“The Second Act Industry,” a Response

Recently I came across an article published by the New York Times titled “The Snake Oil of the Second Act Industry” by Alissa Quart. She details how middle-aged people, especially those who are stressed by their lack of retirement funds, attempt to pivot their career lives to make more money before they retire. She details some problems with the industry surrounding this phenomenon, termed the “second act” and the problems with the industry. Overall, she argues that the middle-aged are being taken advantage of by the second act industry and the government needs to provide more social support. In this piece, I have responded to specific portions that I felt deserved a response. The full article can be read here.

 

“I call the businesses propelling that promise of reinvention the “second-act industry,” and it includes for-profit universities, certificate programs and coaches getting in on the new trend — all of them helping, for a fee, people who are trying to get back into or ahead in the work force.”

Some of these programs may in fact take advantage of the middle-aged people they purport to help, as this article asserts. However, some of the blame may be on the people using these services and their blind trust in the programs or degrees being offered. Some investigation into the service, the promised results, and the actual results could help people weigh the pros and cons of such as products and services. That does not mean it would be easy, but if more people become aware of how careers are changing and how hiring practices are changing, it would become easier to adapt to the current job world and discern between scams and legitimate companies.

 

“The industry appeals to anxious and sometimes underqualified middle-aged students who are enticed by a constellation of websites, special programs, self-help books and gurus.”

People are drawn in by the promise of more earning power. The methods purported may be questionable and the price may be too high, but people are willing to pay for it. I agree with the later assertions that something needs to be done to help the middle aged people who fall into this trap, but I do not agree with the proposed solution. As more people test strategies for the current job market and given a larger body of proof, it will help the aging members of the work force adapt more effectively.

 

“To survive as workers, we have to deny, on some level, the realities of our bodies — bodies that age and give birth. While more people are working later in life because of happy things like longer life expectancy, they are also doing so because of very sad things, like a lack of Social Security benefits or retirement plans.”

It is unfortunate that so many people have planned their retirement with Social Security in mind. This places a burden on taxpayers and fuels emotionally charged arguments for why it must be kept, such as, “it cannot be repealed because people rely on it.” When people have the capacity to plan for retirement by saving money, they may partially have themselves to blame for their newfound poverty. However, a lot of people either do not have extra income, have relied on faulty retirement savings methods, or did not save enough to account for inflation and the increased living costs that come with being older. This is a problem, and it will take time and effort to “fix it” and to take care of the elderly people who are currently relying on Social Security benefits.

 

“The real problem is that middle-aged people are unlikely to have pensions or savings because of inadequate federal social support in this country. Unfortunately, individual ambition… doesn’t always do the trick.Yet we continue to believe. Perhaps it’s because the roots of our faith in second acts are long.”   

Federal social support comes from the money taxpayers make. The more the government forcibly takes from those working now, the less they have available to use for themselves and their families. Instead of solving the problem, this could just move more of it to younger people. In fact, based on this article and what I already know about this problem, it seems like federal social support enacted in the past helped cause this problem, not that further social support programs will fix it. I talk about this more in a later paragraph.

 

“So instead of putting the blame on people caught in this bind, what if we had better anti-ageist work policies? What if companies were incentivized to hire older workers? And what if middle-aged people who are casting about for a second act had real societal support while they did so, like free after-school programs for their children or a monthly basic income guarantee, like the one now being piloted in Ontario?”

This is not a solution I would back. In fact, if such a program were presented to people in my community, I would vote against it and encourage others to do the same. These “free after-school programs” will cost money, and who will pay for them? Taxpayers. Who pays for Social Security? Taxpayers. Instead of people voluntarily helping others who need it, either financially or in some other way, the government forcibly takes money from everyone in order to help them. This government welfare is often not the best way to help the person in need, or it is ineffective. Additionally, having more of these tax-funded programs will require higher taxes, thus decreasing the benefit for those who it is supposed to be helping. If instead private institutions or groups of people came together and either raised money to help people in this situation or volunteered their time to help them, that would be more effective and would not require the government to steal money from everyone.

 

“We should look to create fixes for middle-aged workers that are not solely reliant on private inspirations or pricey new degrees. We need public solutions for midlife career atrophy and joblessness so that people don’t get into even deeper debt and blame themselves for their failures.”

These public solutions will require increased taxes, which hurt everyone. The “pricey new degrees” are not effective, yes, that is true. In the changing job market, tangible skills are more valuable than a degree, because so many people have degrees. The value of the degree has decreased but the price has increased. While yes, the middle aged people facing this problem might be prone to blame themselves, it is not a social or societal problem for the most part. The government has lied about Social Security, presenting it as a form of “insurance,” and misleading people as to how it functions, contributing to the problem. Back when FDR enacted the New Deal and instituted Social Security, it was intended to be temporary. Instead, people protested attempts to repeal it after the economy had recovered from the Great Depression (not even because of the New Deal, as Tom Woods details well in 33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask). Now, it has been around long enough that people plan for Social Security to help supplement their retirement savings. Will it be hard for people when or if it is repealed? Yes, because they are dependent on this money that is taken from all the working people and handed to them. But it is not and should not be the government’s job to take care of people in this way. We should be caring for each other, not relying on the government to help people.

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