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Remember the Aesop’s fable about the ant and the grasshopper? When it comes to retirement, these days, more Americans are acting like grasshoppers than ants. According to a new report from the Employee Benefit Research Institute just shy of 60 percent of retirees say they have less than $25,000 saved. And only about half of us have even taken the time to crunch the numbers on what we’ll need to live on after we retire. Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Times are tough, and people are struggling just to get by. But some causes are more complex.
Douglas Rushkoff has a theory. He argues that when you’re living in a very urgent present, swimming in a flood of tweets and status updates and a 24/7 news cycle, the future can lose priority. Rushkoff writes about the implications of this in his new book, “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now.”
What does Rushkoff mean by “present shock?”
“Present shock is really the human reaction to living in a world that’s always on and kind of pinging you from everywhere. I guess on a deeper level, it’s about living in a world kind of without history and without a future — where everything is happening in the present tense. So how do you run your life or your business or anything about you when you don’t really have a temporal landscape in which to do it,” says Rushkoff.
Rushkoff says the American retirement paradigm is based on an Industrial Age idea of doing stuff now for a future reward. But our essential relationship and experience with time has changed, as well as our beliefs about the future. He uses investing as an example.
“On the one hand, investors don’t invest any more anyway,” says Rushkoff. “They are investing in the trade. They’re trying to make money off the transaction itself in real time. God forbid we start thinking about the company that’s supposed to be underlying the stock.”
Rushkoff says people don’t really do things for the consequences any more. He says everything happens in the moment for its own sake — something that’s both frightening in the short term on one hand, but very real on the other hand.
“Our financial choices have always been predicated on some psycho-behavioral flaws, if we want to pick on people,” says Rushkoff. “But the difference now is that banks and investment firms and credit card companies have entire divisions of highly paid psychologists trying to help them figure out how to exploit these irrational tendencies. That’s the part that’s really, kind of not fair. When you have the very industries that are being entrusted with our future that are looking for ways to make money off our bad choices. That’s really why it doesn’t work so well any more.”
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