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Getting Older in Happy Valley

by on July 19, 2016 5:00 AM

Ah, silence. In the last two weeks we locals have survived the double whammy onslaught of the 4thFest and the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts  -- both bringing tens of thousands of visitors to our secluded enclave here in the shadow of Mt. Nittany. But now, the hordes are gone and it’s just us again.

Only, not quite for me. You see, as you read this I am at work somewhere in Cleveland, Ohio amidst the throngs gathered for the Republican convention. And next week I will be in Philadelphia with the masses assembled for the Democratic convention. In other words, I will have jumped directly from the proverbial frying pan into the fire of the multitudes.

And that is a story for a fortnight from now.

But in the here and now, at this moment I am recalling one of the great benefits of the back-to-back big weekends in State College -- the opportunity to see good friends who venture back to Happy Valley for the festivities. Some you see every year or so. Some you see once a decade. Every once in awhile it’s someone a quarter-century removed from your life. Either way it’s Tony-the-Tiger-great catching up.

We get to talk and hear about each other’s lives, which means we mostly discuss our kids, and these days more often than I care to think, we discuss our own health. My standard opening line for ages has been, “How you doin’?!” My wife claims I adopt a New York accent when I do it. If so it’s subconscious. Plus it’s a Hoboken accent, not New York.

Except now, “How you doin?!” can be followed by something other than the jovial reply, “Great! How you doin’?!” It can be followed by a litany of issues up to and including some that involve deep breaths, long hugs and somber moments.

Health insurance invariably enters these discussions and as you can envision is often not spoken of in kind words. As someone who has been buying his own health insurance for years and has had his premiums more than double in the last five years with worse coverage, well, I certainly add my two cents to the dialogue.

This is all the process of aging though, and I imagine those who have trod this ground before my generation are enjoying their schadenfreude, in the same way I assume I will when I see today’s thirty-somethings two decades from now.

Another topic of conversation that rears its ugly head during our reminiscing is retirement. I must admit to falling in the camp of humans who find that thought a little disconcerting. Because if you follow the traditional timeline of life there is really only one major moment on the timeline after retirement. And I’m fine, thank you very much, delaying that moment as long as possible. I sort of enjoy this little trip on planet Earth.

Nonetheless, rear its ugly head it does. We are old enough that our peers who led stable employment lives are celebrating their 25h and 30th anniversaries with an employer and are ready to accept their just rewards – a retirement package. Primarily, that means a well-deserved pension and health insurance benefits.

Retirement. Having these conversations got me to thinking how that concept applies in our beautiful Happy Valley, because the conversations about it that I have with people who live and work outside of our favorite hometown are decidedly different from the conversations I have with fellow Valley folks.

And the reason for that is simple.

Here in Happy Valley we live in a land almost exactly opposite the rest of America when it comes to retirement.  It’s no wonder the Centre Region regularly appears in rankings for top cities and places to live.

In the vast reaches of America “out there,” people don’t have retirement options. Sources suggest that only 4 percent of private sector companies have defined benefit pension plans these days. Here in Happy Valley the vast majority of employees are covered by a defined benefit pension plan and many of the rest participate in defined contribution plans such as 401ks or 403bs. Elsewhere, two-thirds of the working-age population does not participate in, or even have access to, a defined contribution plan.

An article in Forbes magazine stated, “54 percent of Americans have too little saved to produce an income stream in retirement.” That’s a fancy way of saying half of America can’t retire, period. They have no money to live on.

Yet here the reverse is true. Residents can look forward to retirement, juggle options, consider possibilities, try new paths, engage in their dreams. It’s a nice life if you can get it, and in addition to the summer of silence one of the huge bonuses of living and working in Happy Valley.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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