When The Well Runs Dry

By Ron Ciancutti

There was yet another column in the Sunday paper about baby boomers being hit the hardest during this Great Recession, and it resonated with me. The columnist insinuated that the U.S.government duped us all, that we were lulled to sleep by the confidence of a robust economy, and we had every right to believe housing values would continue to rise, promotions would always be available, and life would move generally upward. Some people believed it was once “healthy” to leave one company and start fresh with another, to mix it up and gain a lot of experience, to endlessly add new skills surrounded by new people. In fact, I've been reading that for decades.


Endless Optimism
Ten years after starting my career to ensure I remained a valued commodity to my company, I completed my master’s degree in business in the evenings. One of my professors asked me and another classmate what we planned to do with our degrees. What was the next challenge, he wondered aloud. My friend said he had already applied to two places and intended to give his notice the minute he heard from either. Looking at the floor, I stammered that I was hopeful my current company would give me a small bonus for graduating with honors and increasing the professional standards for the position I already held. My friend snickered, and the professor instructed him to “get me moving already.” That same friend called me late last year to ask whether my company would be hiring in the spring for the summer staff. His hip-hop credentials had garnered him little or no equity wherever he was when the axe fell because each time he moved up, it was with a different company. With job layoffs occurring everywhere, he was always the newest guy on the team, and therefore the easiest to remove. He complained that he was a victim. I begged to differ, but said nothing. Did he really think the fountain would never run dry? I am all for optimism, but endless optimism?

High-Stakes Gambling
Another friend is $100,000 upside down on his house, and is suddenly unemployed. He is in sales and jumped at the chance to sell a “bigger-ticket” widget that he was not familiar with. I suggested he stick with what he knew, but the financial increase was too tempting. A few years ago, he had taken on a big mortgage at a time when the market was flourishing and his investments were performing with momentary success. At one point, he considered moving when he was offered $360,000 for his home that cost $250,000 to build. He turned it down, and less than a year later had to take on a second mortgage. A year after that, the Fannie and Freddie crisis hit, and the value minus the equity of that home has sent him under water almost permanently. I am not saying he should have sold at $360,000, but if his margins were that thin, it was a gamble taking on such a mortgage in the first place . But he, too, was banking on nothing but the St. Elmo's fire of endless and permanent appreciation of property values, continued raises, and job promotions. He had never even considered any type of safety net if the high-stakes gambles didn't work out. Now let me pause here. I respect the dreamer; I rally behind the man who looks it all in the teeth and boldly says, “I'm going in anyway,” but does a man have the right to be so bold when he has a family and related obligations? Should we be responsible for the recovery of the dealings of a man who gambled with no conscience?

His debt has become ours, and that's not fair. His cavalier mentality is like that of the younger brother who goes to the county fair with the family and keeps blowing money on games, food, and rides. Every 20 minutes or so he returns to Mom and Dad with his hand out. “I'm out of money again,” and Mom plops another $20 in his hand, which he promptly wastes and then returns for more. When Dad finally says, “That’s enough,” the son starts crying uncontrollably on the midway, having a meltdown because his demand exhausted the supply, and he now realizes he should have been more careful with the expenditures. It’s all spilled milk.

Party Over
I know this is a giant oversimplification, and I am sure anyone who has been laid off or fired in the last few years is boiling right now because it is “different” for them. Let’s be honest here. I think all of us bear some of the responsibility for what's happened--not the economy, not the politicians, not the market place--just us.

We knew deep in our hearts that one day the party would end, but we plowed forward as if it never would, ignoring that little voice that said, “That's an awful lot to pay for a car” or “You know, if one thing goes wrong, this huge mortgage will blow up in our face.” We swatted that Jiminy Cricket away from our ear as if it was a summer picnic fly.

How To Be A Man
In Berea, Ohio, where I was born, three streets triangulate the center of downtown, thus the distinction of having a “town triangle” instead of a “town square.” Locals are proud of that unique trivia. In my youth, Schneider’s Drug Store, Whitey’s Army/Navy Store, Art’s Men’s Shop, and other quaint businesses adorned the triangle, and on the “away” side--next to the hardware store and across the street from the pool hall--sat Pappy and Uncle Mike’s Barber Shop. Pappy (my mom’s dad) learned the trade of barbering around age 40 when the country no longer needed men to haul chunks of ice or coal into a house.

This small town was full of men with character, pride, and responsibility. They took great care to live in a way that made their families proud. They minimized risk because they didn’t want to appear needy, and, as a rule, put themselves last.

On Saturday mornings, Pappy would take me to the shop, where he would re-shave my “Princeton” haircut. I’d read comic books, sneak peeks at the girlie magazines he kept in the back, and just hang around until Dad whistled from across the street for me to join him for a hamburger for lunch at the pool room. It was a simpler time, and I saw each day as a privilege. From the customers at the barber shop who gave me hard candies to the pool-room men who gave me dimes to play the pinball machines all afternoon, there were constant examples of “how to be a man.”

Here’s one I always remember. Pappy used to keep $1 bills in his left pocket and $10 bills in his right. When he had 10 $1 bills, he exchanged them for a $10 bill. When he had 10 $10 bills, he exchanged them for a $100 bill, which he promptly added to a rubber-banded roll hidden in a cigar box in the basement. Eventually, he would count the money and then drive his current car tointo the local dealership.  He would choose a new car, offering his current car as trade plus the cash he had in his hand--title, license, and tax, out the door. In this way, he was always driving a car that was never more than 5 years old, and it was one he had selected, on his terms--one he saved for, waited for, and planned for.

If we had thought more like that several years ago, wouldn't we have avoided some of the “terrible way the country is treating us?”

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com .