The New Middle Class: Drowning, Not Waving

Ten-dollar bill obverse/reverse
Image by LividFiction via Flickr

Here’s another grim report on what’s happening to the middle class in the U.S. — sliding beneath the waves.

From the New York Post:

She’s $16,000 in debt to credit card companies. One of her local grocers, who once let her buy food on a running tab, now has a bill collector after her. She has her résumé up online, but when headhunters call and ask her age, “suddenly they never call me back,” she says. “I’m depressed. None of my friends are able to find jobs. I am living day-to-day.”

Anne’s biggest fear is that her daughter finds out how dire the situation is.

“She’ll say to me, ‘Are we poor?’ And I keep lying,” Anne says. “I think it’s a very traumatic thing for a child. I don’t want her to feel like she’s the only one, or a victim.”

When the recession does ease up, Anne fears that she will emerge as a permanent member of the lower class.

“The world kind of betrayed us,” she says. “The salary I was making — I don’t think I’ll ever make it again.”

There are several women like Anne in my book,”Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio/Penguin), now gone to press, which looks at the single largest source of new jobs in the United States — retail. Most of those jobs pay $7-12 an hour, poverty level wages. No commission, no bonuses, no raises. A dead-end job for a whole new set of workers, people who once believed they had vocational choices.
The American Dream of upward mobility is dead, if not dying, for millions of educated, hard-working people, many of them workers over the age of 40, most certainly those over 50. People who have kids or grandkids who need their financial help to complete their college educations.
Who’s got an extra$20,000 to $30,000+ to head back to school full-time to get a shiny new career and start all over again at…55? 60? 47?
That’s not how it’s supposed to work. By your 40s or 50s, life, as it once was for many of us, was supposed to be a little calmer — your home bought and maybe paid off; your kids launched into financial independence, retirement a mere decade or so away.
No longer. Millions of us have lost good jobs,  can’t even get an interview for the next one, can no longer imagine when or how things might ever get better, when we might feel safe or calm or happy about our economic situation.
Are you feeling financially secure these days?
If not, what would it take to get you there?

6 thoughts on “The New Middle Class: Drowning, Not Waving

  1. First of all – gotta say – you’re the only blog landing in my inbox that I read – not just skim – read. Still, this wasn’t the most cheerful way to begin my day! My dire economic situation is of my own making, unlike so many others who believed their American dream was coming true. I have a “freelanced” life – as an artist, an art model, a yoga teacher and a massage therapist. I lived in Ireland for ten years. It was only a few years ago (I’ll be fifty-two next Wednesday) when I began to wonder how I would survive at seventy-two. So now, in addition to all those other things, I house-sit and dog walk. I don’t feel sorry for myself – I created this single, childless, ‘work until I drop’ life. But that’s just it – I will work until I drop. And you can’t believe how outraged I become when, in this environment rife with corruption, I hear stores of families out on their ear because they can’t cover the mortgage.

    No, it wasn’t cheerful – just true. Can’t wait for the book.

  2. I’m flattered you’re reading — and making the time to comment. Thanks!

    I agree. I have also chosen a similar life; the only hope of not working til death is my partner’s pension and SS in addition to my SS and savings. Once our apartment is paid off, I can rely on it for a reverse mortgage if necessary; without kids, that’s my backup plan for income.

    The value of a creative life is incalculable emotionally and intellectually and spiritually — but boy do we “pay” for that choice.

    The irony? I feel safer than in a “real” job where, as has happened, I can be out on the street overnight. Which has made me very, very frugal and cautious even when income rises.

  3. I related to your writing on the middle class and want to comment on my own observations on the tough economic times and barren job market. My spouse, who like many is very talented in a number of ways, could not find a job paying more than the range that you described. This after being what she calls ” disposable ” at several places of employment, and then not being able to find work at all. Then, finding a low paying job we are slowly righting our ship, so to speak. We have discussed this topic at length and this is what I have come up with.

    This journey has brought to light to me what many in these situations are forced to do, and do it quickly if they are wise. They adjust their lifestyles to fill their days with things other than a work search. Cleaning house, exercise, organization, charitable giving of their time to name a very few. These things and many more must be done not only to keep our sanity- we have to give meaning to a life that must now be lived quite differently from the one we knew.

    Learning to live our lives this way is foreign, and not at all comfortable. It is a new era, strange, and difficult in ways some of us may not have even realized yet. However I feel we have to be prepared mentally and physically as best we can for hardship, and for opportunity. We all have talents- we have to do our best to stay sane while we uncover them.

  4. Times are very tough for many, many people. It’s shocking how many of us are having to slide backwards — far, far backwards – from where we expected to be and should be after decades of hard work. The wealthy are sitting pretty and everyone else is sliding further and further into despair.

  5. I’m only 33, so while I can’t relate to the effects of the economic strife of my parents’ generation, I can certainly relate in the sense that I learned early on the value of a dollar.

    I’ve paid off every credit card I own and only keep one on the grid for emergencies. I don’t believe in buying on credit; if I can’t buy it in cold, hard cash then I don’t need it (except in cases of a house or a car, those Big Important Things). The only outstanding major debt my husband and I have is our mortgage and my student loans.

    We have a separate savings account that we’re putting 10-20% of our earnings into -now- while we have the wherewithal to do so. This money we keep away from our regular, day-to-day expenses and use it only for emergencies or really major expenses. The rest of it just sits there to accumulate. It’s our “out of sight, out of mind” account.

    Some may think it’s callous to say, but as a younger generation, we should look at the financial troubles of our parents and their parents before them, and make smart plans for ourselves NOW while we have the option to. As it’s clearly felt in this day and age, no job is secure and the only people we can depend on are ourselves.

  6. Good for you! Your willingness to live within or even below your means makes you — sadly — exceptional in the U.S. where so few people seem to understand how badly we need to keep savings liquid in addition to retirement funds.

    My only thought is that you will always be able to save — whether you will want to (i.e. once you face, possibly, additional child-related costs) — is another matter. It’s very easy to buy every good and service in sight for a variety of reasons. Saving, in contrast, isn’t fun or cute. Just necessary!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s