December 2008 Archives
Now that the election is over, the object of my obsessing has shifted from presidential politics to the disarray of the global economy. From the macro to the micro, stories about the economy dominate the news. While I read quite a lot of personal finance stories and have an affection for the fabulously weird Suze Orman, I don't generally read actual, y'know, books on economic matters.
Yet I was intrigued by an interview I heard this past June on Wisconsin Public Radio (which you can stream online via this link or, if that ever fails, search the online story archives) with Nan Mooney, author of (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class, which came out earlier this year from Beacon Press. Now, a few months later, I've finally gotten around to reading Mooney's book.
Mooney's topic will, I imagine, be of interest to lots of ArtsJournal readers since her focus is on the economic straits of what she dubs the "educated professional middle class." These are white-collar workers whose jobs require at least a bachelor's, if not a master's or PhD, and are in--as Mooney phrased it in her WPR interview--"professions that, oftentimes, got you more moral prestige than financial rewards," such as journalism, nonprofit work and the arts.
While Mooney has interviewed a large number of subjects of different ages, her perspective, as someone born in 1970, seems very much of a piece with the Generation X mindset. X-ers have had to come to terms with a climate in which the value of a four-year degree has shrunk, making it, in many cases, akin to a high-school diploma for previous generations.
Yet Mooney's central point is that the sharp rise in fixed, necessary costs such as health care premiums is eroding the already modest salaries of teachers, social workers and the like. While I found some of her anecdotes a little lacking (such as a Chicago couple with a combined income of $93K and a home purchased for $179K; that doesn't seem like much of a stretch to me), the book makes for interesting reading.
I'm also glad to see Mooney discard the tired "latte myth," one of those irritating little tidbits that seems to make it into every magazine personal-finance story (and which I heard Matt Lauer recycle just this morning on NBC's Today). The idea is that if you cut out your $3 or $4 latte every day and plunk the money into a savings account, a worthwhile amount will rack up by the end of the year. As Mooney writes:
This may be useful advice to some degree, but it's hard to imagine that saving a few dollars here and there will ever add up to a home of your own... The only thing this theory seems to accomplish is making us feel guilty for enjoying small pleasures, when we definitely can't afford the larger ones. Forgoing a fancy cup of coffee can't ameliorate the fact that wages have stagnated and the cost of most major items has risen.
I'm all for economizing and limiting frivolous expenses (I can't help it; I grew up in a middle-class but ultra-frugal family), but I think Mooney makes a great point. This trite latte example, which we've heard over and over, doesn't address the fact that the level of consumer spending hasn't really gone up since the 1970s, but fixed costs have risen and wages have stagnated. There's more at work here than occasional self-indulgence.
While I have quibbles with some aspects of this book, I think it's a useful counterbalance to the rosy picture painted by Richard Florida's much-hyped The Rise of the Creative Class, which made it seem as if the creative and well-educated were endlessly in demand and could write their own tickets in terms of where to live and work. I always found it strange that Florida lumped together hairdressers and more highly paid types like software developers. Income level was simply glossed over.
If these sorts of issues intrigue you, I recommend listening to Nan Mooney's Wisconsin Public Radio interview with host Joy Cardin or reading her book. While I'm sure some will deride her as a whiner (and I'll admit I found some of her interviewees unsympathetic), she raises worthwhile questions about how certain professions are valued and where we're headed in the future, especially for those with children. I'll close with another excerpt:
If we feel torn between money and values, imagine the pressures our financial anxieties will place on our kids now and in the future... How fully do we propagate those ideals that left so many of us disenchanted: the sense of entitlement, the idea that hard work and fair play will automatically get you somewhere, the virtues of meaningful work, generosity of spirit and a life of the mind? Much as we might relish having grown up in an era where possibility was the watchword, can we say we're responsible parents if we encourage our children to do as we did, bypass financial security and focus on following their dreams?