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Monica's Story



Monica’s Story

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick

From William Butler Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium

I recall well an unlikely colleague coming to my office during my working years – for convenience, I will call her Monica. She was in tears, clearly distraught, telling me that she needed to talk about an important family matter. I was taken aback because while she was a respected co-worker, I had not really connected with her beyond casual conversation.

She poured out her story, sobbing as she explained the details. Her father, a sixty-nine-year-old man, had started working packing shelves in a supermarket. He retired the previous year from a company in Manhattan, but he could not make ends meet on his monthly social security cheque.

He lived in an apartment off Pelham Parkway in the Bronx. His wife passed away four years previously and their three daughters were all working and married in the New York area. They offered to supplement their father’s income but he wouldn’t hear of taking money from any of them.

He worked for a successful company for almost forty years and was honored by his bosses with a few promotions as well as being presented with an Employee-of-the-Year plaque on two  occasions at company Christmas parties.  

In the late 1980’s there was a major drive for unionization in his company with emotions running high throughout the workplace. Both sides appealed for his support. The company brought in a so-called consulting company to organize the opposition. They found out later that they were paid over a million dollars for their services.

Ironically, in retrospect, one of the main issues pushed by the union side centered on the lack of any pension benefits for the workers. The organizing effort was narrowly defeated, with her father, the quintessential company man, voting for the status quo.

As a retiree, he loves to visit his daughters and grandchildren and still plays golf on Sundays in the challenging Split Rock public course nearby. However, by the time he paid for his rent-controlled apartment, covered the costs of running his Camry and met the usual living expenses, he was dipping into his meagre savings every month.

I listened carefully to her story realizing that she didn’t really expect me to come up with any solution. For Monica, watching her father packing supermarket shelves was heartbreaking for her and humiliating for both of them. Just imagining him wearing a brown coat filling shelves as people moved past him with their shopping trolleys clearly affected her and conveyed a strong sense of family failure.

The quality of pension systems varies greatly across the globe. They provide a valuable monthly cheque drawn from a financial pool with contributions from both employers and workers.

In the United States more and more companies in the private sector have switched from guaranteed traditional pension plans to the somewhat riskier 401(k)s.

The Mercer Institute Global Pension Index (2020) compares worker pension benefits in 39 countries representing more than two-thirds of the world’s population. They ascribe a value of between zero and 100 to each country’s system based on three criteria, adequacy, sustainability and integrity.

The Netherlands received the highest score, 82.6, suggesting a high level of satisfaction among retirees. They utilize a flat-rate public pension topped up with a payment linked to earnings and negotiated agreements.

Denmark came in second, registering a score of 81.4. Again, they combine a universal public pension plan with mandatory payments from occupational schemes.

The United States, the richest country in the world, came in at number eighteen with an assessed score of 60.3, just ahead of Malaysia and Columbia and trailing Ireland (65) and Chile (67).

Mention of Ireland, I read that they are in the late stages of introducing new pension legislation which will provide a major boost for retiree income and living standards. The scheme, due to start in January 2024, foresees employers and workers putting 1.5% of the employee’s gross salary into a new account. These contributions will increase to 3% and then 4.5% before finally settling at 6% after ten years. The plan covers workers earning between 20,000 and 80,000 euros annually and augurs well for future retirees’ income.

Ageism – discriminating against people because of their year of birth - is a major problem in many countries. It is rampant in the business world where even highly experienced and knowledgeable employees are told, often with hints or nudges, that they are past their best and should move on.

According to a recent analysis by the Urban Institute and Pro-Publica more than half of American workers over 50 lose their jobs before they are ready to retire, and 9 out of 10 of these workers never recover their previous earning power.

Another study revealed that around 18% of American workers have to continue in a job after retiring – about three times the comparable percentages in France and Britain.

Corporate culture often includes inaccurate and prejudicial biases. These are evident in the unfounded belief that older employees have low energy and they are often deemed to have outdated technical skills.

In reality, most people want a job they can stick with and they are usually highly motivated to make a meaningful contribution. In contrast, according to a study by the London Business School, millennials expect to leave their work in less than three years. So much for maintaining continuity in an enterprise.

Peter Cappelli, director for the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, rejects all the negative rhetoric used against senior workers: “on almost every dimension of job performance, research shows that older workers perform better than younger workers.”

Trade unions place a big emphasis on negotiating decent pension benefits for their members, but unfortunately, only about 12% of full-time workers in the United States are unionized. In 1983 the percentage was over twice that figure.

A recent national poll showed a surprising 70% of Americans support workforce unionization. Membership is growing in recent times, but the right-wing propaganda machine, bolstered by many state-level inhibiting regulations, makes the job of organizers very difficult.

  Unions always look out for the retirement benefits that they rightly argue should accrue to their members. If instead of 12% membership, three times that number carried union cards, that would change the whole work culture in America and would also enhance the pension possibilities of those not organized.

If Monica’s father worked in a union shop, he would not have to pack shelves to cover daily expenses at the end of his days.

Gerry OShea blogs at   


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