Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thoughts on the times

I'd bet that virtually every person I know around my age (you Baby-Boomers and "cuspers" like me), if asked if they'd ever been poor, would answer with words to this effect: "we were never rich, but we never went without, either." When I was in college and just after, I "lived poor." In fact, we all affected a certain level of poverty as a sign of rebellion from the comfortable, middle-class conformity of our parents. Little seemed more important than to look past the crass materialism we had been surrounded by as we grew up to the more lasting and meaningful aspects of life. Jeans and T-shirts became our uniform, the cruddier-looking the better. To be called plastic was an extreme insult, and by the same token, being found authentic was a high honor. Somehow torn clothes gave us authenticity. So did folk music, the music of the people. It's no accident that a Joan Baez, dressed in shapeless shifts, with no make-up and no hair styling, became the rage. She was a personification of that "authenticity" we all sought. The fact that her unadorned singing voice in those early years was other-worldly in its beauty only gave her, and by extension us, more credence. See how perfect we can be in our unembellished humanity?

Of course, most of us knew that if things ever became truly rough, we could run back to those materialistic, but secure, parental homes and be safe. Smothered, maybe, but never hungry.

The fact is that most of us alive today, at least in this country (and that's a huge qualifier), have never known anything close to poverty. Oh, yes, some of us joined the Peace Corps and saw true human misery. Others went to Viet Nam and had similarly jarring experiences (though much more dangerous and, at times, soul-searing) but most of us knew that if we were lucky, these were mere detours in our lives, that we'd be returning to good old American comfort before too long. (Those of us in the Peace Corps even had the luxury of choosing to live that way.)

So the present financial turmoil is terribly frightening. So many peoples' incomes are either partially or entirely tied to the stock market that the national mood is one of foreboding, we fear a true financial cataclysm in which the bottom literally falls away. It's a nightmare, really, and nobody feels safe from it. My personal income comes entirely from a federal pension. I've been given no reason to worry that those funds will one day run dry, but I can't imagine why that's impossible, given the rest of the economy.

I don't really know where I'm going with this except to give voice to the worries that most of us have these days. Our blogger friend E. just lost his job, and it hits home when it happens to such a decent guy. And its in my own family--Steve is about to be forced onto his 401K, a coerced retirement because his company will no longer be doing the work he was hired for. We took out an income insurance policy, but we have no idea how that will play out.

We all hunker between the walls we bought or rented in flusher days, wondering when things will return to the way they are "supposed" to be. Is there a lesson here? Will we learn anything from this experience and be better people for it? We can only hope.


Linda - SE PA said...

How true and how sad I am these days.

I often find it a challenge to comprehend where it changed. Boomers/cusp boomers were caring - although called selfish or self-absorbed - we had communes - we had community - we had music as our generational communicator. So, what happened?

Somewhere or perhaps, the shift was just old adulthood and other priorities. Perhaps, we lost sight and realized we wanted what our parents had. Sadly, it seems, that there is a growing number of folks who will not retire the way our family did or our grandparents.

It is a frightening time and to ease some of my inner anxiety, I spend time each day looking at some art sites, visiting and listening to the music folks like yourself share. When I close my eyes and forget I am on line - I realize we still very much have the consciousness we did then - somehow we also realized that we had life to deal with - its good times as well as the pendulum swinging to the more challenging times.

Nan said...

Hi Ralph, Since reading E's very sad news yesterday, I keep returning to the nagging thoughts of the sad state this country is in. Between blog life and F&B life, I know quite a few people who are looking to rebound from employment shocks. I worry most about age discrimination and sincerely hope that the many decent and talented people out there who have lost jobs will not let this shake them. One of the lessons I suppose is remembering that our confidence comes from within and not without. But losing one's job or economic security certainly does test one's internal/external locus of control balance.

Anonymous said...

Bernard Madoff went to jail handcuffed today and I listened intently to his sorrowful excuse as a human for bilking his rich friends out of $64 Billion. This has been going on since 1981, probably the biggest swindle in recorded Wall Street history. Pathetic. The rich are stealing from the rich. In a way, it had to stop, all of it. As some guy wrote in Salon, the housing market crash is small potatoes, to what Wall Streeters did to cheat their own kind. It's true. This stock market game was totally false and had to crash under its' own criminal weight. I think we will be better for it. But it affects even my 25 year profession and I see no housing starts, equity jumps and bumps ahead in the short fall. I too am out there transferring skills. I'm looking every day and have friends in D.C. who are helping me. But still. I have to give up a business I love.

Ralph said...

Nan, you're so right about that internal/external balance, and it truly is times like these that test our mettle. May none of us endure having it tested to the degree that happened to so many in the 1930s.

Ralph said...

Linda, I think you're right about a bout us havingthe "same consciousness" as we did when we were young--but I also don't think any of us ever really meant that "poverty" gig. Most of us were born to creature comfort and once we had to start taking care of ourselves and families it was probably natural that we seek it. We may be aware of then irony of that full circle but we don't give it up.

Ralph said...

Z&M, I hear you. I really feel for my friends in real estate. We can only hope that things will rebound but yeah, in the meantime you've gotta keep money coming in somehow. It sucks.

Jeff said...

Ralph –
This is quite a bit to wrap our minds around. It is frightening out there and hard to get away from the casualty counts that the media keeps throwing in front of us. And what bothers me the most is that they seem to present it as entertainment – until the next best story comes along. Although I don’t blame them for that – that’s their nature.
Personally, I came from modest, not poor circumstances. We didn’t have “things” but did have the basics – food on the table, a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs. Our lessons were that if we applied ourselves in school, got our degrees, played by the rules, at least we would be assured of a “good” living – open ended with possibilities of earning some higher salaries and better circumstances that our parents had. Something did snap not only in our country but worldwide. Owning “things” and attaining “things” and building “things” became most important. The right labels, the right cars, the right connections. Suddenly our hero was Gordon Gecko - although I know I’m looking at it from an urban perspective. Being “smart” was equal to being “rich”. And being “rich” was equal to being “smart”.
We became “top heavy” – no foundations, no solid structures for us to rest on. The debt we ran up is positively frightening. Getting “bargains” was all about beating the “system”. Except the “system” was us. Pogo was right.
The world will be changed. I won’t render an opinion on whether it will be better or worse. But it will be changed. And we’ll have to respond to that change. There are jobs that will go away and never come back. There will be new jobs created that were never there before. Our children will depend on us more than we depended on our own parents. For a greater period of time. There are things that we once believed were our “right” which will now become “luxury”. So we’ll do what we have to do, pull together, make different choices, and set new priorities.
That rear view mirror will tell you where you’ve come from and give you a point of orientation. But truly what’s ahead of us should have our complete attention. And there will be more value in how much we can provide each other, not how much we can sell it for.
- J.

Ralph said...

Good stuff, Jeff. It's a prescription for doing what's right as far as attitude is concerned--I just hope we do learn the lesson.

I do believe that it really comes down to self-preservation, not necessarily "pulling together." (Unfortunately.) But however we get there, if a greater good is served by our adapting new attitudes out of the necessity presented to us by the current situation, so much the better. And that greater good will show us how much better we can be as people. I guess I agree with you about the end result, but I don't think change will come from altruistic impulse; rather, survival.

Anonymous said...

Our local newspaper just spelled it out for all of us in this community. 17% unemployed!