“This is a great job, but it is not what I thought I would be doing and not where I thought I would be at this point in my life,” she said.
A generation earlier, her mother had no such worries — her path to a good job and an early retirement was paved with certainty.
‘A new world’
After earning a two-year degree in construction management, Karen Conchar was hired by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Later, she was scooped up by the fast-growing Fairfax County government, where she worked for 28 years, mostly overseeing capital projects. She retired this year at 54 and is collecting a good pension guaranteed to last the rest of her life.
For her, long careers and good pensions were a family tradition. Her father worked as a computer specialist at NASA, and his government pension allowed him to settle into a leisurely retirement in a home adjacent to a golf course in Kinston, N.C. Her grandfather also had retired with a nice pension after a civilian career with the Navy Department.
She found the same after graduating from Northern Virginia Community College in 1979. She stepped right into her chosen field with VDOT, starting in a job that involved inspecting concrete and other materials used on road projects.
“At the time they were doing a massive hiring for all of the road improvements that were going on,” she said. “They hired 180 people in six months. The training classes were being held in the auditorium of Oakton Elementary School.”
Five years later, Fairfax County lured her away with a construction-management job that nearly doubled her salary. The job also came with the type of generous retirement plan that many employers now find unsustainable. The pension she started collecting this year is equal to 64 percent of her final salary, or about $60,000 a year. Her 62-year-old husband, a retired government worker, is also receiving a comfortable pension.
Karen Conchar has her challenges, including a home on a five-acre horse farm that is worth less than she owes for it. Still, she is basically set financially. Her main worry is whether her only daughter will ever be able to say the same.
“It’s a new world, and it’s sad,” she said. “I really feel bad for my daughter’s generation.”
For Sandra, the biggest hurdle may be having to adjust her expectations downward after always envisioning having more than her parents.
“My idea of the American dream was to be above average,” she said. “I didn’t want to be just average.”
She wanted a big home, a vibrant career, horses to ride in her free time and a comfortable retirement. But, so far, things have not gone as planned.
Her job at Potomac Pizza pays just enough to keep her in the one-bedroom she shares with her boyfriend in Woodley Park. But she lives check to check, unable to save anything for the future. She relies on her parents to help her pay down her $47,000 in college debt.
And it’s not just her. “I’ve got friends with double majors and master’s degrees who are working as bartenders,” she said. “When I think of that, I count myself as lucky.”
Recently, she decided that she will try to go to law school to bolster her credentials, in hopes of finding the kind of fulfilling career that will keep her financially secure through her working years and beyond.
“I can’t lose faith,” Conchar said, “ even if I feel like the rug is being completely ripped out from under my generation.”