The Time Traveler: Hugh Ellis

As pictures go, you wouldn’t expect a graph I was sent by a retirement fund to be dramatic enough to warrant a column in a newspaper, but here we are.

On the x-axis was time, specifically my future age if the ‘Rona or other misfortune does not get me before 55 or so. On the y-axis was the amount of money my pension fund would have to pay me monthly, should I retire at any of the said ages.

A horizontal grey line represented, in real terms, 75 per cent of my current salary – the amount financial experts say you should retire with. 75 per cent because you no longer need to spend on fancy suits and trips to work every day and so on.

A slowly rising blue line represented the expected increase in the money I have within the fund. That’s the expected increase if everything goes as predicted by the economists and actuaries and pot-smoking druids and whoever else pension funds employ to tell the future for them.

Above this, a green line showed what would happen if my funds do better than expected – if everything is groovy in the world economy. Below both those lines, a red line showed what would happen if things went badly. If that asteroid is really coming for us – okay, maybe not that, but you get the idea.

Only the green line – the best-case scenario – just barely crossed the magical grey 75-per-cent-of-current-income-in-real-terms threshold, and only just did so at the magical age of 65.

Fortunately, I have some other investments. Fortunately too, I am unlikely to have many children or other family members depending on my pension money.

But 65, guys? Like, another 24 years of writing the 10th revision of some document, or listening to some self-important fellow in a committee room?

Don’t misunderstand, I love work, there are parts of my job I genuinely live for, but the older I get, the less I feel happy with the idea of doing it full-time when I’m old and grey and wrinkled.

And with 60 per cent of income under normal circumstances? 75 per cent only if the world economy goes swimmingly for the next two decades? What happened to the idea of being Hugh Hefner in my old age, with the mansion and the car collection and the playmates? Okay, maybe not the playmates, but still.

Bear in mind I’m a relatively privileged guy, with a PhD, a good-enough salary and 20 years’ experience in two professions.

What this graph would look like for the construction worker or the shelf-packer at Woermann Brock, if it existed for them at all, I dread to think.

For me, it couldn’t help but show the limitations of capitalism, at least the kind of free-for-all, winner-takes-all capitalism we practice in Africa, and how this capitalism is no real friend to the middle classes.

Compared to some, Hugh may seem to be doing very well out of the ‘free market’, but if you look at what little net worth he has after 20 years of work, and how, perish the thought, getting fired in the middle of a pandemic would affect him… Hugh actually has more in common with Petrus the construction worker and Selma the shelf-stacker at Woermann Brock, than with Bill the multimillion-dollar CEO, and should vote and protest and write and think accordingly.

I will probably get angry responses from both the left and right for saying this, but the data shows that successful countries combine elements of the market with elements of socialism.

I’m certainly not in favor of government committees setting the price of bread, as was the case at one time in the former Soviet Union, nor even the hyper-local version of such touted by some modern socialists (where, presumably, a version of your neighborhood watch WhatsApp group sets the price of bread).

However, the big things, those often beyond an individual’s control that ultimately determine our net worth and chances of not being carried out of the office in a coffin – pensions, insurance, health care, access to the Internet, school costs up to and including university fees – I will always make the case that they should be socialized, certainly more socialized than they are now.

Whether the National Health Service in the UK, or the Family Grant in Brazil, there are success stories around the world we can learn from. And we can begin to invent and adapt our own, according to our own circumstances.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. This one only got 775. Considering how this picture so vividly brought home to me the precariousness of the middle classes, I hope they have been well-chosen ones.

Hugh Ellis is a Namibian citizen and lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. The views expressed here are personal views. Follow his blog at http://ellishugh.wordpress.com