by Melissa Hahn
- USA -
“I just thought our life would be different.”
My mother Deborah Cruze is reflecting on the devastation this recession has wrought on her generation. In her view, the rules of the game changed when the baby boomers were half-way up the ladder – too invested in the old system and too inflexible to adjust, but still years away from retirement. Whereas her parents’ generation (born in the 1930s) was able to ride the wave of the American dream; and her children’s generation (born in the 1980s) still has time to adapt to haphazard careers of contract work and declining benefits; her generation is perilously trapped.
While she and my father are currently employed, they grappled with the white-collar layoffs of the 1990s and the jobless recovery after 9/11. The most recent economic figures make them uneasy. 14.5 million people have lost their jobs – a near 100% increase since December 2007 - bringing the official unemployment rate to 9.5%. When the underemployed and those who no longer qualify for unemployment are added, the figure grows to a very grim 16.5%.
Today, they see their friends and relatives struggling to stay afloat, and offer their sympathy.
“My friend said to her son, ‘How could you be laid off? Did you show up to work late?’ We just shook our heads and said that there is nothing you can do. No one is immune.”
Recession hits Boomers especially hard
One relative – turning fifty this fall – is desperately trying to stave off foreclosure on his home. His wife is disabled with osteoarthritis, and the medical bills are piling up. An employee of a local utility company for thirty years, Greg anticipates being made redundant when the company finishes installing high-tech meter readers. Already working overtime to support both his family and his daughter with her two young children, he is at the brink.Don Z., an engineer, is also about to turn fifty. His situation, though different in the details, is almost as precarious. For over twenty years, he was living the American Dream of upward mobility and stability. Then several years ago, his semiconductor division at Motorola was spun-off into a new firm. He has miraculously survived the subsequent waves of lay-offs and relocations – possibly due to his MBA and extensive management experience – but his team has been decimated.
Witnessing his fellow employees be laid off has been both heartbreaking and frightening. The horrible reality is that if Don is let go, he will probably never find a comparable position: his salary is too high, he’s too overqualified for entry and mid-level work, and he is too specialized by this stage in his career to switch to a different division of engineering.
“I just don’t know what we’d do,” says his wife Lisa, as she ponders the possibility of unemployment. With kids aged 10 and 13, they still have years of parenting ahead, not to mention college tuition.
Generation Gap: 20-somethings adjust to the new paradigm
While this recession hasn’t been easy on my generation, we have a card that our parents can’t play: mobility. Graduating from college into an inflated housing market, most of us never had a chance to acquire a reasonable down payment before the bubble burst. Acquaintances between the ages of 22 and 28 who own a home are positively in the minority.
The majority instead lives with their parents or spouse’s parents; are renting a house with the largest cluster of friends they can gather; or are scrounging for enough money every month to pay for their studio apartment.
“I told my husband to look everywhere. Let’s go to Seattle! Let’s try Atlanta. I’m open to anything. There’s nothing keeping me here (in Phoenix),” says Melinda Splitek. “We’ll go online, search for a job and move – just like that.”
Increasingly, we’re even looking overseas. Unlike my parents’ generation, most of my friends have study abroad experience, and many speak a foreign language. After living in South Africa or Russia for a semester, they are unfazed by the notion of relocation or the perils of culture shock.
After two years of working at a Washington, D.C. think tank, Amy Beavin was looking for a change. As one of only ten Americans accepted into the prestigious Alpha Fellowship Program in Moscow, she will have the opportunity to advance her Russian skills and boost her career back home while spending time abroad. “The fellowship was really perfect for me. I was in an ideal position to move overseas, as I had little to no outside obligations such as a spouse, a mortgage, or even a lot of stuff!”These choices are possible because of globalization, the Internet, courage, and a heavy dose of cynicism: none of us have any illusions about staying in one job for thirty years - much less paying off a mortgage or retiring. As long as we can pay the bills, most of us are happy. With student loans, car payments and high rents, we are sadly acculturated to the necessity of debt in our everyday lives.
“It’s just all monopoly money at this point,” says one friend who makes a living on less than $36,000 in Los Angeles. He is almost $100 short every month, but is making progress in the film industry. “If I just wanted to make money, I could find a much easier way. But this is my life – and you only get one chance to do what you want to do.”
One young couple, Genelle Gregorio and Ray Gomez, are taking this to the extreme. Leaving behind jobs at a travel agency and IBM respectively, the duo is preparing to backpack around Asia for three years beginning in August.
“We’ve done what we’re supposed to do – grow up, go to school, get a job, and pay our taxes. Turns out that's not the road of certainty that so many people thought it would be. So we're taking the hint and living for today: buying experiences instead of stuff, not staying in jobs just because 'that's what you do', and investing both our money and - more importantly, our time - in the opportunities we have (now) instead of the ones we hope to have ‘someday’."
Yet pursuing one’s ideals is not always affordable or accessible.
Julie Byrnes, a recent graduate from American University, hopes to work for the same nonprofit organization that she interned with last spring. “I got a job offer, which is amazing, but the initial offer was nowhere near enough money to live on,” she says. “They are trying to re-adjust their budget...I am just hoping and praying they can offer me enough to be able to afford working there.”
About the Author
Melissa Hahn is a freelance writer and world traveler whose projects include foreign affairs analysis, children's literature, and creative nonfiction. Born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, she completed her B.A. in Russian Area Studies at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and studied at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She was previously an associate analyst at the Power and Interest Report and an editorial intern at The WIP. She currently writes for the English-language edition of the Pan-Korean Peacemaking Webzine.
A photojournalist and amateur artist, Melissa aims to bring small joys to people's lives and to enable Americans to release their fear of the rest of the world. Through her works, she hopes to inspire her readers to seize the day and experience the wonder of humanity that exists both around the globe and in their own backyards.