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<p>A television newscast recently recounted the conditions in Gillette, Wyoming which has been hit by the decline in the coal industry. The story centered on residents who had been laid off by the mining company that owned and operated the huge open pit mines in the area. It’s an industry that always fascinated me because of the scale of the equipment. A former neighbor who was an ace mechanic was on call 24 hours a day to be flown around the western coal-producing states. He once told me that, “driving one of those huge trucks is equivalent to driving your home by looking out the window of an upstairs bathroom.”</p><p>The coal industry only employs about 55,000 people at this point --- a number which is dwarfed by the estimated 150,000 people building, designing and installing solar electric systems. In the face of this, there are roughly 145 U.S. Representatives who have signed a pledge (in exchange for campaign contributions, presumably) that they will never support any legislation “punishing coal.” At this point, it doesn’t look like it matters that much. The invisible hand of economic forces has taken the matter into its own hands. An industry (combined with petroleum) that contributes, over $750 million to politicians in an election cycle may be paddling upstream. </p><p>But the situation in Gillette offers an object lesson of sorts, as the median income for former employees of the mining company had average incomes of $83,000 where the average for other Wyoming residents was $48,000. I’m wondering how many of these people have been salting some of that money away in their 401(k) plan to prepare for the inevitable. Saving $10,000 per year over twenty years would have accumulated to over $300,000 at 8 percent --- and at that high an income, the last ten grand of deductible contribution would have cost just $6,500 in take-home pay --- less than the monthly payments on a new truck. </p><p>In a world of economic uncertainty given the “gig economy” with little loyalty between employees and the companies for which they work, it’s a foregone conclusion that people will be between jobs sooner or later. Retirement plans --- 401(k)’s, 403(b)’s IRA’s, etc. --- are the most effective tools for amassing a nest egg as soon as possible. These financial resources of any scale can play a critical role in averting a financial disaster long before the actual retirement for which these plans are meant to provide. </p><p>Studies show that younger employees often just blow off any efforts to induce them to make voluntary 401(k) contributions. The word “retirement” just turns them off. Does it sound better to talk about having almost $20,000 in just five years by saving $250 per month --- at a cost of about $170 in take-home pay? Or about $50,000 in ten years? Time passes quickly. They’re there before they know it. </p><p>The important thing to remember about retirement plan money is that it is there to nibble away at between jobs. It’s a safety net. Sure, people pay income taxes and a ten percent penalty, but in a year when unemployed, the only tax may be the ten percent. Paying taxes is a delightful problem to have compared to having no money to pay bills. People who have been saved by a dip into their stash of retirement money tend to be true believers as soon as they have a new job and an opportunity to start rebuilding those resources. </p><p>As for the coal industry, the future looks bleak. We are committed to generating 50 percent of the nation’s electricity from renewable resources by 2025 --- up from 37 percent now. There is no place for coal in this future, as it contributes 45 percent of the emissions attributable to climate change. The political forces resistant to this change and their financial backers are exhaustively chronicled in Jane Meyer’s new book “Dark Money” which would be a delightful novel if it weren’t all true. </p><p>The point, here, is that today’s business world offers a revolving door of uncertainty thanks to such de-stabilizers as the “gig economy,” mergers and acquisitions, game changing technologies and industries on the wrong side of history (and science) to mention just a few. It’s all the more reason for young people, especially, to visualize the smug satisfaction they will enjoy from having at least a five or six-figure account balance in their retirement accounts --- as soon as possible.</p>