Lessons from the fall: Barbara Tickner

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While the economy continues to “falter” — the Dow closed 600 points lower today — the urge to panic is increasing, even though it won’t do any good.

The reality is most Americans won’t end up living under a bridge, and — with any luck — we won’t lose our jobs. In the big scheme of things, we’re pretty well off, and we know we are, even though we’ll have a lot less money than we had. We know that economies that decline, usually grow in time. The older worker often has some protections of seniority. So why are so many of us stressed? Because our lives may not go the way we thought they would as recently as a few weeks ago and if there’s one thing we cherish, it’s plans that work. If there’s one thing we hate, it’s coming up with a Plan B. Few of our plans are working right now, however.

Barbara Tickner, 53, is a perfect example. That’s her above with her boss, Judge Lloyd Zimmerman of Hennepin County. Tickner loves her job as a clerk for Judge Zimmerman, and from what I could tell during lunch today, her colleagues love her right back. She’s so good at it — she even made cookies last week for a jury — Judge Zimmerman told me he hopes she never retires.

The thing is: She’d planned to retire in 2010, spend some time in Florida or at the cabin, do some volunteer work, and occasionally play with her new granddaughter. Those plans are, if not on hold, certainly up in the air (The “rule of 90″ allows employees whose age and length of service adds up to 90 to retire).

Her husband is a remodeling contractor, a business that is a pretty well paired with the economy. Their health insurance comes from Barbara’s job. Like many of us, she’s put money away for retirement and the numbers were larger a few years ago than they are now. They sold the home in which they raised their three children a few years ago for a much smaller bungalow in Minneapolis. They were working the plan.

“During the housing boom, I used to say to my husband, ‘who’s going to live in all of these $500,000 condos?” she told me today, figuring something wasn’t quite right with the economic math. By all accounts, she and her husband have done all the right things, and yet this week, like so many Americans, there’s high anxiety. “We’ve been very fortunate not to have to rely on a lot of credit, but I’m amazed at how the world revolves around credit.”

We’re all getting those economics lessons this week. As for Barbara’s future? “We’re just playing it by ear,” although she acknowledges reading and hearing the economic news is draining. She may yet retire on schedule. She may not.

For now she’s still holding onto the possibilities of life after a career in civil service, maybe even working in retail. “It would be nice to have customers come in with smiles instead of handcuffs,” she joked.

By the time the economy turns around, we will literally be poorer, but wiser. Economic downturns are nothing if not great teachers.

Here’s what I learned today:

(1) It’s easier to survive an economic downtown when you have a job you love and you’re good at.

(2) If you don’t have one now, when things turn around, go get one.

(3) You can change your plans and keep your dreams.

(There are many people experiencing the economy in different ways. I’m interesting in telling all of the personal stories in one fashion or another. If you’d like to tell me yours, please contact me.)

  • Realist

    It’s hard to feel bad about someone not being able to retire at age 55 with a pension. Someone who owns a cabin and presumably a primary residence.

    Most people won’t have a pension, and many will barely be able to retire at 67.