On Pensions, or the Demographics of Vasectomies

When I file a story with a note to the editor, “I think I may have crossed a new line here. Enjoy”–you know it’s going to be good, right? Right. Enjoy.

Piggy Bank

LAST WORD: On Pensions, or the Demographics of Vasectomies

Lexpert, October 2006

by Marzena Czarnecka

Like most of the readership of Lexpert, I’m fortunate enough to love my job. And, again, like most of you, I’m socially cursed when it comes to talking about it at barbeques, picnics and family gatherings. I start to talk about my work, and let’s face it, people’s eye glaze over. Most people have learned not to ask, “What are you working on now?”; the unfortunate few who haven’t desperately attempt to steer the conversation to a language that resembles English. The average person on the street—the most beloved people in my family—don’t care how nicely Barrick finessed its bid for Placer Dome, they don’t know and they don’t want to know anything about Clay Horner, Jeff Barnes or Jim Riley, and if I start explaining the legal pecking order on Bay Street and across the country… well, let’s just say, my octogenarian semi-paralyzed deaf great-aunt finds the energy to leave the room.

But this month, things were going to be different. This month, I was writing about pension plans. (Hey, are your eyes glazing over? Quit that—I listened to you, with undivided attention, when you were going on and on about your bloody “tax bump.” Heed to!)

Now, I confess, I personally don’t care a great deal about pension plans. (The labour relations around negotiating, saving and killing pension plans—that’s another matter. That’s perhaps the most intricate and delicate game in town. Plus, it gives me a chance to chat up leftie labour lawyers. Don’t smirk. Everyone’s got to have a hobby.) Anyway: I don’t have a pension plan, I don’t expect to see a cent of my Canada Pension Plan—but I’m cynical and self-employed. And, I thought, an exception to the rule. Surely the average person on the street (not to mention my deaf great-aunt and my retirement-age nearing parents) would be passionately—or at least moderately—interested in the great pension dilemma? Those baby boomers sneaking up on retirement age—is there an issue they care more about? (Well, there is the question of whether health plans will cover Viagra. But number two—I was sure it’d be pensions.)

So, there I was, enjoying a lovely Sunday afternoon with friends and family, and looking forward—for the first time in months—to being asked what I was working on. My first victim was in his 40s and a comparative stranger. “How about you?” quoth he, after regaling me with anecdotes about his dull-witted boss at a job he hated. “What are you working on now?” “Pensions,” I said eagerly, and launched into a summary of the impasse between unions and management, employers and employees and the impact that was going to have on the economy, the society, the universe and everything. His eyes glazed over. “Don’t you care about pensions?” I asked. He looked at me as if I was from Venus.

“Do I look like a baby boomer to you?” he snapped and stormed away. “What about your parents’ pensions?” I shouted after him. “I’m their pension plan!” he hollered back.

My subsequent attempts to make small talk about pensions were equally unsuccessful. I even cornered my mother, a strike-voting and dues-paying member of a union with a pension plan that hasn’t been substantially eroded in recent years. “Pensions!” she pshawed. “Don’t talk to me about pensions! Do you know what my pension will be if I retire at 60? A whopping $425 a month. I sure hope you’re saving for my retirement.” (When I confessed I was not, we decided she should use that $425 to fund monthly trips to Las Vegas, in the hope of increasing her nest egg.) My father, a union-hating rightist who thinks Stephen Harper isn’t quite conservative enough, served up an anti-pension rant that made my own outlook on pensions look positively rose-coloured. He also demolished my nascent theory that baby boomers, at least, must care about pensions.

“So! I hear you’re asking people about pensions!” came the screeching voice of my octogenarian, wheelchair-bound deaf great-aunt. She wheeled closer. “Let me tell you something. I have a pension. And no one is taking it away!” I nodded. Not even Steve “pension killer” Miller (he’s jettisoned pension obligations at United Airlines, Bethlehem Steel and most recently, Delphi) would dare tackle her. “And you know what’s wrong with pensions today?” Frankly, I was afraid to ask. She grabbed her cane (she can’t walk, but she likes to have it around to rap people with) and drew a pyramid in the sand. She pointed to the narrow tip of the pyramid. “This is supposed to be people like me,” she said. She pointed to the wide base. “That’s supposed to be you. And that’s not the way it is right.” She rapped me with her cane. “No one is taking my pension away,” she said again. “But if I were born in your generation… I’d be feeding arsenic soup to everyone over age 65.” She wheeled away cackling.

I stared at the pyramid. And thought… perhaps we better delay that vasectomy.

Marzena Czarnecka is a pensionless Calgary writer.

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