A calculation almost every American man over fifty has made in his head

There is one calculation that almost every American man over fifty* has made in his head that he will almost never admit to. The ones who have made it more than once and many times a year are the ones who have families and responsibilities who now find themselves at the scary end of a medical diagnosis and/or the threat or reality of unemployment.

That calculation is:

Am I worth more dead than alive?


The columns and totals never really see a piece of paper, but they are nonetheless very real.

In the assets column:
That term life insurance that has five more years before it expires and has no value: $250,000.00; Cash in the bank: $50,000.00; That 401(k) I started too late; $30,000.00; Stocks and bonds I randomly bought; $35,000.00; House equity, assuming it can actually be sold in this economy: $100,000.00… and on through the value of furniture, cars and power tools in the garage.

In the liabilities column:
I just got fired, so my unemployment is only $481.00 a week but bills with mortgage and food is $2,100 a month, losing $200.00 a month… I’ll soon lose my health insurance and COBRA is a $900.00 set back per month making that $1,100.00 a month just standing still… if I am unemployed for more than six months, that will be about $10,000.00 gone from the bank account, making the past couple years of savings a waste of time… chances are, I will be unemployed for the rest of my life in this economy, so that will just stretch on, losing my family $20,000.00 a year with me being alive. I will lose my health coverage in less than a year and a half… That is a lot of cash, and that life insurance policy just inched its way to being one year less valuable with no employment in sight…

I just got diagnosed with a pretty serious health condition that will make it difficult for me to work. I will soon be out of a job as my employer will get tired of me calling in sick all the time… I will lose my health care coverage.. if I go into the hospital, that will cost about $8,000.00 a day, depleting my cash in about a week… the mortgage is due in a week… the last tuition bill is due in a couple months… and on and on down to how much dog food is left and how much that will cost to replenish…

If I die today, my family will be ok. If I die in a year or two, my family will be bankrupt, penniless and possibly homeless.

Sure, the kids will say that I am worth more to them alive than dead, regardless of how much money I have. Yeah, “I love you even if you are broke,” “you bring joy to others around you” and “life is not always about money” are things I expect to hear from friends and family.

But I know they are not true. Not really.

Our culture rewards those who are healthy and able to work and shuns those who have fallen on hard times. It guts the sick, dying and unemployed quickly in order to salvage what it can before the corpse begins to rot. It knows the time value of money.

Men know it too. We have made those calculations in our head at every turn throughout our lives. When we buy a house, we calculate how long we’ll have to be employed at this job to pay the mortgage in full. When we have kids, we calculate what we’ll have to earn and sock away to pay for the birthday parties, soccer practice, bicycles, cars and college tuition even as we watch them laugh and dance as if they haven’t a care in the world; even as we laugh and dance with them. We worry our backs and minds will give out before we are able to deliver them into adulthood and breath a sigh of relief when we no longer have to be concerned they won’t have enough to eat.

When we get to about fifty, we eventually make the ultimate calculation. We arrive at a break-even, whether anyone wants us to or not; whether we admit it or not.

The only thing we fear more than getting it wrong is losing the ability to execute if we ever needed to.

*With the exception of highly-paid politicians or the super-rich who never have to worry about health care. For clarification, this isn’t me. I’m fine and gainfully employed at my own company despite my best efforts at getting my boss to fire me 🙂 This is a persona of a 50+ year old man who had a “good job” for most of his life.

5 Replies to “A calculation almost every American man over fifty has made in his head”

  1. Actually, it’s not the men who do this calculation, it’s the wives. That accidental dismemberment policy is pretty attractive some days as well. 🙂

  2. As a single parson and parent for most of my life, I’ve done these types of calculations as well, but without the savings, house, life or health insurance.

    The fact is though that no matter what resources either a middle class or poorer person has to draw from, most of us are only one catastrophe (or a short string of tragedies) away from ruin. Sometimes we don’t fully appreciate that until we’re stricken, sick, or unemployed.

    Others, still feeling comfortable, don’t appreciate how difficult it can be to rise after taking a fall, especially in late middle age. Do you know I still owe thousands and thousands of dollars in medical debt and fear it will dog me relentlessly? It’s not comforting to know I’m not alone, just as it’s not comforting to you that other people are worse off.

    Our loved ones don’t, I think, always understand that our feelings of despair aren’t about love or family or how much we value both, but about losing our value and sense of place in the larger world. To be 50 and know that our opportunities for employment are growing narrower every year. To be losing our physical integrity and strength. To suddenly be fearful of things that were once far off, like getting old and suddenly having all of our talents and ideas deemed not as useful to others.

    It’s quite the process. It hurts. And I’m sorry you’re going through it.

  3. Bonnie, now you’ve got subscribing to breaking news at the Pioneer Press and the Strib 🙂 I want to be able able to shut down the paper trail before the fuzz comes a-callin’

  4. I scratch my head whenever I see someone with a job who has healthcare at the grace of his or her employer talk like it is something they have earned instead of it being granted to them. I think they have no idea how tenuous their health care is, that it can be taken away with the stroke of an accountant’s pen, that their health and the health of their family straddles that very, very thin blue line. We don’t need “death panels.” We already have them.

    I used to work in Human Resources. Health care options came down to what the budget was that came from the board or the owners. Period. We had to buy health insurance for all the employees within that number. And if we saved some money, we managers would get a bonus. It was a sick system. All that crap you hear about how HR argues for being able to compete in the marketplace for the best employees by having the better benefits, etc, etc is all crap. They flexed with salary and vacation days, but health benefits were written in stone and nobody ever cared about those details, as long as the salary was high enough. Make no mistake, managers always got bonuses.

    To set up a system that loses your job because you get sick and then lose your health care because you lose your job is lunacy! To have an entire class of citizen seriously considering denying themselves medical care so their family won’t become destitute should they fall ill is nutty. But that is what we have.

    I shudder to think how many people have killed themselves because they saw the choice of worth based on money alone. It is the culture we have. If you can make someone money, you are worthy enough to live. If not, please crawl over there in the corner and die. Cumulative life achievement be damned.

  5. Bonnie, I think you need to stay away from my wife before she gets any ideas 🙂

    Rufus: Just happened to come across your blog from a comment you posted on another site about gratitude and this post just struck a chord – I’m rapidly approaching retirement age and the prospect worries me because we’re all one financial crisis away from ruin. Even my bond portfolio has taken a beating and I’m just at a loss for what to do.

    On the bright side, I don’t have to worry about my kids funding my medical expenses when they come up – dual citizenship means when I have problems, I’m moving to Canada.

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