Saturday, October 08, 2011

Read a really good column in the Wall Street Journal by Peggy Noonan this morning. In it,she cites research that polled women in Orlando and Des Moines who were selected on the basis of “having shopped at Wal-Mart at least once in the past month.” She said one group was in their 30's and 40's, the other in their 40's and 50's. They were strikingly consistent in their opinions. Things they agreed upon included:
  • Unemployment is definitely worse than the official government numbers make it sound.
  • The recession doesn't feel like it's getting any better.
  • They all resent the bank bailouts when they feel the banks were huge contributors to the problem.
  • Obama hasn't done a good job, but they get angrier when they talk about Congress.
  • Both parties are equally responsible.
  • They feel their elected leaders have no sense of how they live, and don't care.
I would qualify for one of those groups, and I'm surprised to find how mainstream I must be. I can pretty much agree with those points. I came from a working class family, got an education, rose pretty high in my career and then slowed down off the fast track, but remained in a professional position. So I have experienced some times in my life when money flowed pretty freely, and some where money was tighter. But today feels different.

This feels like the first time in my life that everyone I know is affected by the adverse economy, and no one has any sense of when there might be an end in sight. I actually think that my son's standard of living will be affected forever by the tough economic times in which he came of age. We have saved some for college, but are counting on some financial aid, too. Money would always have been a factor in the final choice of school, but it will be a bigger factor than I would have imagined. And he's one of the lucky ones.

Our other pseudo-son, Warren, who is not typical in many ways, is perhaps more typical in this way. As a young man with only a high school diploma, his opportunities to build a life for himself are far more restricted than they would have been just five years ago. Like many kids in his situation he doesn't mean to be without an education forever, and has a general plan of working, taking classes at Columbus State Community College, and eventually attaining a degree. But unlike a few years ago, even entry level jobs are scarce, sources of public aid are tighter, and he will have to work harder and do without more to attain those goals. I believe a kid like him faces greater challenges today than ever. And living at home is almost the only way they can make it. Left to fully support oneself on minimum wage in today's economy is beyond difficult -- it is virtually impossible. 

Among our friends, it almost feels like everyone has dropped one socioeconomic level. Those who I always considered affluent now live more like upper middle class. Upper middle class has tightened its belt to the standards of lower middle class. Lower middle class is slipping into the paycheck-to-paycheck patterns that characterized the working class, and working class families struggle to stay employed at all and out of poverty. No one I know buys cars as frequently or travels as often as they used to. For a lot of us, eating out has slipped from a routine item to a luxury. Children who went off to college and maybe even have that first post-college job are still living at home because it's too risky to try to get out on their own.  Grown offspring with children and sometimes spouses are moving back in because it is the only way they can provide a decent life experience for the kids.

So we plug away, seeking silver linings where we can. I know that my values have changed for the better through this. I appreciate what I have more and judge others' choices less. I am learning greater patience and flexibility. I have really internalized the reality that people matter, things don't. These are all good things. But the future still looks really scary, and I would be delighted to take these good lessons and apply them in a somewhat less stressful future. I'm just sayin', in case anyone out there in the universe is listening.......

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