold it for a few months and then expect it to last forever.   The typical young worker, once they are three weeks on the job, takes that first pay stub to the car dealer and signs himself up for seven years of car payments, even though he is still in his probational working period and can be fired at will.

We expect the job to last forever, and are like deer in the headlights when it goes away.   And you see this all the time, in the "news" whenever they close the finger-cutting factory or the dirt mine.  "I didn't see it comin'!" Cletus says, "And I have sixteen babies and fifty more trailer payments to make!"

They paint the company as being "cruel" for going bankrupt - as if going out of business was some sort of "treat" for the company and that laying people off gave upper management orgasms.   But the reality is, losing money is losing money, and factories, mines, and offices have to close if they are no longer cost-effective.   And short of closing, often people have to be let go, if the company is losing money or could make more money by hiring someone else.

You could rail against the "unfairness" of it all, and petition the government - as British coal miners did - for relief.  But even such relief is temporary at best.   Eventually, the rest of the country gets tired of propping up antiqued technologies, particularly when you are sitting on a pile of cleaner, cheaper energy.  For the UK it was North Sea oil.  For the United States, it is cheap fracking Natural Gas.   Trump has proposed to "hobble" the gas industry to prop up coal.   But even if he can do this, eventually, a reckoning will come.   You can't hold back the tide.

In Europe, they passed laws that prevented companies from closing factories, unless the unions and local governments gave permission, first.  Opel, in Germany, was hemorrhaging cash and GM wanted to close down plants.  And as you might imagine, the union said "no" and the local governments said "no" as well.   So they sold the whole thing, lock, stock, and barrel, to Peugeot and got the hell out of Europe (being redundant here - any economy that is run by the unions is already hell).

The logic behind these laws is that the company owes an obligation to the workers, the community, and even their customers.   But if the customers stop buying, or stop paying enough for the product to make a profit for the company, where is the reciprocal obligations from the community, the workers, and the customers?  It is a one-way street, which is why, when the next recession comes, it will strike Europe harder than the US.

But I digress.

The point is, adversity is the norm in life.  The "norm" for the vast majority of human beings on this planet is a daily struggle to make enough money to feed their families, put a roof over their heads, and have a modicum of comfort in their lives.   Normal is not ease and leisure - that is an aberration.

Why do I say this?   Because that is the norm for all species on this planet.   We breed and expand until we fill every environmental niche, and we keep doing this until it is painful to exist - until we are competing for resources and barely able to survive.  That is normal for most species, including humans.

We built a porch on the front of our house and put a bird feeder in the ancient magnolia tree that towers over us.    A few birds showed up, and we liked sitting there watching them, so we added a few more feeders, a suet cage, and a birdbath - the latter of which was immensely popular.  Do you know how hard it is to get fresh, clean drinking water in the wild?  Ask someone living in sub-Saharan Africa - they'll tell you.

Pretty soon, more and more birds came - and they all decided this was a neat place to live, build a nest and lay eggs.  A few weeks after, Mom and Dad Cardinal are strutting with their juvenile cardinal families - showing them how to hunt and peck for fallen seed, and how to land on the feeder.

But of course, others have shown up as well.  Squirrels scour the ground for spilled seed.  Raccoons and possums show up at night for anything the squirrels missed (or to dig for what they buried).   We created a vacuum, so to speak, and air rushes in to fill it.

But pretty soon, the squirrels, too, have bred, and there are dozens of them around the tree.   And pretty soon, they are not content to merely scavenge seeds thrown out by the noisy titmouse or the sloppy wren.  They start attacking the feeders - lounging on them and sucking them dry of seeds.  Or they nibble through the guy wires to bring them crashing to the ground.   They gnaw through the screen and invade our house.

For a few short months, it was nirvana for birds and mammals alike.   Seed for everyone, in a safe environment where there were no Cooper's Hawks swooping down (they, too, eventually show up, and take their toll, particularly on the doves).  But population pressures - from breeding as well as "migrants" immigrating from neighboring trees - equalize things until the halcyon days of the feeder are behind us, and now it is a virtual war zone.

A new normal has been established - and in fact, it was the same as the old normal, before we humans intervened.

And perhaps that is why I am very content in life - but always expect it to go bad in a real hurry.   I was fortunate to be born in a time and place of relative prosperity, something that is an anomaly in the history of mankind, or indeed, the world.   If you look at our history, and pre-history, you'll see an endless struggle of wars, famine, pestilence, and suffering.   This is how the universe is programmed to work.

Sure, we can try to fight against this tide - that was the entire point of this thing called "civilization" (well, that, and banding together to fight off invaders, thank you very much Mr. Viking!).   But you can't merely pass a law saying that everything should be prosperous, as many Trump supporters would like to do (they posit that the previous generation had it "lucky" and that we can pass laws to reclaim this luck - by throwing out immigrants and erecting trade barriers - but we know how that will pan out, right?  About as well as Welsh coal miners did).

The good news is this:  When one opportunity disappears, there is always some other opportunity.  Maybe it isn't as lucrative as the old one, but it will be there.   The secret is to not waste time pining about lost opportunity, but rather concentrate on the new one.   And it is also important to realize that our struggles define us, and that a live without adversity is really not a life at all.

Old Mr. Hitler wrote a book called "My Struggle" (Mein Kampf) which is somewhat ironic, in that he really didn't struggle too much in life.   Rather than work hard to get where he wanted to be, he used the time-worn tactic of blaming his woes (and that of a nation) on government, policies, and of course a scapegoat - the Jews.   It was the antithesis of "struggle" really - and what we are seeing today with a lot of these 20-something "alt-right" kids living in their parent's basement and asking Mom to watch their cat while they go kill someone at a hate rally.   Yea, that actually happened.  Last year.

This new generation of Nazzies is using the same playbook.   All of their troubles are not because they are undereducated, lazy, using drugs, playing video games all day long, spending every last penny they have on guns, and acting creepy (which turns off the opposite sex, as well as employers).  No, no!  There are larger things at stake here!   Government policies that must be overthrown!  Transgender Lesbian Mexican Illegals are taking all our jobs and taking over the washrooms!   How can I get a job, Mom, when all these sorts of burning issues are at stake here!

But once again, I digress.

But maybe not.  There is a thread connecting all of this.   You have to look out for yourself in life, and by this, I don't mean going down to the car dealer and signing loan papers or taking out a vacation loan to go to Disney.   We tend, in this country, to think that borrowing as much money as possible is a "normal" thing to do.   Indeed, the vast majority of Americans are hopelessly in debt, particularly credit card debt, and a huge chunk of those are over 30-days late on their payments.

Shit happens, as they say.  And it is not only a predictable quantum event, but an inevitable one.   And maybe living here on retirement island for a decade is one reason I was able to turn my life around.  Every day, I read an obituary in the paper, or hear about a friend who has fallen ill, or is in hospice care.   That's how this game works - this game called life.   You are born, you live a few years, you make a few bucks, you get old, you get sick, and you die.   And you have no choice in this matter.  Adversity is the norm, and death is the ultimate adversity.

Now, to some, that sounds depressing, so they'd rather not think about it.  But it is reality, and reality is value-neutral.  It just is what it is.   How you perceive reality is the key.

As for our intrepid reader, I think he is going to do OK, as he has the right attitude about the whole thing.   But like most of us, he wonders where all that good money he made went.   And that was sort of the point of this blog - as a middle-class person with a "good-paying job" I wondered where all my money went as well.   And as I have realized over the years, not to any one thing, but a panoply of small things.  I got into the habit of not checking prices, or going to restaurants I really couldn't afford, or signed up for subscription services that leaked out my net worth, a dollar at a time.  I got into the habit of assuming that my "good-paying job" would be around for a long time.