An Age Of Security?

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It’s easy to get silly when you start generalizing about generations. Witness the recent mania regarding Tom Brokaw’s beloved “Greatest Generation.” Yes, those individuals who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II were certainly courageous in guiding America through the two worst crises it ever faced. But does that really make them any greater than, say, the generations that fought the Civil War, or the Revolution, or who pushed the American frontier through to the Pacific?

Just what are we talking about when we use the word generation anyway? I’m sure that those older Americans who were around in the 1930s and 1940s thought that they had something to do with saving the country too. For that matter, it used to be that a generation meant 30 years, but with the pace of change today, a generation—like a dollar—just ain’t what it used to be.

The famous baby-boomer generation, for instance, refers to little more than a demographic anomaly, a period of exceptionally high birthrates that occurred between 1946 and 1964. To search for any greater common denominator than those dates is to venture into tricky waters. How much, for instance, does an individual who graduated from college in 1967 really have in common with one who graduated in 1985? Nearly all their popular culture reference points and tastes are different, which in modern America is enough to constitute an unbridgeable gulf. This type of generational confusion can have all sorts of unintended consequences, as when many managed to convince themselves, for instance, that the Clintons were feckless, amoral hippies, while others tended to recognize them as that much more common boomer archetype known as the yuppie.

Yuppies, hippies—is there any defining characteristic to a “generation” that produced such disparate stereotypes? Well, maybe there is: insecurity.

In a recent article, The New York Times business analyst Louis Uchitelle examined the highly conflicted attitude many Americans seem to have about how they live now, and what their future will be. “… Can it be that living standards are actually slipping in America? No economist, demographer or historian would make that case,” Uchitelle writes. “Living standards, after all, almost never go backward, at least not in a material sense. Indeed, the economy today is growing, consumer spending is plentiful, and new technologies … make life better than ever, as they do in every generation.”

Yet Uchitelle also points out a central paradox of our time—and generation. While nearly 90 percent of Americans cited in a Gallup poll expressed themselves as “satisfied with their standard of living,” “25 percent of the nation’s families also worry all or most of the time that they won’t be able to pay their bills.”

Their singular characteristic is how they have turned away from what their parents worked so hard to give them.

Americans are satisfied with how they live but afraid they won’t be able to pay their bills? Uchitelle attributes this seeming contradiction to the circumstances of working life in the age of downsizing and “reinvention.” Job security, corporate pensions and health care, and steadily rising wages are all increasingly things of the past. Even the most basic, long-term economic trends have become unpredictable. Between 1973 and 1995 the nation’s productivity was sluggish, and real hourly wages did not increase at all. Since 1995 productivity has shot up, but for the last five years wages have not kept pace. In the twentyfirst century, median family income has actually declined.

The years the boomers grew up in, by contrast, were ones of almost unprecedented growth and security in American life. The period from just after the war until the oil shock of 1973 was one of nearly unbroken prosperity—and a prosperity that was almost universally shared. Productivity rose by close to 3 percent a year, with incomes not far behind.

But American capitalism has generally been dynamic; what was unique about the postwar years was how sustained our economic growth was and how widely we shared in it. The boom was really a product of a greater consensus than we have ever seen before or since. Business —especially big business—had come to more or less accept the idea of a regulated economy. American unions reached their zenith, representing 35 percent of the industrial work force, and the bitter labor wars that had plagued the economy for some seven decades were increasingly replaced by amicable settlements. Corporate health care plans and generous pensions became commonplace. Tremendous economic power passed over to the federal government, and social welfare programs flourished. For the first time, Americans had some real insurance against illness, old age, and unemployment. Even the ostensibly conservative Richard Nixon famously proclaimed: “We are all Keynesians now.”

What brought about this grand consensus? The Americans of the Greatest Generation—the baby boomers’ parents—had, in John F. Kennedy’s words, been “tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace.” The Great Depression and World War II had painfully impressed upon many Americans the need for cooperation. The Cold War made it a habit. The fight against communism was used to justify everything from the building of the interstate highway system to federal backing for the civil rights movement to increased science education in the public schools.