A quick discourse historical analysis: “They say 1 in 3 won’t retire. They haven’t met you.”

I was driving on an elevated portion of the freeway through Oakland when I saw a billboard from Prudential—I don’t know what unit in what I assume to be a complicated corporate structure—that said, “They say 1 in 3 won’t retire. They haven’t met you.”

Now, I’m not a fan of advertising, let alone billboards, anyway. But an advertisement like this is clearly not targeted at me. I have nothing for a financial planner to work with; I very definitely am one of those one in three.

Which makes the ad annoying. It’s rubbing my financial situation in my face.

But I also used discourse historical analysis as my method in my dissertation. It’s a critical theory method. And for some reason today, the wheels started turning.

So here we go. I have already placed myself with respect to the topic. You, the reader, know at least some of my bias just from that, which is important: In critical theory, we all have biases. We do not pretend objectivity. Our studies are acknowledged to be subjective.

You would also be correct in surmising that I am not a fan of capitalism. Even with a Ph.D., the best job I can get doesn’t pay rent. Which of course has something to do with the absence of anything for a financial planner to work with.

In discourse historical analysis, we also attend to context. Here the context is Oakland, on an elevated freeway, no less. Oakland is now considered, much to my dismay, a part of Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has expanded considerably since the dot-com boom, the last time I was a participant in the high technology business. Another bit of where I stand with this topic: I have never recovered from the dot-com crash in 2001, yes, seventeen years ago.

A consequence of Silicon Valley’s expansion has been widening gentrification. San Francisco is now nearly entirely gentrified. Pretty much, nowadays, you’re either rich or you’re homeless if you live in San Francisco. The same thing, just not yet quite so far along, is happening in Oakland.

I mentioned I was on an elevated freeway when I saw the billboard. That’s significant because along and underneath that freeway, there are several homeless encampments. And unless you adopt a rather cruel notion of retirement, probably most of those encampments’ inhabitants aren’t retiring either. They, too, are among the one in three.

So I’ve talked a bit about those who are being displaced by gentrification. Now I should turn to the people who are moving in. Silicon Valley is notorious for age discrimination; part of my problem was that I was already in my forties when I was laid off. So the folks who are coming to Oakland are young and, because this is high technology, they’re probably already making at least $70,000 to $80,000 per year. They will soon, if they are not already, be making six figures.

That’s quite a lot for a financial planner to work with, especially in what would likely be the course of a forty-year career. These kids would be unlikely to be in the one in three even without Prudential’s help.

That said, a nearby billboard, apparently in the same campaign, I saw while headed the opposite direction going through Emeryville, another almost completely gentrified town, assures us that “Robots can’t take your job if you’re already retired.” Which perhaps might well be something that these twenty-somethings in high tech worry about, that all their efforts are going toward putting themselves out of work. I’m guessing not, though. It’s still a pretty invincible age and one thing people in this business repeatedly assure us of is that new jobs will appear to replace those lost.

Umm, no. That sure didn’t work out for me, but they won’t know that.

So I see a billboard campaign that offers little meaning to its target audience and considerable offense to those whom it rather blatantly and brutally omits.

As discourse historical analyses go, this is somewhat less than rigorous. (Pay attention: Here’s where I’m telling you the limitations of this study.) I’ve relied entirely upon my own resources—my not-inconsiderable knowledge of an area I’ve lived in and around almost continuously since 1966, my recent observations of massive homeless camps near freeways, and my acquaintance with high technology and the industry. Had this been a real discourse historical analysis, 1) I would have taken somewhat longer than maybe an hour to write this; 2) I might, and probably should, have sought out high tech worker and homeless perspectives; 3) I would have explored many details at length, producing a much longer report and analysis; and 4) I would have included a literature review and a discussion of methodology along with references at the end.

But this study does offer you a flavor of how critical theorists look at evidence. Yes, there are methods here. Yes, there is inquiry. It is real scholarly work. And it brings more to a topic than quantitative inquiry ever possibly can.

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