Starting Over

Life has a funny way of lurching. It’s a strange thing: we work, and plan, save and strive to create the route on which our lives will travel — yet those unexpected calamities can quickly and brutally sweep aspirations into the bushes and tilt people into a ditch. There are crazy things that happen in the course of breathing, things that make you scratch your head and wonder not how, or who. But why.

Last week I handed over the last few thousand dollars of our life savings to buy a used car that will carry me to a new job. I did it so that we can start over. Again. Just the simple and undeniable right to do so, to begin again, keeps hope and faith flickering. It means that there’s still a chance — on a two-minute drill — to do something worth doing and to be someone worth looking up to.

Many, many people in this nation are starting over, and have been for the past four years. As we pull out of our Great Recession and finally begin to mount a sincere recovery, there are thousands of starting over stories. It’s an unhappy trail of tears about those best laid plans, indeed: Those people categorized as “long-term unemployed” stand at over 5 million — more than 40 percent of total unemployment, and what many economists call a national emergency.

The impact will be long-lasting. Boston College recently reported that an extra 711,000 people will be at or near poverty when they reach 70, and, according to the Federal Reserve, the average American family saw their net worth drop almost 40 percent between 2007 and 2010 — from $126,400 to $77,300. The Fed found that the Great Recession wiped away “18 years of savings and investment.” In its exhaustive survey about the impact of the Great Recession on middle-aged and older Americans, the AARP discovered that almost 25 percent turned to and exhausted their savings during the recession. More than half of the 5,027 people surveyed felt financially insecure as a result of the economic downturn, primarily because their new jobs didn’t pay enough, they had no savings or — as a result — their debt had climbed.

The realities are spelled out in the gashed valuation of real estate and the depressed stock market, true. But the brutal truth is unemployment, underemployment and its terrible consequences. Here’s how it works: You get laid off, spend the severance then the cash on hand. That goes fast because you have family to feed and care for, and the next thing you know you’re talking about the 401k. You go on interview after interview, but you’re too old, want too much money, aren’t an internal candidate or any one of a thousand reasons. You get work so you can be productive — but it’s not enough, darn it all. When you do land, you will be making less. You will have no money. No investment. No safety net.

But you do have a future. And you will be starting over.
The day after I shelled out those few thousand dollars, we celebrated my youngest daughter’s fifth birthday. And it just so happens that her birthday is on the exact same date my father passed away, some 13 years previously. So what was once a long, sad day of memories has been recast anew by birthday cake and candles — and by the delight of a little girl with the world at her feet. It is, in fact, a landmark day for our little family, a yardstick on which we can measure the things that really matter. Four years ago, we huddled together at a Chuck E. Cheese’s restaurant in Herndon, Virginia, to celebrate her first birthday. There were no friends. No extended family, no grandmas or nannies, no brothers and sisters. Just the four of us, sitting at a table eating bad pizza and wondering what the hell we were doing.

One job, a big move and a used car later, the answer is as clear as the noise and commotion of all the kids and families celebrating her fifth birthday at the same restaurant. We had no doubt. We have none today.

Yeah. Starting over ain’t such a bad thing, after all.

–Brian Chee

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