THE NEW NORMAL

Posted in Rants on May 25th, 2016 by Ed

This is the kind of data release sure to go viral and put the internet into a frenzy, so let me be the first of many to tell you that Pew has done an analysis concluding that "at home with parents" is now the most common living arrangement for 18-34 year olds. It is the plurality winner at 32.1%, edging out the long-time leader "with spouse or partner." The trend is not unique to America but is affecting Europe and the rest of the industrialized world as well.

It's hard to tell where sociopolitical attitudes begin and where one's defensiveness and projection end, but I've been involved in a lot of conversations lately with older adults observing that The Youths aren't buying homes, getting married, or pumping out grandkids like they used to (or are expected to). As a childless, single 37 year old male living alone in a rental unit, it's hard not to engage in such conversations with a broad perspective rather than just making my own excuses. The Pew report predictably – not to say unwisely – includes a discussion of the job market. Logically, young people who can't find decently paid work are likely to be living with someone who can at least partially subsidize their basic costs. This is obvious enough not to merit any in-depth discussion.

What is under-appreciated, in my view, is that the relationship between the economy and the life choices of young adults goes beyond how hard it is to find a job or what said jobs pay. Finding a job is not easy and finding one that pays well is even less so, but the real culprit behind the trend Pew highlights is the lack of stability that young adults have had beaten into them over the past three decades. Everyone is aware that lots of young adults aren't "settling down" because they can't find good jobs. I'd argue that at least as many have a good job but have no job security beyond day-to-day. We've heard all our lives how the days of spending 40 years at one company/employer are over, and that much is obvious. Despite the fact that some of us (OK, I'm 3 years over the limit but I'll lump myself in there nonetheless) are doing somewhere between "OK I guess" and "pretty well." Without anything to rely on for the future, though, who's going to take out a 30-year mortgage and have kids?

The sea change in our economy has not been one of wages and salaries (although those are stagnant since the 1970s outside of the top 1%) but of job security. We've been told that in order to compete in the Global Economy we have to work cheap and hard; to work anything less than 50 hours per week for the good of our employer is a moral failing, a shirking of economic and patriotic responsibility, yet they owe us nothing whatsoever in return. There is no trade-off in terms of stability. If they can find someone to do our jobs for less tomorrow, even halfway around the world, Third Wave capitalism demands that they fire us in the name of Efficiency and Shareholder Value. And that new reality – the knowledge that no matter how hard or well one works, the financial rug could be yanked out from under us at any minute – is one that actively discourages young adults from doing the very things (investing, saving, home-buying, and consuming) that this new economy needs us to do in order to grow. This system doesn't work unless we spend; we don't spend when we're insecure about the future; we have to be kept in fear so we're too afraid to demand better compensation and treatment; we spend less to compensate for stagnant compensation.

And that is why this whole Rube Goldberg machine of cheap credit, disposable labor, and a consumption-based American Dream is irredeemably goddamn broken.