An unexpected present – living in an America most increasingly can’t afford

My generation (born 1952), countless before & a couple after were taught from their mother’s knee through grad school that America’s success was built 4-square on having a strong, thriving middle class.

A middle class that began a full-threaded unraveling in the Great Meltdown of 2008, a financial disaster from which the tippy top of our economic strata – the folks who created the fiscal calamity in the first place – have recovered quite nicely, thank you, leaving shredded fragments of a devastated bourgeoisie in its wake, millions of us raised on an American dream increasing beyond our reach.

I came of age during the push for women’s rights, when activists broke through glass ceilings & made 2-working parent households the norm rather than exception.  An age when women worked as an act of fulfillment, in contrast to today when millions work – often well beyond retirement – out of necessity.

In her book, Squeezed: Why Our Families Can’t Afford America, journalist/poet Alissa Quart reports from the front lines of an embattled & shrinking – disappearing – demographic.  People who are a broken down car or defunct fridge away from slipping into poverty;  individuals, couples, families living precariously on the edge of potential financial disaster – what Ms. Quart describes as the “Middle Precariat.”   Men & women, across the age spectrum, who believed in a good education as the doorway to a good job, to career stability, to the second car in the driveway, maybe a second home at the lake.  Nothing flashy, but a little more than simply enough.  Men & women, retired fired & barely getting by, who now find their jobs could be gone in the shrug of a merger, getting by on incomes that are stagnant (or worse), for whom decent affordable benefits without huge deductibles are as rare as a Screaming Eagle Cabernet 1992.

These are the people, Ms. Quart writes, “Who did everything ‘rightand  yet the math of their family lives is simply not adding up.”

The birth of her daughter, seven years ago, tipped her & her husband – both freelance writers – into a few years of “fiscal vertigo.”  They faced the double whammy of hospital charges & child care costs, but ultimately – for the moment – avoided the financial abyss.  Although Ms. Quart is now gainfully employed as exec editor of the nonprofit, Economic Hardship Reporting Project, she clearly identifies with her subjects because she was one.

Back in the 1960s & ’70s – my high school, college & early career years – the American dream was the afore mentioned 2-car family, vacation home, college for all the kids.  Olders elders ancients found new freedom in the  “senior lifestyle communities” that were springing up, offering them independence & fun in their golden years.  American manufacturing was strong, Coca Cola & Sarah Lee filled kitchen pantries around the world.  Folks might have guessed that “offshoring” was summertime fun at the beach, while “offsourcing” would have left them clueless.

Little did my generation imagine an older age where we’d find “golden ticket” jobs as computer programmers moved to India, gilt-edged positions cut due to mergers.  My boss’s promise, when he brought me on as a public relations writer at Prudential Healthcare, that the position was “cradle to grave” had an early death in 1997, when PHCS was purchased by AETNA, which slashed staff & moved most remaining positions to NJ.

Over the past twenty-five years, the age pegged as “senior” fell to 50, while discrimination against over “senior” employees hit an all-time high.   Instead of the job security our parents enjoyed, even workers in their forties & fifties find themselves shown the door with the hollow “Look at it as an opportunity to reinvent yourself!” only to discover themselves in an age-twisted landscape where ability to forget & relearn is elevated over experience & wisdom.

As one 50+ woman who sought 2nd career, racking  up debt without getting job offers, sighs, “The world has evolved beyond me.”

Can America exist without a strong middle class?  Not if you asked my teachers.  They saw out nation’s success as rooted in the hard work ethic  & deep values that were the hallmarks of America’s bourgeoisie.  Can it thrive in a system that caters to the financially elite, leaving the rest to sink or swim on their own.

For generations – from pre-WWII to post-9/11 – Americans held the “social contract” as sacrosanct.  Get the right education, find the right job, work hard & all will be well.  Sure, we were shaken in the 1980s by the S&L Crisis &  Black Monday  (people watched life savings wiped out, real time, on computer), but all sectors of the economy eventually recovered.  Today, America’s booming economy doesn’t rest on a thriving middle class – per Ms. Quart, it’s “rigged” to shut it out.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am one of the few who actually HAS risen from the ashes of fiscal disaster, but mine hit in 2001, when my highly praised corporate career disappeared due to a parental health crisis, 9/11 & execs who loved the results I delivered but were disquieted because they couldn’t figure out how I managed to act outside set norms & get exceptional results.  I was blessed because of realizing on the drive from my old job to an unexpected new life that something incredible was on my horizon, I just didn’t know what.  But I had a home that was paid for, a husband who loved me & no children depending on me for room & board or tuition.

Ms. Quart goes straight to the heart talking about this last point – parents caught in the squeeze  of a flourishing economy, an increasingly shredded social net & precious few full time jobs offering the hefty salaries & generous benefits that were our norm in the ’80s & ’90s.  The people who barely register, if at all, on the radar of legislators who are more concerned about winning their next election than helping their struggling constituents.

We live in surreal times.  My thanks to Ms. Quart for doing her bit in documenting some of the most unimagined aspects of these spaced out days.