Trying to figure the way through a 401(k) life

Thomas Friedman’s thoughts on how we’re becoming a 401(k) nation have been kicking around the back of my mind for about a year. His Op-Ed piece described the shift in how retirement plans in the US have largely shifted from pensions to 401(k)s and used that transition to make a point about the changing nature of work.

In a pension plan, a defined input (so many year of work) leads to a defined output (a regular payment that starts upon retirement until the day you die) with the risk assumed by the employer. In a 401(k), there’s still a defined input (regular deposits into a managed investment account) but how much a person gets at the end carries no guarantees and the risk sits squarely with the employee.

Friedman’s insight was that work itself is following that same path. Where once the defined achievements of education and learned skills were enough to guarantee continued employment and a good, middle-class career (at least), that’s not really the case anymore.

The news a some months back that Amgen will be closing its Seattle site this year really drove that point home. It was a reminder that biopharma, like so many other industries, isn’t immune to the implications  of the 401(k) life.

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One small, wistful story about the shutdown

Seattle, like San Francisco, like New York City, is a city of water and bridges.  I remember reading Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin back in college. I think it’s a book that I’d benefit from reading now, again, but one of the concepts that struck me even in my callow youth was his observation about cities that have bridges as part of their fundamental being.  He described how a city, to be magnificent, must “project, extend, fling itself in all directions–over the water, in peninsulas, hills, soaring towers, and islands linked by bridges.”

Seattle is that kind of city.

And it made me sad when I heard that one of our bridges, albeit a small and specialized one, was closing because of the government shutdown. Continue reading