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Whatever Happened to the Good Life?

Americans keep making less and spending more. That lifestyle is contributing to supersized debt and the decline of progressive politics.
 
 
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Since we're accustomed to thinking of young people and students as the shock troops of social change, explaining youthful inertia has become a national preoccupation (sadly, we expect impassivity from the middle aged). Many point to the absence of a draft as a motivating factor. Others cite the lack of contemporary examples of successful collective action to inspire faith in the efficacy of protest. But more often than not, the problem is conceived as cultural. The emerging generation, of which I am part, is post-Watergate, post-Monica Lewinsky, and weaned on irony and satire. We expect the government to deceive us and are hardly surprised, let alone outraged, when these expectations are met. Others argue that young people aren't particularly self-absorbed or apathetic; they're overworked and indebted. Today's twenty- and thirty-somethings are so busy struggling to make ends meet, they simply don't have time to take to the streets.

The latter theory has gained traction with the recent publication of three thoughtfully argued books: Tamara Straut's Strapped, Anya Kamenetz's Generation Debt , and Daniel Brook's The Trap (subtitled Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America ). Compared to our parents at the same age, these authors contend, we're working longer hours for less money, reduced job security, slashed benefits and fewer social services. Over the last four decades, opportunities for social mobility have declined dramatically, with wealth concentrating to a degree not seen since the Gilded Age.

In other words, it's getting harder and harder to stay -- let alone join -- America's crumbling middle class. Today's minimum wage is worth 30 percent less than it was in 1968. According to Draut, "if wages had kept pace with rising productivity between 1968 and 2000, the average hourly wage would have been $24.56 in 2000, rather than $13.74." Instead -- and particularly in fields with a social service component -- salaries have failed to keep pace with inflation and benefits, like health insurance or retirement funds, are elusive rarities. Meanwhile the cost of living has skyrocketed. Between 1995 and 2002, median rents in urban centers like San Francisco, Boston, and New York surged by sixty or seventy percent. The price tag on a simple studio in these cities is well over a thousand dollars a month. Finally, a college degree, often regarded as the key to a middle class lifestyle, costs more than ever before. In the 1960s and 1970s, when many quality public universities were free, Pell Grants covered nearly three-quarters of college tuition; today, the percentage has fallen to one-third. At the same time, tuition has outpaced inflation three times over since 1980. As a result, the average student leaves a four-year college with over $20,000 in educational debt; a graduate degree means $45,000.

As a member of "generation debt," I know these frustrations firsthand. It's hard to feel footloose when your owe $40,000 in student loans and haven't even started chipping away at the interest. I've had to move back in with Mom and Dad when housing costs were too much to cover. I haven't had health insurance in eight years and saving for retirement isn't even on the horizon. But are things that bad? Am I really so oppressed? Unlike twenty percent of the world's population, my basic necessities are covered. I've got food, clothing, shelter, and then some. I'm typing this on a G4 titanium laptop. I have a cellphone. I've traveled the world.

The fact is, even though young people today are making less, we're spending more. Between 1979 and 1990, the spending of the average person working for minimum wage increased by 30 percent. Generation Y has an inordinate amount of buying power in the United States: $175.1 billion dollars per year, much of which is wielded during the twenty plus hours a week they're online. And supposedly we have no time for activism? It makes sense that in a society where young people carry supersized debt, they expect a supersized lifestyle. Though generally inhabited by fewer people, the typical new American home is 40 percent larger than it was 25 years ago. The same period has seen the quadrupling of retail space per capita, which says something profound about rates of consumption. Jumbo SUVs, loaded with luxury options, make up half of all private vehicles on the road. Pleasure and vacation travel have become standard. Air conditioning in dorm rooms, a smorgasbord of dining options, extravagant fitness centers to work off those extra calories -- all amenities unimaginable back when college was cheap.

Since the mid-seventies, when experts starting keeping track, Americans' definition of the "good life" has become increasingly materialistic. Over the years, the good life has become more likely to include a home, a vacation home, a car, a second car, a color TV, a second color TV, travel abroad, designer clothes, a pool, a job that pays more than average, lots of money, and so on. Immaterial responses -- a happy marriage, children, interesting work, and a job that contributes to the welfare of society -- have either flat-lined or become less popular over the years.

And it's not that people simply want more; they claim to need more. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that the list of things "we can't live without" has grown steadily since 1973. Many things Americans currently consider necessities didn't even exist a generation ago. Cell phones weren't on the survey in 1996, but are now considered essential by 57 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 (8 percent of the same group considers their iPod to be a necessity, not a luxury). In only ten years, the percentage of adults who consider a microwave oven a necessity has more than doubled, to 68 percent. Home air conditioning has climbed from 51 percent to 70 percent in necessity status, and the position of clothes dryers ascended twenty points as well. It's also worth noting that, according to Pew, "the more income a person has, the more likely he or she is to view goods and gadgets as necessities rather than luxuries." The richer you are, in other words, the more you need.

As economist Juliet Schor has explained, consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction "depend less on what a person has in an absolute sense than on socially formed aspirations and expectations." That is to say, even the objectively upper-class can believe themselves beleaguered because they're ogling opulent plutocrats. Take a recent article in the New York Times pitying "millionaires who don't feel rich" in Silicon Valley. "Everyone around here looks at the people above them," complains a tycoon of substantial means. "You're nobody here at $10 million." Today's citizens aren't "keeping up with the Joneses," they're keeping up with the ultra-affluent, an unrelentingly upwardly mobile target that shapes the hopes and dreams of everyone below them.

Thus it's no surprise that young people's expectations have expanded over the years. In 1967, 45 percent of college freshman reported that being well-off financially was important; by 2004 the number ballooned to 74 percent. Critics take this as conclusive proof of Generation Y's insatiable materialism, while more sympathetic observers point out that such an attitude is simply a practical response to ever-rising costs of living. Young people aren't greedier than their predecessors, argue Draut, Kamenetz, and Brook, they simply need more money to make ends meet; which is why they have to work so much; which is why they have no time to spare; which at least partly accounts for the paltry state of progressive politics in the US.

The problem is, social movements have long been made by people far worse off than our indebted generation, a fact driven home on a recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico. I met a group of women, many in their mid-twenties and most with children, employed by the foreign-owned factories along the border. They work sixty hours a week assembling televisions and other widgets for American consumers, often for as little as six dollars a day. They live in little shacks made of scrap wood, recycled pallets, and old tires. Their homes lack running water. These women have no money and no free time, yet they have organized themselves into a collective and are effectively advocating for environmental justice in their community. Returning to the US from Tijuana, it was as though I could suddenly see clearly: our "necessities" appeared to me as what they really are -- luxuries. I have no doubt there is an element of social control built into the massive educational debt imposed on young Americans today. But I also believe social change requires sacrifice -- and imagination. We need to reevaluate the supposed "necessity" of higher education (especially people interested in the humanities, the arts, and in social change, who may find the fortune they spend on tuition could be more fruitfully invested elsewhere), envision new standards of "success," redefine the "good life," and figure out creative ways to share costs by reinvigorating old ideas (housing, food, and vehicle co-ops come to mind). Above all, we need to remember that our single biggest luxury, our salient self-indulgence, is acquiescence, and that it comes at too high a price.

Astra Taylor is a writer and documentary filmmaker. Her first book, "Shadow Of the Sixties," is forthcoming from the New Press in 2007.

 
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