HR Management & Compliance

The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life

HR writer Sarah McAdams reviews the book The Number: A Completely Different Way to Think About the Rest of Your Life by Lee Eisenberg.

A few years ago, when Lee Eisenberg’s bestseller first came out, American workers had different priorities than they do today. “For tens of millions of middle-aged travelers, this is an odd moment, riddled with paradoxes. We are at once old and young, parents and kids, generally prosperous yet uneasy,” he writes in The Number. “For me, this moment evokes a memory — late afternoon, back when I watched the Phillies play in the final years of decrepit Connie Mack Stadium. I remember how the shadows sliced across the diamond, moving closer and closer to home plate until half the field was in bright sunlight, the other in gathering darkness. It was a really weird time of day.”
The Number by Lee Eisenberg

Well, it’s become weirder. And the label of “generally prosperous” rarer.
In 2006, many workers viewed their “number” — how much money one needs to feel secure forever after retirement — as the realization of their daydreams (traveling the world, spending days on the golf course, volunteering for a nonprofit, writing a novel, opening an inn).

The economic distress of today, however, leaves them more concerned with keeping what they already have: their jobs, their homes, their health care. Indeed, a new AARP study revealed that more than 65 percent of workers over the age of 45 now say they plan to put off their previously planned retirement dates.

As Eiseberg wrote in a March article in Portfolio magazine (itself a victim of the recession, Conde Nast announced last month), “f**k you” money has become “I’m f**ked” money.

Still, The Number is arguably as useful in this climate as it was when first published. After all, it’s less of a guide to investing (although it does provide “10 commandments” of investing and a formula for determining your own “number”) and more an argument for reconsidering priorities and forming a plan. “If expectations outstretch your Number, then change your stated values, rewrite the rules. Put simple pleasures first, money second. That way nobody will think you failed. In the words of that noted financial gerontologist Sheryl Crow: ‘It’s not having what you want. It’s wanting what you’ve got,’” Eisenberg wrote in the book.

The problem, he says, is that Americans have been consumed with wanting what the Joneses have. “Getting incensed over who has what strikes me as a waste of psychic energy and a waste of time. Better to invest this valuable energy, and use that time, to come to terms with who you are, or, if it better pleases you, to make more money. Others can write books on how to die rich or how to die broke. How to die laughing that’s up to you,” wrote Eisenberg, former longtime editor-in-chief of Esquire.

But regardless of whether we’re talking about the Old Number or the New Number, if you want to end up laughing (or, at the very least, eating), you have to have a financial plan. And if you’re like the majority of Americans have, you don’t.

And thus one of his messages for HR pros is this: knowledge is power. If employees are stressed about their 401(k)s, their 529 plans, or their health care, one of the best things the company can do is help them plan for the future. Help them map out the reality of the situation and come up with a strategy for dealing with it.
As Eisenberg writes, “An unexamined life may or may not be worth living — but it’s almost always more costly than an examined one.”

In addition to countless case studies of workers who’ve faced their financial situations head on, and figured out their own “numbers,” The Number provides some useful tools for doing the examining. The book’s six “Eisenberg Uncertainty Principles” will help HR pros understand why many workers avoid planning for the future. The authors “10 commandments” of investing provide some basic tenets for any economic climate.
And the good news for those of us whose eyes gloss over at the mere sight of a spreadsheet is that you don’t have to have a Series 7 certification to understand the financial stuff in this book. Eisenberg writes in plain — and often entertaining — English.

And although the premise of the book is coming up with a realistic dollar amount the reader will need to be secure for the rest of his life, there are only a few pages that actually focus on how to calculate that number.
That’s because Eisenberg is more concerned with shaking up our preoccupation with consumption.

“The bottom line here is that the things that truly matter in life do not come with daunting price tags attached,” he writes. “Sure, we all need food, health care, and shelter from the storm. But other than that, we don’t need an especially big Number to buy that which we ‘can’t live without,’ the things that are ‘bedrock important’.”

Arguably, knowing one’s number — and having a plan to acquire it — have never been more important to today’s worker. Need convincing? Read this book.

Sarah McAdams writes the popular “Balancing Act” and “Office Watch” columns for HR Insight. Sarah has reported on human resources for a variety of publications, including the Journal of Employee Communication Management, Corporate Legal Times and The Ragan Report. She has written about many other subjects for publications like the Chicago Tribune, Montreal Gazette, Orlando Sentinel, Self magazine and Daily Variety. McAdams also helped ghostwrite the book Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50 by David D. Corbett (Jossey-Bass, 2007).