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July 16th, 2010 9 Comments » Filed under Acknowledgement

In a fit of optimism last post, I put my faith in the current generation. I continue to be impressed by their optimism, idealism, and take-charge attitudes. There’s a group of young people out there who are running circles around the rest of us, doing things we only talked about at that age. A slice of this generation has a preternatural sense of balance in life that’s leading them to shuck convention and marry much later (and better), demand some work-life balance from employers, and reframe what it means to be an activist among other things. They’re doing it their way, and more power to ‘em.

In part, my optimism was also from the wave of  warm and fuzzy after the Fourth of July. Who can resist Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” as the fireworks explode overhead and kids thrill to the fact that they’re up late, sitting on dad’s shoulders, peering over a sea of people.

Here in Chicago, our fireworks take place on the lakefront, where our city planners back in the 1880s made sure that the lakefront and its gorgeous parks were never ceded to the mercantile class to build high-rises that butt up against the lake, and thus ensuring that only the rich enjoy the pleasures of water. People of all stripes need a place to play, a place to cool off in the hot summer, a place to take their kids, said the urban planners. And as a result of this great urban vision, we enjoy miles of uninterrupted public space of blue water and green parks.  On the Fourth of July, those parks are filled with families and their bbqs. The result of that urban vision–a “we’re all in this together” vision–is enough to make me optimistic at least for a couple days.

But then the reality of where we stand comes hurtling back. While the ant’s view of the Fourth of July, with people coming together to hang out and put their worries aside for the day, gives me hope, the bird’s-eye view makes me worry.  It’s a case of micro optimism against macro realities. Like this macro reality from Isabel Sawhill on whether the American Dream of doing better than your parents has come to an end:

As a result of economic growth, each generation can usually count on having a higher income, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than the previous one. … But that kind of steady progress appears to have stalled. Today, men in their 30s earn 12 percent less than the previous generation did at the same age.

The main reason today’s families have modestly higher overall income than prior generations is simple: More members of the household are working. Women have joined the labor force in a big way, and their earnings have increased as well. But with so many families now having two earners, continued progress along this path will be difficult unless wages for both men and women rise more quickly.

This didn’t happen overnight. It’s been a long time coming as our economy shifted, global pressures kept wages low, unions were busted, and our supposed trickle down economics didn’t do much trickling. A story on Monday in the New York Times about Scott, a 24-year-old struggling to get started, managed to capture this big shift in just a few paragraphs.

Scott’s grandfather came out of WWII to a job as a stockbroker (no MBA required). He earned a modest living, and invested in some real estate on the side and made a tidy sum. The firm that hired him changed hands more than once, but he continued to work out of the same office in the town he lived with his wife. Steady job, steady wages, a few opportunities to invest (even though he grew up in modest circumstances), no college or credentials required– a simple chance to prove yourself and be rewarded. The American Dream.

When Scott’s father graduated from college in 1976, manufacturing was still breathing, and he went to work for a company that made sandpaper and other abrasives. He and his wife bought a white colonial a couple doors down from his parents. He eventually moved over to Stanley Works, and later Endeavor Tool Company as a general manager, where he still works today.  A college degree followed by a steady job in manufacturing, upward mobility with each move, a wife, a house, a family. Middle-class security.

And what about Scott? He has a college degree from Colgate, no debt, but no job either. There’s no manufacturing to fall back on, even if he wanted to. He’s living with his parents until he can get a foot on the ladder. Does he risk slipping on that ladder? Time will tell. He’s probably going to be ok, but only because his family is there to support him financially and psychologically. Yet with the erosion of the middle class, and the decimation of the working class, fewer and fewer families are poised to offer that support.

Inequality has been growing at alarming rates, and threatens to stanch any progress we make. The Millennials just now entering the workforce have an uphill climb. For every Scott, with his degree and economic safety net, there are three young people who are losing their shot at the middle class.

As Sawhill says, if you want to join the middle class today you have to complete high school (at a minimum), work full time, and marry before you have children. “If you do all three, your chances of being poor fall from 12 percent to 2 percent, and your chances of joining the middle class [$50,000 a year for a family of three] or above rise from 56 to 74 percent.”

Yet more than half the births to women under age 30 are to single mothers. That alone dramatically increases the chances of poverty. Some of those single births are to couples who are living together, so they’re only single technically. A very small slice is to women with higher education. College, after all, is the best contraception. Most of the births are to women with just a high school degree or some college.  And because the well-educated tend to marry each other, it exacerbates income disparities and life chances. “If we add to these family changes the fact that wages for low-skilled workers have stagnated or declined in recent decades,” says Sawhill, “we can explain most of the increase in poverty and much of the increase in the income gap as well.”

The other element on that list in getting to the middle class was working full-time. (one might add, at a decent wage). Young adults today often work part-time when they would prefer to work full-time.  Prior to the recession 30% of young adults age 20-24 were working part-time. With the recession that figure has no doubt climbed, since 15% of workers age 20-29 were forced by the recession to shift from a full-time job to part-time. Many feel lucky to have any job, given the sky-high unemployment rate for young adults. In June 2010, 17.8% of men age 20-24 were unemployed, and 11.5% of men age 25-34 were unemployed. For women–12.6% of those age 20-24 were unemployed, and 8.9% of those aged 25-34

So it feels like we have a long way to go to ensure that young adults have the same shot at success as we did and our parents did. While the elite young adults are more impressive than ever, a large slice of our future is struggling, and with them, we risk shrinking our middle class even further. Elites striving ahead at the top, and a big group struggling at the bottom, with no middle in between. Never good.

Sawhill says we should start redistributing the resources from the elderly–who thanks to solid policies and a strong lobby have a fairly comfy life. Medicare and Social Security are taking bigger and bigger portions of our domestic spending. As she says, “Such a shift would not only help create more opportunity, it would improve the productivity of the next generation, making its members better able to contribute to the costs of retirement – including their own.”

I have to agree, albeit reluctantly since I’m closer to recouping my Social Security than not, and I don’t have kids myself. I’ve contributed a lot to this social contract by paying taxes and not having kids. Yet it still makes sense to shift some of this support to the young, when they need it the most. Case in point: I was just home helping my aging parents recover from a health issue, and here’s what they get: free medical care (my parents are both vets too boot), prescriptions for about $10 a pop, a home health aide who comes in one or twice a week to see to their physical therapy, help bathe and dress, do some light housekeeping, and give massages. A nurse comes in once a week to make sure they’re taking their meds, takes their blood pressure and vitals, and follows up with them on other health-related needs. Meals on Wheels brings a free meal once a day. They could also get some transportation help if they needed it. Dad could get a motorized scooter to get around in if he wouldn’t be so stubborn.  They also spent a week in rehab at the local nursing home, gratis.

Now granted, they both paid their dues. My dad worked all his life and employed 10 or so men for more than 40 years. He also fought in WWII. My mom was a WAVE in WWII and a homemaker after that. They paid their taxes and contributed to their communities for their entire lives. So they deserve these perks.

But young adults could use some help as well. Some clearer paths from school to work, maybe some subsidized housing, cheaper child care, better health care, cheaper loans for college, more scholarships–we could stand to get a little creative in helping those young people who will be supporting us in our old age. If we don’t, we may never enjoy what my parents now enjoy in their old age: a solid safety net.

So just as Chicago’s city planners had the foresight to create a park for everyone to enjoy (and left an amazing legacy in the process), we too can leave a legacy and ensure that we and future generations continue to have a place in the sun, so to speak–a shot at security and a sense of comfort.

Posted via email from soulhangout’s posterous


The Thought Provoking, Irreverent Pearl Necklace Grandmother of the 21st C. Paradigm Shifter, Poet, Storyteller, Marketer, Visionary, Blogger, Coach. Mrs. Fire

“50/50 The Magic of the Middle Line”, Experience Coaching”

Founder Soul Hangout & Co-Creative Circles of Coherence, Soul Mastermind Groups. Consciously Connecting & Combining Intelligence with a touch of “Curry”. The 7 “C”‘s of the 7 Condiments of Cooperation

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