Watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation has become a popular holiday tradition, but I always swallow hard to witness the angst of Clark Griswold when his year-end bonus doesn’t live up to expectations.
Having been on both sides of ownership, I understand how the expectations based on “last year” can cast tall shadows. But more important than last year, what about this year? Everywhere I look I see more evidence of the tensions, fears and uncertainties that many Americans feel today as this roller coaster of a global economy moves toward a likely recession.
Working middle-class Americans are more pessimistic than ever that the American dream will be a possibility for their children and grandchildren. A recent poll found that just 16 percent of respondents believed that their children’s generation would be better off financially than their own.
A report from the policy research group Demos explains, “American families are using credit cards to bridge the gaps created by stagnant wages and higher costs of living.” With mortgages refinanced and home equity tapped out, families have taken on debt loads that would make my parents faint with fear.
I tell my youngest—a soon-to-be college graduate—that she was raised in a different world than I was. My parents never talked about feeling fulfilled in their jobs; rather, they felt fortunate to have jobs to feed and clothe their family, no matter how repetitive the eight-hour-plus work day might have been.
Just as my parents vividly recall the Great Depression, I remember being issued free lunch tickets for my boys due to poverty-level income. Instant gratification through credit cards was unheard of; we saved, and we paid in cash. It was one bathroom, one telephone, one car, one television for the family of four.
Over the past few years, millions of people were sold mortgages beyond their reach. After being repeatedly told that yes, you can and should buy a home, the entire blame cannot lie with the individuals, nor with loan representatives trying to make sales quotas. They are simply bit players in a system out of control, an economy based on increased debt and fed by denial.
Several weeks ago, Moody’s, the credit rating agency, announced that, unless the United States reins in the soaring costs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the nation’s credit rating will be downgraded within a decade. This should serve as a wake-up call, as the U.S. has been rated triple-A by the agency since it began giving credit ratings in 1917.
A major paradigm shift is in order. The new mantra of “sustainability” must be applied across the board—not just to the natural environment, but to our economic system as well. Somehow, we’ve got to regain that unique sense of optimism that once defined this country. It seems the American dream is in need of an overhaul. IBI