Secrets and Lies of the Middle Class

White tulips in a jar resemble older Canadians who face many financial challenges due to their inadequate retirement planning.

My tastes are changing as I begin experiencing the stark difference between middle age and old age. Lately, I’ve taken to listening to audio books, downloaded free from the Oakville Public Library onto my computer. This activity is fast becoming one of the joys of these cold spring days, or to be more specific nights.

I download the books, turn up the sound for thirty minutes or an hour. By the time the computer shuts itself off, I’m usually sound asleep. Listening to “books on tape” as they are nostalgically called is better than a nightcap before bed or any other potent chemical that older people are too often prescribed by their doctors.

Right now, I have three titles sitting on my computer. The Road to Little Dribbling by the American author Bill Bryson who does his best work when he writes about the eccentricities of the English. The second is a detective story, a cozy in the tradition of Agatha Christie by Cynthia Riggs, the septuagenarian author who writes about the charmingly devilish 92-year-old Martha’s Vineyard detective Victoria Trumbull. The third is Anna Quindlen’s new novel Millar’s Valley. Quindlen’s stories illuminate matters of the heart, avoiding gooey sentimentality, and in a way that makes more sense to me than any how-to book I’ve ever come across.

The other thing I’ve taken to doing this spring is keeping flowers on the mantle long past their best days. Last week it was a bouquet of gorgeous pale pink tulips that slowly turned from original pink to linen white and finally to a withered grey. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them in the bin; they were too lovely in their final stage of life and I admired how they lingered on, even though their heads drooped and the petals began to fall upon the soft carpet below.

I gazed at the tulips while reading the obituaries in the Sunday New York Times, another favourite pastime of mine. What I enjoy most is imagining the lives of smart, independent women, those who attended Smith or Bryn Mawr, went on to graduate school, taught Art History or English at small distinguished colleges and wrote or painted while continuing to commute to and from Manhattan and to the co-op apartment they purchased on the Upper West Side in the 1960s or 70s. I love these women. Some were married, some not. Many left children behind, but not all.

They were intelligent, worked hard and committed time and probably money to good causes. Most sound to me like they embraced feminism or, at least, benefited from it.

The women in the Sunday Times obits were shining examples of the American middle class (or upper middle-class) that rose to prominence after World War II and remained so until recently, when a stellar education, a rewarding career and a warm heart can no longer guarantee a good life or a secure retirement.

Along with reading The Sunday New York Times, I’ve taken to subscribing to The Atlantic, a rather old-fashioned magazine that called itself The Atlantic Monthly for most of its 159 years. The magazine was born in the spring of 1857 in Boston, which back then was the centre of literary America. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow attended the birthing meeting. The magazine still keeps a poetry editor on the masthead along with a plethora of distinguished scholars, essayists and journalists.

The cover story this May is “The Secret Shame of the Middle Class,” by Neal Gabler, who sites a recent Federal Reserve Board survey. The Fed asked Americans “how they would pay for a $400 emergency.” The answer is astonishing. A full 47 per cent said “that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up the $400 at all.”

Think about it. In the richest country in the world almost half of the respondents would not be able to access $400. When Gabler gets personal, he explains to his audience that he, like many middle class professionals and even those in the upper middle class, are in the same boat. To continue the metaphor, the boat is sinking, but the last survivors are too ashamed to admit they are in peril.

People just don’t have the money to save. “Many of us,” writes Gabler, “are living in a more or less continual state of financial peril.” He sites a series of dispiriting figures which show how the median income of Americans has declined substantially, from $87,992 in 2003 to $54,500 in 2013, a drop of 38 per cent.

I can’t help but wonder if some of the women I ardently admire in the New York Times obituaries were financially vulnerable. If half of Canadians —whose savings are now dipping below U.S. savings levels— are financially vulnerable when a small, unexpected expense hits, perhaps it’s time to talk openly about it, rather than pretending we’re doing just fine.

Next time you’re wondering why you’re living from one pension cheque to the next, or why you hold a mortgage or a line of credit on your home during retirement, know that you are certainly not alone.

It’s a good thing that my audio books can be borrowed free of cost from the public library, that my mortgage is at the lowest rate on the record books and that I can still afford to buy flowers for the mantelpiece. Keeping secrets is becoming a way of life for the middle class, but as I get older, I’m beginning to realize that secrets is only another word for lies.

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