Baby Boomers these days, am I right? A rundown of some harsh socioeconomic truths for a generation that needs to listen to their youngers.
As me and my fellow members of Generation X are now, increasingly, the backbone of the American middle class while yours putters toward retirement, I want to take this opportunity to remind you how lucky you are to have what you have. Your daughter-in-law and I have striven and struggled to be where we are today, saving our pennies as we went so that we can provide for your grandchildren and, we fear, for you as well someday soon.
While you and yours have been winding down careers, making travel plans for retirement, and trying to figure out how to post pictures of your grandkids on “the Facebook,” it is left to us, your executive successors, to chart upwardly mobile career paths in a jobs market made all the more competitive by a fledgling recovery from an historic recession. Your nest eggs, it seems, have largely been replenished as the stock market soars to record highs and the housing market resumes a slow yet steady post-bubble uptick. Meanwhile, our financial futures will be determined in this increasingly demanding economic environment, even as we start and add to our families while navigating a time of ongoing war, polarized politics and pervasive cyber-surveillance.
Indeed, your nieces, nephews and I have seen some particularly troubling times. Don’t think you’ve had it relatively easy? Then let’s take a look back at 1987.
Let me remind you what life was like when you were my age.
First of all, when you were my age the cost of living was far lower, even when adjusted for inflation. Through May, the average cost of a new house in 2014 was $327,420. In 1987, the average cost of a new house was $127,933, which in today’s money ($1 in 1987 = $1.79 in 2014) is $229,000. That means that new houses today are 42.6% more expensive than they were when you were my age.
College tuition has climbed even more dramatically. For the 1988-89 school year (which we can safely assume is no cheaper than ’87-88), the average, inflation-adjusted annual cost of a four-year private college with room and board was $15,778. Today, that figure has nearly doubled to $30,094 – an extravagant 90.7% increase. Public universities, though certainly less expensive options for in-state students, have actually more than doubled in cost, from $3,111 per year in 1988-89 to $8,893. That’s an uptick of an astronomical 185.8%. God knows what it will be when our little ones are ready for higher learning.
In fact, seemingly all major purchases and everyday necessities are more expensive today than when you were my age – again, even when adjusted for inflation. In today’s dollars since 1987, a loaf of bread has become exactly twice as expensive – 99¢ then, $1.98 now – while a gallon of gas has more than doubled from $1.70 to $3.80. An average new car in 1987 cost $18,486, a figure that has since soared to an incredible $32,086 – a pricetag so high it has actually sparked news coverage of its unaffordability for – who else? – the average American.
Against this meteoric rise in the cost of living, real wages haven’t budged. In fact, they have risen less than $700 during this 27-year span. When adjusted for inflation, the median American household income in 1987 was $50,389. In 2012, it was $51,017. So when you were my age, Americans essentially had the same amount of money to buy goods and services roughly half as expensive as they are today.
Today’s American middle class is stretched to the point of shrinking. In comparison, Dad, walking uphill to school (both ways!) through three feet of snow doesn’t sound so bad.
And had the middle class been so severely stressed back in 1987 as it is today, lawmakers might have been able to take steps to alleviate this pressure. This is because, when you were my age, the country had some semblance of a functioning government. Though I’m sure Democrats and Republicans held the sort of contrarian animosity endemic to any high-stakes power struggle, they still made somewhat reasonable attempts to compromise and collaborate for the public good. Indeed, despite both chambers being Democratic majorities during a Republican administration (Reagan), Congress also worked with the President to pass several sound, forward-thinking pieces of legislation, including a restoration of the Civil Rights Act, a bill that greatly expanded federal funds for homeless shelters, and a labor law that protects workers from mass layoffs with no advance notice.
On average, that Congress – the 100th – had an approval rating of 42%. Though by no means a ringing endorsement of national progress, this figure is nearly three times as high as Congress’ most recent approval rating: a disgust-driven 15%. The current Congress – the 113th – is on pace to be the least productive in American history. It is a gridlock perpetuated by unprecedented partisan hatred between legislators.
When you were my age, Congressmen had heated debates; today, the two sides can’t even stand being in the same room as each other – a condition generally necessary to foster discussion. Fueled by an unyielding, uncompromising base, the Republican Party especially also refuses to accept defeat, preferring hopeless grandstanding to reality-based policymaking. Case in point: the House of Representatives recently took a fruitless, mind-numbingly stubborn 50th vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act, a law passed by both houses of Congress, signed into law by the president, and even upheld by an opposition-majority Supreme Court.
And Dad, it is simplistically dismissive to just say “politics has always been a dirty business.” That sort of generational false equivalence only adds to the problem by reassuring enough of the citizenry that this sort of dangerous legislative paralysis is normal. It isn’t normal, and nor is it safe. When you were my age, Congress didn’t nearly choose to default on America’s debt, an astonishingly reckless hostage-taking endeavor that threatened to crash the economy for the second time in less than a decade.
Why are we so much more polarized, you ask? Because when you were my age, facts were still facts. By that, I mean that technology had not yet turned us into a society divided by misinformation. If you can’t agree on facts, you can’t agree on action – a notion at the crux of our current political impasse.
In 1987, there was no Internet to support limitless, unqualified opinions and spread innumerable lies and agenda-driven misinformation, and only one cable news network – the then-fledgling CNN – that, unlike its FOX News Channel and MSNBC descendants, generally didn’t mask political partisanship as objective journalism. And besides, Americans got their news almost exclusively from mainstream newspapers, news magazines, and major-network television and radio programs. We were still five years removed from the debut of the ridiculous Rush Limbaugh, and 17 from the unlistenable Air America.
When you were my age, today’s faux-journalism—custom-tailored information fed solely by confirmation bias—simply was not possible. This is because the sources, household names like CBS, The New York Times, and Newsweek, catered to huge swaths of the American public. Their only real competitors were other formidable entities like NBC, The Associated Press and Time. Since their reach was so broad, all understood that undue subjectivity risked alienating significant portions of their audiences.
It was in the media’s best interests, then, to report in a straightforward fashion that, though by no means perfect, was both factual and widely consumed. As a result, in 1987 an overwhelming majority of Americans got their news from trustworthy sources and, in turn, were far better informed than they are today. When you were my age, it would have been impossible for one in four Americans to believe – despite full documentation to the contrary – that the President was not born in the United States. Back then, there was simply no sounding board for such nonsense.
Feeling nostalgic yet, Dad? A few other points about society when you were my age.
- When you were my age, privacy still existed. Before ubiquitous cameraphones and the unforgiving, unforgetting pervasiveness of social media, a stupid mistake was far less likely to be publicly documented, putting at permanent risk one’s reputation and future livelihood.
- When you were my age, Americans were healthier. In 1987, no state had an obesity rate higher than 15%. Today, no state has an obesity rate lower than 20%. We’ve gotten to the point where a fast food chain has replaced sandwich buns with two pieces of fried chicken, and where cola companies openly brag about a soda being a “throwback” merely because it uses actual sugar instead of a cheap, even less healthy substitute.
- When you were my age, unpaid interns were college students, not 25-year-olds with advanced degrees.
Good talk, Dad. One day, when I’m older and grayer (a sincere thanks for the full head of hair, by the way), I hope I’ll have the chance to have this same discussion with my own son. Imagine that: reminiscing about the good ol’ days of the mid-2010s! Before Miami was a subaquatic city! Before President Bristol Palin! Before the robot uprising!
I’m sure my son will be just plain enthralled to hear all about how much tougher life was when his dear old dad was his age… a notion I’ll no doubt instill in him, via merciless repetition, throughout his childhood.