Like many people in their thirties, I consider age 31 an appropriate time to do some reflection on my station in life. Personal goals and feelings aside, one thing that strikes me is how completely useless I am to the economy.
Our post-industrial economy, as I and people much smarter than me have pointed out continuously, is based entirely on consumer spending. The negative trade balance "knowledge and services" economy exports nothing of interest to the rest of the world but manufacturing jobs and Treasury debt. Our economy hums along when people spend money like drunken sailors and comes to a screeching halt when we can't or won't. This has always been the case to some extent in America, but the recent economic troubles have placed this reality in the spotlight. I don't have to look very hard to figure out why recovery is nowhere in sight.
I'm 31. According to the American Dream, I am supposed to have some small kids, a house, two Fords, a down payment on a boat, and two vacations per year. In non-1950s reality, I have been renting for 13 years and driving the same car for 11. I haven't been on a vacation in three years (and that was a car camping trip which cost about $200). I go out to eat maybe twice weekly, see around one movie per month, and buy a new $399 laptop every 18 months when the previous one falls prey to the high quality of its Taiwanese components. Maybe the economy would be better if more people joined me in not buying things that we can't afford. But the reality is that these are the kinds of major purchases that oil the gears of our economy.
All of us – whether we buy nothing or buy what we can't afford – face the same fundamental problem: we simply lack anything resembling a stable career. Or we have a stable job that pays dick. Like so many industries, my field is slowly but decisively moving toward a no job security, no benefits "temp" model. We call them adjuncts, VAPs, Lecturers, and other euphemisms but it all means the same thing: at-will employment on a year-to-year basis for about $25-$30,000. It's far from poverty wages for my childless ass; I lack none of life's essentials. But this is pretty much it for me, the full extent to which the economy is going to benefit from my existence. I have no reasonable expectation of ever being able to buy a home (perhaps I could scrape together a down payment by 40, at which point a 30 year mortgage would basically mean I'd be buying my own coffin). Liz and I talk about going on a honeymoon with the wistfulness one usually reserves for phrases like "I want to walk on the moon someday." I might be able to swing a new car in five or ten more years.
The moral of the story could simply be that I am a big loser or that I'm simply forgoing middle-class spending rituals that are wholly superfluous. But I don't believe the situation I describe here is exceptional; what percentage of 30-somethings would fit this description? Our parents' generation decided to cash out ("If we ship all the jobs overseas our IRAs will go through the roof! And then all of our kids will be lawyers, or something!") and it's not a mystery why we are floundering in the present and for the foreseeable future. I read a lot about our economic troubles, even the stuff I don't understand, but I really needn't look far to figure out why automakers are on life support and home prices are cratering. Sure, there are macro-level explanations – asset price bubbles and so forth – but we might do well to give in to the seductive simplicity of reasons like "We can't afford this shit anymore."