Decision-making as an immunosuppressed person during a pandemic

When the pandemic began we knew very little. We didn’t know how dangerous any given thing was; if, for example, touching shared surfaces was more of a risk than shared airspace.

It was safe to assume that immunosuppression created more risk of negative outcomes if I became infected with the virus—severe symptoms, hospitalization, death—and possibly also created more risk of infection if exposed.

In that situation, my logical choice was lockdown. Go out as little as possible, and wearing a mask when I did so (even before they were required), follow the hand washing rules rigorously, and wash or disinfect items coming into the house which may have been coughed or sneezed on at some point. Make a pod with only two other people, who were very careful about masks and hand washing and physical distance with those outside our pod.

Soon there was scientific data on the virus’ survival on surfaces which added isolation as an option to washing/disinfecting incoming items and I was able to set up boxes by the front door to allow things to sit for three days.

At various points as time went by new information came in—”yes, it’s transmitted through the air, and everyone should mask”, “yes, immunosuppressed people have substantially worse outcomes so really really avoid getting it”, “actually surfaces are only a short-term risk so you can just isolate for 8-24 hours and wash your hands after to feel particularly safe”, “N95 masks really really help, so get good ones and learn how to fit them properly”, “well, actually surfaces are even safer than we thought, so just wash hands after touching stuff”.

The vaccination became available to some people and that, plus continuing study, brought new data after a while—”vaccinated people are a LOT less likely to get infected if exposed, though not a sure thing, so still wear a mask around people other than your ‘pod'”, “outdoors makes an enormous difference, so you can go for a masked walk with your friends or socialize outside in masks”.

I remained cautious, knowing that my situation was less studied and not represented in the general instructions.

I got the Pfizer vaccine on the first day I was eligible and that lowered my stress though it didn’t change my habits. I felt even better after shot #2 because by then we had data that even people with pre-existing conditions who might not get full protection from the vaccines were experiencing reduced rates of hospitalization and death. But I didn’t change my habits. The “one wrong step could kill you” feeling began to dissipate, even as awareness grew of what a crappy thing COVID-19 is and how much I didn’t want Long COVID.

There wasn’t and still isn’t a way to directly measure protection and to see how well the vaccine did in my body. But there was correlation between protection and spike protein antibodies. So as soon as I could get a test for those, I did.

It was negative.

Not only was I not a ‘fully vaccinated person’ in CDC terms, I didn’t even have a number that let me consider myself anything above 0% vaccinated with regard to my risk of infection.

In all of that information void, I turned to probability to help me decide what to do and what not to do. I used the microCOVID.org Calculator and then moved on to create a microCOVID.org Risk Tracker spreadsheet for myself and to have my two pod-mates make one for their ‘fully vaccinated’ selves (with a different weekly risk budget than my very very conservative one).

This has been enormously helpful in my making informed decisions as I have navigated through the unknown. Those decisions use statistical risk to make safety choices about how much I can socialize with my friends or go out in the world. Having good information and methodology for those decisions helped enormously and contributed to my experiencing less stress around this than the very very very high stress levels I’d had before.

But they haven’t solved my problem: I want to see my friends more than my risk budget allows for getting together with estimated ‘vaccinated person who is sometimes working to the edge of a reasonable risk limit of their own’.

Unless I convince all my friends to track all their activities in their own Risk Tracker—instead of just following the broad CDC and San Francisco city guidelines around mask wearing—and have real week-to-week risk-to-others numbers based on what they’ve been doing, I need to use a stand-in estimated person that’s not overconfident. And that caution burns up my 21 microCOVID’s a week budget very fast now that the COVID rate is rising again.

Adding to this is confirmation that people on my medication often do not get a full response from the vaccines, and that sometimes getting additional vaccinations helps, but not in my case. At least not so far with J&J not doing it for me and my quantitative spike protein antibody test two weeks after Moderna shot #1 still showing negative.

I’m hitting the limit of what will work for me in terms of making my social safety decisions based on statistical probability.

It’s time to switch to a model more like safe sex: a current test showing you don’t have it. And the great part is, there are easy, painless, rapid tests which only take 15 minutes. It’s an expense, but it’s one that seems well worth it for my mental health.

I think it’s gonna be easier to talk my vaccinated friends into sitting on the back porch swabbing their noses before they come inside unmasked than it would have been to convince them to maintain a spreadsheet. 😄

The essential first step to deciding to adopt this approach is to confirm how accurate those tests are and how that compares to the risk level I feel comfortable with.

Based on the interim results of a clinical study where the BinaxNOW™ COVID-19 Antigen Self Test was compared to an FDA authorized high sensitivity SARS-CoV-2 test, BinaxNOW COVID-19 Antigen Self Test correctly identified 84.6% of positive specimens and 98.5% of negative specimens.

[source]

Currently the rate of COVID cases among vaccinated people in San Francisco is about 5.8 per 100K [source]. In microCOVID terms that’s about a 58 microCOVID “expense” to be around a vaccinated San Franciscan who has no symptoms and with no other information.

If BinaxNow has a false negative rate of 15.4%, now that “expense” becomes a 9 microCOVID risk they’re actually positive. A 9 in a million chance they have COVID right now.

The chance that they would transmit to me in that case are even lower, because there’s the ‘partner attack rate’ to consider in exposure in general, but also because being less infectious would correlate with being more likely to appear negative on the BinaxNOW test.

So, I can keep using my microCOVID.org Risk Tracker in general, but for in-person activities where I’m testing people before we’re unmasked together, I should probably estimate it as an activity that costs me 1 microCOVID per person per hour. (That is based on a 14% chance per hour of of getting COVID based on microCOVID.org’s updated estimates plus some downward adjustment for reduced infectiousness.) And where people have a known risk that comes out better, I can log them on a separate line in my Risk Tracker spreadsheet and reduce my “expense” even more.

This still means that getting together with 3 friends to play boardgames or a role-playing game for 3 hours is about a third to half my weekly risk budget right now, but that is often worth it to me!

(Thanks, Joe, for helping me think through the probabilities!)

Adapting in the Other Direction

I’m beginning to realize that getting used to the idea that there’s less direct impact on my city of a pandemic is as gradual and intense a process as getting used to the idea that there was. Slowly figuring out how to be cautious without being panicked. Finding the reliable sources and techniques for managing risk. Finding the appropriate and sustainable level of attention my safety requires.

Some of it is unknown; how much additional protection my vaccinations gave me as an immunosuppressed person is still up in the air. But the science is getting clearer on how COVID-19 spreads and how to keep it from doing so. N95 mask and outdoors is very, very safe. Outdoor and unmasked with a vaccinated person who is reasonably careful (not going to bars or being unmasked around people who do, for example; 1% risk per year adherent using microCOVID.org specifically) may be safe if I haven’t taken on a lot of other risk that week.

Like everyone, I’m frustrated to have to figure it all out and nervous about getting it wrong. But I’m a lot less of either than I was a year ago.

I was able to carefully enjoy my first fine dining experience since March 2020, taking advantage of the nice parklet setup which Absinthe has. So good to have that French onion soup again!

On the home front, I’m consolidating my “cold storage” cupboards. Favorite old books and physical photos and souvenirs are now packed snugly in the least easy to access cube of my wall storage system, along with genealogy and the few required papers to save from old tax returns, etc.

Pulled out from that awkward cupboard were about four cubic feet of papers to be gone through to see if they merit saving, either digitally or physically. They’re now in smaller boxes and I’ll be working through them at least 30 minutes a week until they’re dealt with. Then the genealogy items, as a hobby I’m not engaging in and don’t really expect to return to, will get their turn under the Discardian microscope. That’s a little slower process because I want to make sure I don’t have any info or documents which my uncle, the family genealogist, doesn’t already have.

“Pick the low-hanging fruit” is a valuable Discardian lesson I’ve learned. Do the easiest stuff first and the energy of accomplishment will fuel the next step.

So, wait, a sec; I’m a Discardian. I’m the Discardian. How can I have clots of old stuff that need to be gone through? The answer is simple: I’m lucky and I’m following the other Discardian principle of not making myself suffer needlessly. I’ve never lost stuff in a disaster and I’ve always had somewhere to stick a few old boxes of papers and mementos. I’ve also been kind to myself about working on the stuff which will bring me the most immediate benefit. So though old boxes may have gotten slightly pruned down over time, the hard decisions or the least urgent space-saving moves haven’t had to happen.

Now I’m ready to really clean house of this stuff. My priorities are clearer after an eventful half decade and the experience of the pandemic. I’m old enough to know that at some point I’ll be helping my older relatives out with decisions about their stuff and that’ll be mentally so much easier if I’ve got my stuff figured out. Most significantly, I’ve pared my activities down to what really excites me and makes me happy, so it’s time to make what I have support what I do.

Also, I’ll be getting my Wildlands Kickstarter reward later in the year and I need a couple more shelves free. Might as well use that as a catalyst to overall improvements.

So, as I sit and my desk recovering from hefting things from cubby to cubby and shelf to box to closet, it’s time for the digital equivalent, a bit more closing out old retroblogged posts.

Here are my cousin and I and a relative in cute tropical print dresses (which maybe she made?) posing outside my house. I kind of think my dress might have ended up worn by a mannequin my grandmother gave me, but I’m not certain. Again, the posing suggests a fun occasion but not nearly as much fun as getting muddy in a pair of overalls.

Jump ahead from June to Christmas and here’s toddler me in red and white striped pyjamas of which I have no memory, standing next to a baby bassinet toy of which I have no memory, holding a big eared, stuffed animal tiger of which I have no memory. There’s the wreckage of opening packages around and a little tree, bigger than the Charlie Brown Christmas one, but not huge and maybe not real like the ones we got from the tree farm later in my childhood. Some lady with loads of dark hair, swirled around the top of her head and cascading down to her shoulders is looking at me as I stare at the photographer (probably Grandpa). I know from context and those familiar hands that it’s my mother, but neither of us looks really like the person we’d be in a couple more years. Ah, but in her hands is an old friend. A new doll, toddler-ish like me, but the rich color of dark chocolate in her skin where I am so pale and washed out in the picture you can’t even see my nose, only big eyes and a slightly open mouth matching the red stripes of my pyjamas. I do not remember the name of that doll, but it might have been Charlotte, after Laura’s doll in the Little House books. She stayed around in my toy collection until the end, though whether she was donated or left in the house my folks sold as-is with some boxes of stuff unwanted by us I don’t recall.

Another picture from that Christmas, back at home based on the big tree and the fluffy Keeshond dog Guenevere in the bottom of the picture, with my father and mother. Both in navy blue and I in a dress of the same blue with a white block-print or batik pattern suggesting pine trees. They’re young and nicely put together for holiday time, he with tidily trimmed beard and mustache, she with a neatly buttoned high-collar dress and a bit of eye makeup. He would become shaggier with time. She would gratefully drop the eyeshadow and mascara. My lashes are as big as hers—I had so much hair for my tiny size—and I’m looking down with delight at two Fisher Price peg people I’m holding. Many many many hours of play with those toys and their kin. Behind me the tree has a popcorn string and homemade decorative balls, silky fabric spheres adorned with braid trim and pearl beads held on with long straight pins. The happy magic of Christmas time. A lovely mood and one which echoes forward through many end of year holidays with my mother. She does Christmas right and I’m lucky for that.

Hop forward to the next year and here’s my parents in that same living room. My father has shaved his beard and kept long sides to his mustache and long sideburns. Mmhm. We are entering the 1970s for sure! They’re clearly hosting a party or some occasion is taking place. My mother has her arm through the crook of his arm and they both look at someone just off the left edge of the picture. Her expression is closed mouthed, polite but perhaps cautious. He is grinning. They are not in perfect sync, but they’re going through the right motions. They would divorce the next year, though I don’t know if they had yet begun to realize that was a possibility. I turn from the picture with loving thoughts toward those two young people—not yet 30—and admiration for their bravery in stepping away from the social script toward what they really wanted.

Time hopping to that year or the previous. A camping trip, perhaps at Yosemite. Here is a Dinah I begin to recognize. Long pants in a practical green or gray. Red flat sneakers—Keds or a knockoff, more likely since I grew through the toes so fast—and a pinkish long shirt, untucked. My hair comes down to the top of my butt and my shoulders only come up to the top of the log where my mother is sitting near me. Purple bellbottoms and a blousey green shirt and 2″ heels on her black shoes, with a black handbag nearby. Her hair only comes down to her shoulderblades, but both of us are wearing it straight now. A little bit hippie, but with a job. 😄

Contrasting my blowing straight hair in the next picture—a picnic in some windy spot—with my practical grandmother holding her hair down with a round wrap around her head, over her sunglasses, and my great aunt with a beehive do and shades. I’m bundled in some grownup’s windbreaker jacket and though it appears from the table that the picnic hasn’t even begun yet, I sure look done with this cold and windy nonsense. I guess I’ve always enjoyed being cozy.

About the same time, me at Magic Mountain, photos by my grandparents. Wearing red tights and a red, navy and blue striped dress my mother made, I ride in a yellow boat on an automated ride in actual water and flat-handedly feed grain to a black-faced and black-legged lamb in the petting zoo. Excellent good times for a little kid and no doubt joyful for my grandparents watching me have fun.

Transferring shared images to shared thoughts about images is like the formation of memory. Altering as it goes, distilling, but also sometimes releasing, diffusing, discarding.

Election Slate November 2019 – San Francisco

Delayed by spending a lot of time this week watching fire news to be ready to assist Sonoma and Mendocino county family if they needed to evacuate (which none of them did and all have power again, yay!), but here’s where I landed for this election in San Francisco.

Mayor: London Breed
She’s doing a great job shifting a lot of things that don’t change quickly; we’ll be reaping the housing growth and homelessness reduction benefits from her tenure for a long time.

Member, Board of Supervisors, District 5: Vallie Brown
Deep local roots and brings powerful experience to the Board, and she’s been doing a good job.
Definitely don’t want to vote for Dean Preston, who seems—based on his actions in elections since 2016—to place his political advancement over the good of the district. That he persistently tries to displace competent women in office is particularly problematic.

City Attorney: Dennis J. Herrera
Doing a really great job.

District Attorney: Chesa Boudin
Brings a new perspective and helps balance out the political viewpoints in city government so it isn’t entirely Breed-backed.

Public Defender: Manohar Raju
Sure. Seems fine. Good endorsements.

Sheriff: Paul Miyamoto
Backed by retiring Sheriff Vicki Hennessey, who I liked.

Treasurer: José Cisneros
Keep a good thing goin’.

Board of Education: Jenny Lam
Sure. Seems fine and more experienced than other candidates. Good endorsements.

Community College Board: Ivy Lee
Sure. Seems fine. Good endorsements.

A, Affordable Housing Bond: YES
Solidly endorsed. Opposed by the Libertarians who pretty much don’t like collective effort for long-term good if it might possibly cost them any money or ever inconvenience them for a minute.

B, Department of Disability and Aging Services: YES!
Important thing on this one isn’t the renaming, it’s the requirement for three of the seven members that (at least) one seat be held by a person age 60 or older, by a person with a disability, and by a person who has served in the U.S. Military.

C, Vapor Products: NO NO NO!
Ok, Joe Camel.

D, Traffic Congestion Mitigation Tax: YES
We do not win the fight against greenhouse gases unless people’s behavior shifts and there are a LOT more cars on our streets since Uber and Lyft. Funds from this will help to make public transit more competitive and increase public safety.

E, Affordable Housing and Educator Housing: YES
Opposed by the dang Libertarians again. Selfish fucks; it isn’t even a tax or a bond proposal! It changes zoning to allow more housing—which we super duper need in this city.

F, Campaign Contributions and Campaign Advertisements: YES
Yay, ethics and transparency in campaign funding and ads!


Re: endorsements, if David Chiu endorses someone, I tend to take them more seriously. David Chiu has always carried himself as a thoughtful public servant, in my experience.

Cool stuff to notice in the sample ballot booklet:
p. 4 – info on Enhanced Election Transparency
p. 10-11 – delightfully large print double spread on Accessible Voting and Services
p.13 – reminder that the 2020 Presidential Primary for California will be MARCH 3, 2020. Mark it on your calendar. Make a note, plan to vote!
p.116 – just inside the back cover, after all the actual text of the propositions, is a handy ballot worksheet.

(We have such a great Voter Information Guide.)

Why I Support London Breed for Mayor of San Francisco

The greatest impact on the character of this city in the decades to come is going to be who can live here. Getting our housing and affordability crisis under control is essential to keeping San Francisco a  community which reflects our inclusive values.

London Breed has made tackling these interconnected problems central to her platform. She’s already been working on the issues for years and wisely puts her emphasis on making incremental positive change happen sooner rather than later.

Having housing at a wide range of costs isn’t an abstract ideal; I see the benefit of diverse housing in my immediate neighborhood of Hayes Valley. I live half a block from public housing in Breed’s district. Nice housing; good neighbors. There is also new low-income housing being built half a block the other side of my home and that is very welcome to me too. Having affordable housing here means people who work here can live here. We need working class opportunity within San Francisco to keep the city healthy and vibrant!

Breed has been involved in helping make good construction projects like these new ones happen. And she’s been a voice for neighbors fighting for a mix of affordable units being added in market-rate construction.

She’s rational and resourceful in her approach. She comes from local experience of achieving progress in a complex, rapidly-changing economic and climate situation. All our options have tradeoffs and she weighs them well. Despite her deep personal understanding of the issues of housing and income inequality—she grew up here in public housing—she doesn’t sacrifice decent actions we can take now for future pipe-dreams that don’t have the funding or political will to put into reality. Her pragmatism pays off.

All her life experience and the empathy it has rooted in her is something we progressives can leverage if we don’t isolate her by demanding unachievable perfect solutions. I do not believe a fast, uncompromising solution is available on preserving income diversity in San Francisco, but I do think we can turn this behemoth of a ship in a better direction with many smaller, smarter moves. That kind of problem-solving is in Breed’s wheelhouse.

She has a strong base in many San Francisco communities thanks to her working class roots, her direct activity building community resources, and her commitment to housing and tenant dignity (which celebrates and continues the very best of Mayor Ed Lee’s life work).

Another strength of London Breed is that she is a deeply democratically-chosen candidate. Our district elected her soundly defeating an incumbent mayoral appointee. Since then she has twice been chosen unanimously as President of the Board of Supervisors by her peers. Neighborhood support is how we got her strong, skillful representation in office. Her performance is how she's demonstrated the wisdom of that choice.

When the city could have been thrown into crisis at Mayor Lee’s death, she calmly and competently bridged the gap. She skips the drama and focuses on good administration of this challenging city.

That down-to-earth focus on what needs to get done will give us a mayor who spares us from unnecessary distractions during 2018 and 2019 when there is so much else for the people of San Francisco to be focused on changing at the national level. Her even keel will give us a stable foundation from which to support progressive change across the country.

 

Breed has been great as Supervisor for my District, and an excellent, level-headed President of the Board of Supervisors. I am very proud to support her competence as Mayor in June’s election; no “identity politics” required. Yes, she’s a San Francisco native, from a working-class background, and a woman of color—and those are assets much needed in office—but more importantly, she is very good at governing this city. THAT is why I support London Breed as Mayor.

 

 

 

Breed’s statement “An Affordable City for ALL of Us

 

Her campaign website http://www.londonformayor.com/

 

 

 

A couple additional thoughts:

– Why not Leno?

Mark Leno, like Scott Weiner, has already moved on to a larger stage—and that’s a great thing. They’ve done vital, good work at the state level, which we should want them to continue in whatever form they can. Our goal as progressives over the next few years is to bring in a wave of newly elected progressive candidates; we need experienced hands to help them be effective. Leno’s potential as a mentor able to help wherever needed is significant. The more effective the left is, the stronger our message and our tactics are against the fear-mongering and authoritarianism of the GOP.

I’ve lived in Breed’s district in 2002 through 2003, and since 2007. Between, I lived in the Castro so I’ve familiarity with Leno too. I like his work and think he’d be fine as mayor, but I find Breed’s city-level focus likely to achieve better results, sooner, and more consistently.

 

 

– Why not Kim?

Jane Kim’s willingness in the “Sunday Night Shakeup” to hand power to the most conservative member of the Board of Supervisors in hopes of improving her shot at mayor demonstrated clearly that she is not the person for the job. We need a capable administrator who is focused on civic service, not a backroom wheeler dealer focused on growing her own political power.

I once supported Kim (first in her run for Board of Education in 2004), but her positions in recent years have become so rigid as to render her incapable of making the project and policy deals which will create a more sustainable, diverse community here.

I’ve been a San Francisco area resident my whole life. I grew up in the east bay, went to college in Santa Cruz, and lived in the south bay for 12 years before moving to San Francisco in early 2002. As a member of the early Web community I have watched San Francisco react to the various waves of tech boom and bust, with a particular eye to how it impacted building and rental inventory in the city, both commercial and residential.

San Francisco is going to continue to feel the strong pressure of the economic force of corporate interests, and to continue to need to resist the extractive goals of their short-term profit cycles. At the same time. San Francisco will increasingly feel the impacts of climate change, both on the local and wider, particularly statewide, levels. Meeting these challenges is going to require smart planning to create sustainable economies and infrastructure for the future.

What we build, what we incentivize the building of, is going to make or break our city in the century ahead. Jane Kim’s position on the Mission Moratorium was troubling to me for its lack of engagement with these issues. Her attempts to spin State Senatorial opponent Scott Weiner as a corporate tool do a tremendous disservice to his work. Jane Kim has become more focused on political maneuvering than actual positive change. I’m seriously disappointed in her arc as a public servant.

This post also appears on Medium.

Letter to the proponents of San Francisco proposition E

I received email promoting prop E and sent the following letter in response:

 

Mr. [David] Lee,

 
I have already voted against this proposition primarily because it does not provide any provision for managing the inflow of non-local comments. I don't mean people who live nearby because of our over-priced city and who are personally affected by the matters discussed, I mean the same kind of people in other states and even other countries who spend their time trolling the comments on SFGate.com. A lot of those folks are there because they don't like San Francisco values. They're burning time and attention to stir things up and slam the city and its people. It's bad enough in our newspaper discussions (and other SF-affiliated online comment spaces); we don't need it in our government. Have you already forgotten the out-of-state involvement in Prop 8?
 
Further, the idea of scheduling specific times for comment will hinder the ability to work through many items at public meetings. I've attended lots of local government meetings and many times have attended at the last moment because I was able to get there unexpectedly. I'm not alone in that. There's no predicting how many people will want to comment on an issue. There's no predicting how many people who came will decide to comment or not comment based on the statements of the primary parties involved. Scheduling specific times will produce unnecessary constraint in number of speakers (or, one hopes, an overflow into the next scheduled slot so that no local voices are unheard). Also at these meetings there's often a postponement of an item, for example when an interested party was unexpectedly not present at a recent Board of Appeals meeting I attended. Should the Board and all the attendees for the next matter on the agenda have had to sit silently for half an hour until a scheduled time came up? That's not efficient or a good use of anyone's time.
 
 
 
Yes, more livestreaming would be great. We need it.

Yes, methods for those who live, work, or study in SF to contribute to these meetings without attending in person would be good. But it needs to be done in a manner which doesn't clog the process with those who are not impacted by the matter at hand.

Yes, improved handling of the timing of high-interest agenda items would be great. But those running these meetings are already incentivized to make that happen and unfortunately the variability in matters to be covered—e.g. how long it will take to approve the minutes of the prior meeting, or to resolve other routine start-of-meeting matters, or to work through any given agenda item—means that a schedule is very problematic. You can't legitimately cut anything short to stay on track and you don't want dead time in order to stay on track; it's got to be flexible.
 
Proposition E did not address those major 'But's and needs to be re-worked in future to earn my yes vote.
 
 
 
I hope you will share my letter with your students so that they understand a defeat on this proposal is most definitely not because we don't want to hear their voices.
 
Technology is not the only part of improving a challenging civic function like this; it needs community management skills—just like any good online discussion space—and careful implementation and problem resolution planning before a mandate of methodology can be laid down.
 
sincerely,
Dinah Sanders

The kids are not fiscally all right — and here’s a few more thoughts on why

[A post I put up on Medium archived here in October 2015]

 

Ana Swanson’s Washington Post Wonk Blog piece, “The growing wealth gap that nobody is talking about: Young people have always been poor, but today’s young people are poorer than most”, ends in puzzlement. A few potential sources for the comparative poverty of Gen-X and Millennials in the United States are offered, but the concluding paragraphs seem out of place with the confident, data-driven statements cited before them.

Why should the lack of wealth among Gen-X and Millennials be such a surprise given their (or I could say ‘our’, in the case of Gen-X) role as the generations who were most encouraged to run up and continuously carry substantial credit card debt? (See, for example, trends charted here.)

These generations also walk away from college graduation with substantially more student loan debt (“Soaring College Tuitions.” The New York Times, Dec. 4, 2008, corrected chart 1; see also Friday’s piece “We’re Making Life Too Hard for Millennials” with its chart captioned ‘Tuition Races Upward, Debt Mounts’).

Beyond credit debt, though, our extending lifespans in the U.S. have to be important too. Based on my initial exploration of changing life expectancy (as described by the Social Security Administration in these sources 23) it appears that as you move forward from 1900 there is a later and later age of potential inheritance of wealth from older relations. (That potential is not evenly distributed, as, for example, an examination of African-American experiences* in home ownership and debt over the past century painfully reveals. When there is no family wealth accumulated, there is even less opportunity for any upward climb.)

The sources cited above support that, showing the increasing percentage of those who reached age 21 who then reached age 65. If you get old enough to likely become a parent, you also have an increasing likelihood of reaching retirement age. Those who are able to collect wealth are holding it longer.

Thus, to give specific examples based on the charts in these sources, someone born in 1895 (the parents of the Greatest Generation), who reached age 21 only had 60–71% odds of living until 1960. That 65 year old would then, on average, be unlikely to live past 1975. They would therefore be releasing their wealth into the next generation when their kids are 55–60 years old (assuming they had had their kids when around age 20–25). Put another way, 29–40% of the Greatest Generation would likely have inherited their parents’ remaining wealth by age 60.

Our boomer, born in 1955 (the parent of our Gen Xer), who reached age 21 has 79–88% odds of living until 2020, and then on average of not living past 2035–2040, releasing their wealth into the next generation when, if they had their kids generally around age 20–25, their kids are 55–65 years old. Put that another way and only 12–21% of Gen Xers will likely have inherited their parents’ wealth before age 55–65.

The parent of our Millennial, let’s say, is born in 1975, and having reached 21 has 82–90% odds of living until 2040, and then on average of not living past around 2060, when, if they had their kids generally around age 20–25, their kids are 65–70 years old. Thus, only 10–18% of Millennials will likely have inherited their parents’ wealth before age 65–70.

Over just nearly a century we’ve gone from a generation where 1 in 3 inherited by retirement age, to a generation where fewer than 1 in 5, perhaps as low as 1 in 10, will inherit by or soon after retirement age.

There is a cascading effect of extended lifespan which may be more important than inheritance, given that many will not inherit a meaningful amount of money even in the best scenario for their age and generation.

Increasingly, not only would a given generation not yet have inherited at their own retirement age, their parents are more likely to use up more of that potential inheritance supporting themselves living on well after retirement, or even to require financial assistance from them, further reducing potential wealth passed on to the children of that given generation.

There may be an offsetting influence of later parenthood (e.g., children more often had at 25–30 or even 30–35 years old) but I suspect that, at least until very recently, lifespan has been extending faster than parenthood has been trending later. The CDC data I found in a cursory search, (45), suggests that only within the last 10 years are we seeing average age of the mother pushing up to the 25–30 year old age range. That trend may be picking up speed, but so far I don’t have the impression it has overtaken the influence of extending lifespans in terms of average age of child at time of death of last surviving parent.

While past generations were motivated to build their wealth in order to create a better future for their children, now those parents are more likely to still be around enjoying that future, with the children needing to shift for themselves far longer. It becomes somewhat less clear what the younger generations’ motives would be to take on years of debt and hard work to build wealth for anyone but themselves. With less reliable relationships between debt and long-term wealth — as college degrees no longer are as sure a path to high income and as the mortgage crisis demonstrated the vulnerability of investing in a home — recent generations are finding it hard to determine their best method of avoiding destitution in old age.

Freedom to define your own path is a touchstone of Generation X, but that freedom is also for many simply a hard fact: there is, starting with that generation, decreasingly going to be a transfer of the prior generation’s progress.

Approaching that future, clear-eyed, amidst financial crisis and Great Recession, little wonder that Gen-X and Millennials aren’t looking particularly lucky. And little wonder that they’re exploring other ways of defining the good life.

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*Jinx McCombs sent me this comment by email: “For generations, African-Americans have been labeled as inherently inferior because they are plagued with poverty generation after generation. But when formal and informal cultural patterns minimize income and block the accumulation of wealth, and this continues generation after generation, only a few extraordinary individuals will be able to break through, and even they will remain at a disadvantage compared to those who inherit. Edward Baptist’s book ‘The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism’ makes this point clearly. It may be that a large group of Americans besides African-Americans are beginning to find themselves in that same trap of no-wealth-accumulation.”