My Life in Labor, According to the Social Security Administration

A retirement-inspired review

Grumpier Old Men like Sophia Loren

Prior to attending a retirement planning seminar a few months ago, I was advised to look up my Social Security earnings and estimated retirement benefits. I created an account and accessed the evidence of my dubious work history, which I printed out. Recently, I looked at the pages again to review my life in labor, according to the Social Security Administration.

Generally, the older you are and the closer you are to retirement, the more accurate the retirement estimates will be because they are based on a longer work history with fewer uncertainties such as earnings fluctuations and future law changes. We encourage you to use our online Retirement Estimator to obtain immediate and personalized benefit estimates.

That means, “Don’t sue us if you fall apart, get fired/laid off, or Social Security as we know it ceases to exist.”

If I retire at age seventy, I can count on an estimated monthly income of $2,139. I couldn’t live comfortably on that now, so it is unlikely that I will be able to live on it in ten years. My health will probably deteriorate at some point, but with nothing but Medicare to keep me going, I’ll need to work until I’m eighty to maintain my employee health benefits. A move to an active senior residence will probably cost at least $1,500 a month. An assisted living facility will cost even more.

Let’s look at my Earning Record, proof that I have been a productive member of society for a few years.

My Earning Life began in the summer of 1977, when I started my first job, at Zayre’s Department Store in Bridgeville, PA. Zayre’s was a fine purveyor of fiberfill, which ran out every week. I spent my first Black Friday working until 3:00 AM, folding towels and straightening rugs. I was a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, completing an independent study course of writing numerous papers when I wasn’t cutting window blinds or checking fitting rooms at Zayre’s. For my troubles, I earned $1,312 that year. I quit soon after the holidays.

On Halloween 1980, I started working my first full time job as a welfare caseworker for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. My first year of full time work netted a total of $12,484 in Social Security earnings, a lot better than straightening household items at Zayre’s. In the seven years that I worked there, my income increased, topping at $23,453 in 1986. I was at the apex of the income scale for my position. It was time to move on.

In 1988, I moved to California and got another job as a caseworker, starting once again on Halloween. I ended the decade with my highest grossing year so far: $25,296. Those were the days: working, going to concerts with my friends on the weekends, and sharing a three-bedroom apartment.

But, as the late Prince used to say, “Parties weren’t meant to last.” In 1991, I started working a State government job in an old warehouse in San Francisco. I don’t know if the building met earthquake codes, but the management was shakier than the Loma Prieta quake. After a year, I transferred to Sacramento. In Sacramento, 1995 was my big year. Flush with my salary of $36,052, I moved to my own two-bedroom apartment. I got a cat. Then I quit my job. Little did I know that it would take me eleven years to top that 1995 salary.

The early 2000s saw my taxed Social Security Earnings going from high to low like a deranged seismograph. I worked for the Federal government for two years. I worked for a professional association for four years. I went to grad school for two years. I worked at a shelter for two years. In 2007, I earned $49,097. In 2009, I earned $1,379.

From 2010 to 2012, I had no taxable earnings. Unemployment insurance, public assistance, odd jobs and freelance writing did nothing to increase my Social Security credits. If I had worked during those years, maybe I would have pushed my retirement benefits up to $3,000 for my seventh decade and beyond. Last year, my earnings were slightly higher than my 1991 earnings, but of course those dollars were worth a lot more. In 1986, I was living in the spacious first floor of a renovated Victorian in Pennsylvania, paying $395 rent for my two bedrooms and three walk in closets. Thirty years later, I’m living in a tiny one-bedroom apartment with only one closet and no cabinets and paying twice as much.

Social Security Statements force you contemplate your life and your choices. If only I had rolled over my retirement benefits each time that I left a job. If only I had stayed longer at some jobs. Even if I work my current job for five years in order to get vested in the pension plan, I would have to wait an additional five years before I could collect anything.

Seeing 39 years of work in black and white was depressing.

Social Security benefits are not intended to be your only source of income when you retire. [Their emphasis, not mine.] On average, Social Security will replace about 40 percent of your annual pre-retirement earnings. You will need other savings, investments, pensions, or retirement accounts to live comfortably when you retire.

But before I start planning the menu for my Pre-retirement Pity Party, I need to remember some of the things that money and job security can’t buy. I have experienced life on two sides of the country and beyond. So far, I have never been in a hospital as a patient. And even during the waning years of my working life, there is still a little time left to make some good financial choices, and possibly replace more than forty percent of my earnings. I may not be living comfortably, but I won’t be living tragically.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.