Monday, March 19, 2012

Generations and fortune

I have a serious issue with people of my generation who do not recognize how LUCKY we have been.

For most of us life is a combination of conditions we were handed and what we make of them. To my friends who believe that we totally create our own reality: manifesting a good life is easier if your starting point is not birth as a poor girl in Somalia.

I do not begrudge others a greater good fortune, but I want to see them acknowledge their privilege even as I acknowledge mine.

Take coming to Canada.

I was an early adopter of feminism. I take credit for refusing to be a company wife. My husband came from a Shell family and might have been able to get work as a geologist with that giant company, maintaining the Netherlands as a home base. Shell wives were plucked from home and work and settled in some far away place, and then the husbands disappeared into the field for 6 weeks at a time. I called it the double whammy. Back then I was willing to follow my husband to the North Pole if that was where he had to be, but once there I would want him home for dinner. Or I could accept absences, but then I wanted a chance to build a life of my own.

Canada offered the chance to do the latter, and we knew some fellow students who had settled in Calgary. Choosing Canada was a joint decision. It was a smart idea, but people today face years of waiting. In 1969 it was EASY. Canada offered fast approval and on top of that the Dutch government paid our voyage, a policy left over from the post war housing crisis when emigration was actively encouraged. Talk about having the wind in your sails.

Then there was the Land. Apart from coming to Canada in the first place buying it when we did was the smartest thing we have done in our life. But people who have the same idea today face prices that are ten times higher in adjusted dollars. We would never have been able to do it.

What brought on this rant? Watching a lecture by Elizabeth Warren titled: "The coming collapse of the middle class."
Please note the date: March 8 2007, before the 2008 crash. Things have become even worse since then.

I highly recommend the whole video but for those who lack time or patience, here is the gist of it.

Ms Warren compares incomes and expenses of a median middle class family consisting of Mom, Dad and 2 kids in the early seventies with those of a similar family thirty-some years later.

In the early seventies the one income family saved about 11% of its income. In 2003 a similar family could not make ends meet on 2 incomes.

Now, hands up if you believe that most of this is due to personal choices: People spending too much on clothes, eating out and the latest toys. Hear the chorus of early Boomers and older tsk tsking about spoiled mall rats with their frappuccinos. 

Guess what. Money spent on clothing, food and other items of ordinary consumption went DOWN. These are the expenses one can adjust when times get tough. In contrast the percentage of income devoted to fixed expenses like mortgages, health insurance, cars, went UP. 

This is not due to ordinary people buying McMansions. Those big houses you saw being built everywhere, at least in 2007, are for the top 20%.

In 1970 the entry ticket for the middle class was a High School diploma and a willingness to work. Try that today. The price of education has gone through the roof even as a college degree no longer guarantees a good job.

All over vulnerability went way up. In the old days there was elasticity in the system. If Dad lost a job the family had a reserve worker: Mom. If a child or parent got sick and needed care someone was home to care for them. We won't even go into the present health care system's policy to send people home from hospital sooner and sicker, expecting the family to provide care.

Today's family is already stretched to the limit in terms of time and money when things go well. Throw a spanner in the works in the form of illness or job loss and you're looking at bankruptcy.

The moral of the story: Boomers and older, the young have it tough. The least we can do is spare them any moralizing.

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