Like most Americans of a certain age, Jennifer Bridgeman is concerned about her family's financial future.
Her parents are paying huge health-care premiums out of their Social Security checks. Her husband's 401(k) has been a wash so far, and she has no idea when, or if, he can retire. As for her daughter, "I told her the other day, 'You might have to work till you're 90.'"
Bridgeman is exactly the type of person AARP wants to hear from when it holds dozens of forums, town halls and debates around the state this year -- even though she is nine years away from being old enough to join the organization.
In an unprecedented push, AARP Minnesota is inviting not only its 670,000-plus members but people of all ages to "You've Earned a Say" discussions on Social Security and Medicare. The first of the events is March 29 in St. Paul (go to aarp.org/mn for a schedule).
"This is too important to be decided through business as usual in Washington," AARP Minnesota director Michelle Kimball said. "These are the safety nets that just about every American does or will depend on at some time, so this needs to be an inter-generational debate."
AARP first engaged people under 50 in 2005, Kimball said, when the Bush administration made a push for privatizing Social Security, and then during the health-care reform debates.
But in recent years, most of us have lost a sense of security as budget deficit debates have removed Social Security and Medicare from untouchable status, and pensions, IRAs and 401(k)s have taken a hit during the Great Recession.
"What people are concerned about is that the debates have been going on for a couple of years behind closed doors," Kimball said, "and they don't have a say about these two very important programs."
Enter folks like Bridgeman, 41, of Big Lake, along with longtime AARP members such as Virginia "Scotty" Scattarelli, 86, of Richfield.
Scattarelli, who spent 22 years at Abbott Northwestern as a registered nurse, is barely scraping by on a $200-a-month pension check and Social Security. "If I didn't have my house totally paid for, I would be out on the street," she said.
But she's more concerned about her daughters and their offspring than herself. "My grandkids are the ones who are going to have the real trouble," she said.
Aiming for a consensus
The goal of the "You've Earned a Say" gatherings is to let individuals voice their concerns about Social Security and Medicare and eventually find common ground.
"There will be a debate," Kimball said. "There will be disagreement among participants, and at some point a consensus will emerge."
With elections coming in the fall, AARP officials hope to get some priorities resolved in time to "influence the debates so that candidates understand what their charge is from the public," Kimball said.
The sessions, especially those about Medicare, will extend into next year.
"That is a much tougher debate and a much more urgent topic," Kimball said.
The uncertainty around these two programs has prompted local financial planners to tell their clients, particularly younger ones, to change their long-term planning -- and their mind-sets.
"We say basically if you're under 45, don't count on" Social Security, said Molly Murphy of Northwestern Mutual. "There probably will be reform, so we should just act as if it's not going to be there. As things get closer, we can make changes as necessary.
"It's simple math and logic that it's probably not going to be there unless there is major reform. It's probably what the public is thinking; we're just saying it."
Ruth Hayden of Ruth Hayden & Associates is urging her clients of all ages to "develop emotional intelligence skills so that you don't get scared by the volatility of the market."
She also is telling them to stop thinking of ages 62 and 65 as "entitlement retirement times. We can't. We're living too long. You can't gamble the last third of your life like that."
Or the last two-thirds.
Bridgeman watches her parents pay $636 a month for supplemental health coverage and shudders. "If you put that into the perspective of what their house payment was, whoa!" she said.
That's why Kimball insisted that "we can't keep pushing this off."
And why Scatterrelli is urging her loved ones to do as she says, not as she did.
"When I was working, it didn't occur to me to even worry about this stuff," she said. "My kids think more about the future than I ever did."
Bill Ward 612-673-7643