Men Fear Playing Role Of Fall Guy

THURSDAY, DEC. 7, 1995

“I don’t want to retire at 65. I want to work until I’m shot by a jealous spouse.”

That remark, which came up in almost every one of the men’s discussion groups I held, sums up two sources of male power that men in middle life worry most about preserving. They want to continue to be valued in work and in bed.

Sexual confidence is inescapably linked with financial security for most men. In fact, one of the most important elements that contributes to a sense of mastery overall is financial security. Already close to half of America’s discretionary income nestles in the 60 million wallets of those grown-up individuals in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. Consider:

Households headed by someone over 55 control 56 percent of all the net worth in the nation’s homes.

The fact that mature households control so much money comes as a pleasant surprise to many of those in the Second Adulthood. And by the year 2000, the number of Americans over 50 is expected to hit a staggering 76 million. These wealthiest members of a hot new market are not only living longer, but thinking younger. Market research has revealed that members of the 50-plus set consider themselves 10 to 15 years younger than society perceives them to be.

The other surprise is not so pleasant. Men who are in their 50s probably expected fallen arches, a bad hair stage, maybe a divorce, or one rotten kid in the barrel, but not unemployment, never unemployment, or even underemployment.

The old 50 usually found a man in a safe corporate environment, with a planned retirement, able to count out almost to the penny what he would be worth when he was given the gold watch at 65. Not today. Consider:

For the first time since the World War II Generation, men in their late 40s and early 50s are suffering a steep decline in wages.

This phenomenon affects primarily the 2 million American men aged 46 to 55 in 1995 who have four years of college but no graduate school. They belong to the younger half of the Silent Generation who entered corporate jobs confident of steady promotions and rising incomes well into their middle age. Instead, when they were between 45 and 54, at the tail end of the go-go years, their median incomes plunged by 16 percent - from more than $50,000 in 1987 to $41,898 in 1992.

Today men in their 50s in corporate life are in a precarious position. They are a high-ticket item in an era of downsizing. Boards of directors are impressed when downsizing is done as a “clean sweep” - usually by slashing senior managers who command the highest salaries and ominous retirement benefits. And many men who are not fired are downsized in rank and income, with the clear implication that their jobs may be the next to go.

What do these prematurely obsolescent men do? They are too young to retire for good, but usually too old to shift gears and work in an aggressive, restructured company. Suddenly they are expected to fall back on inner resources and to lower their expectations financially and socially. Acculturated under the old corporate paternalism of the 1950s and ‘60s, they harbor such loyalty to the company-as-father that even after the Gordian knot has been hacked in two, many of them are left numb and disbelieving.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Gail Sheehy Universal Press Syndicate

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