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MIDDLE-CLASS LIFEBOATCareers and Life Choices for Navigating a Changing Economy
By PAUL EDWARDS SARAH EDWARDS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Paul Edwards and Sarah Edwards
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSurviving and Thriving in New Economic Realities
Viewed one by one, the signs of the economic sea change going on around us don't seem all that significant at first. They may seem more like the result of unwise personal decisions, a misguided public policy, or a market aberration. But considered as a whole, they reflect a confluence of forces beyond the scope of any single personal, political, or economic decision, and their impact can jolt us into action. Here are a few of the signs furrowing many a brow these days. They cause people like you to make some changes-as we and many others have been doing over the past few years-in how we live and work. At the very least, the signs prompt us to begin looking for possible new choices.
For example, how many of the following changes, or the impending possibility of them, are already affecting you, your family, friends, or neighbors?
Longer work hours
Increased workload without additional compensation
Layoffs, closures, or required pay cuts
Fewer or no vacation and/or sick days
Increased health insurance costs or no health insurance benefits
Loss or freezing of retirement benefits
Lower return or loss of investment income
Increased cost of gasoline and/or cost of heating and cooling a home
Increased cost of day care
Longer waits to find a new job
Available jobs paying less than previous ones laid off from
Jobs being offshored to workers in another country
Higher personal debt to keep up one's lifestyle
Reduced or no government benefits to get through a tough time
Need to shop more at box discount stores and outlet centers
Inability to save as much or not at all
Little or no discretionary income for things one once enjoyed
Less time to devote to the aspects of life you value or enjoy most
We don't want to dwell on the statistics available to show how common and widespread these signs have become recently. In fact, we hope your reaction is that it's not all that bad for you yet. Hopefully it won't ever be. By international standards we in the American middle class are still living well, but a review of a variety of surveys of middle-class Americans over the past few years sheds light on a growing unease beneath our apparent prosperity. They reflect a disquieting rise of concern about such things as being able to:
Keep or replace a job
Pay the bills each month
Get ahead financially
Obtain affordable quality health care
Finance a college education
Provide for a comfortable retirement
Have time off for family, friends, vacations, relaxation
All such things were once considered relatively secure aspects of a middleclass life, yet over half of us express concern for the first time in generations that economic circumstance will be worse for our children and future generations. The Gallup Worry Index, which tracks public fears on economic issues, showed us as an anxious nation, recording as of this writing its highest anxiety reading ever.
If you would like to read more about the findings of these studies and others we mention in this chapter, you will find them listed under Studies in the Learn More section at the end of the chapter.
One way many of us have managed to stay afloat so far, despite such concerns, is by living on credit. Credit card debt is at an all-time high, averaging $9,312 per household. But how much more debt can we carry, and how much stress does our growing debt load add for the 80 percent of us who are already overstressed from juggling family and work? With minimum monthly payments and no additional borrowing, it will take an average of ten years to pay off such a debt, and the overall cost will be almost double the original amount borrowed. So is it any wonder 81 percent of people polled report experiencing some type of financial difficulty?
Analysis of household income over the past fifteen years tells us that "good economic times" today are little better for most of us than what would have been considered "bad times" back then. But again, our aim is not to focus on economic woes. You have undoubtedly already read or heard plenty about the thin economic margin so many of us balance on and what could happen were it to suddenly disappear.
Our goal is to emphasize that, for reasons beyond our personal control, many of the benefits we've come to rely upon to maintain a secure and comfortable middle-class lifestyle are slipping away, leaving us with the challenge of how to fill in the gaps. With three out of four working people believing it is becoming harder today to achieve the American Dream, many are already finding exciting and imaginative ways to do just that. When polled, nearly half of Americans say they've begun making voluntary changes to address forces that are threatening their way of life. They are building an economic lifeboat for:
* Financial security and a sense of control over their future
* Dependable work that is interesting and meaningful
* A simpler life, with fewer work hours
* More time for loved ones, personal interests, and community
* Less pressure, stress, and complexity in their lives
* A greater sense of autonomy and freedom within a close, stable community
How they are doing this, and how you can do it too, is precisely what this book will address. Here are the four essential steps we need to take starting right away:
Four Steps to Securing Your Own Middle-Class [Lifeboat.sup.sm]
First, we must educate ourselves as to just what is happening and understand the forces that are shaping the changes around us. Otherwise we will neither recognize the safeguards we must put into place nor see the many new opportunities that are open to us. Next, we must decide how we will safeguard our livelihoods to assure that we have a secure, dependable, and rewarding source of income we can rely upon in the evolving new economy. Then we need to make positive changes in the way we live to safeguard the quality of our life. Finally, we need to make sure we can afford to make the changes we want to make and enjoy pursuing them.
So let's begin by looking at just what is happening. What are the forces driving this economic sea change? How might they affect you, and what changes might they motivate you to consider making?
Step One to Securing Your Own Middle-Class [Lifeboat.sup.sm] Understand What's Happening and the Personal Changes It's Inspiring
Life has always been a struggle for the poor. The rich have always weathered change with less difficulty than the rest of us. But the middle class holds a unique and sometimes precarious position somewhere between the extremes of rich and poor, a place where we may never feel as financially secure as the rich, but where we can rest assured that if we do a good job at our work, we can enjoy a comfortable life. For most, such a life includes a nice home, good schools for our children, material comforts, being cared for in our old age-all the things that add up to making us feel sufficiently successful and satisfied.
Right now 92 percent of Americans define themselves as somewhere in the middle class, but most of us don't think it's as easy to stay there as it once was. Whereas 95 percent of voters believe you could enjoy a solid middle-class lifestyle twenty-five years ago if you worked hard and played by the rules, today less than half belief that, says a Douglas E. Schoen poll. Instead, most of us believe our numbers are shrinking.
Analysts agree. They are noticing that as the global economy progresses, our vast middle class is decreasing at a rate of 5 to 6 percent each year, and the gap between the rich and the poor is widening. Already, the most recent Census Bureau figures show that the richest fifth of U.S. households received 50.4 percent of all national income, the highest level since they began compiling such data in 1967, while the poorest fifth got just 3.4 percent. Loss of middle-income jobs has been well documented for some time, but Census Bureau data now shows that middle class neighborhoods are disappearing at an even faster rate than comparable jobs.
Such patterns are common in times of large-scale economic change. When the United States shifted quickly from agrarian times-when wealth was distributed relatively evenly-to the industrial era, the gap between rich and poor in some urban areas left the wealthiest 4 percent of the population in control of as much as two-thirds of a city's wealth.
In other words, in such times as these, pressure to hold one's own economically increases. Obviously we don't want to slip into poverty, but we don't want to work ourselves into the ground either just to stay where we are. So what are the forces catalyzing the economic sea change that are making life more difficult, raising anxiety, and propelling us to question if our way of life is as secure as we would like it? Here are six of the key interrelated forces that are churning up our economic seas.
1. Globalization. The increasing integration of worldwide markets for goods, services, and capital over the past decade is one of the key forces driving the changes we're experiencing. It means that we in the United States are now sharing many of the traditional well-paying jobs with workers in other countries. More U.S. jobs, including those in start-up companies, are being "offshored," that is, sent to other countries, like China, India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Eastern European nations, where workers are paid far less and have fewer benefits. This includes white-collar jobs once thought to be secure, such as analysts, accountants, customer service reps, engineers, graphic and software designers, marketers, programmers, and even some medical specialties. Economic analysts predict the offshored share of such jobs could double in the next three years.
2. Othersourcing. An increasing numbers of jobs that were once done by people are now being done by nonhuman means (such as automation, digitalization, and robotization) for example making bank deposits, checking-in for flights at airports, moving cameras on television sets, and checking out merchandise at retail stores. Keep in mind that by using labor-saving technology, companies can continue to profit and grow without adding jobs. Management guru Tom Peters predicts that between these first two forces, 90 percent of the white-collar jobs we know today may no longer exist within the next dozen years.
3. Growing dominance of multinational corporations. In a democratic society such as ours, an important role of national government is to intervene in the marketplace when necessary to assure economic stability-good jobs at decent wages and strong, safe, and secure families and communities. One effect of globalization, however, has been the rise of multinational corporations and financial institutions not subject to the jurisdictional controls of our national government. This lack of jurisdiction weakens our government's ability to provide a counterbalancing role in maintaining economic stability. These financial institutions can operate beyond the reach of public accountability, making our role as consumers more important to society than our role as citizens or workers. In this position, our voice is often confined to little more than choosing which products to purchase from among these corporations.
4. Dwindling natural resources. Growing international competition for dwindling natural resources is yet another factor in the economic sea change. The United States, Europe, and Japan have been using 80 percent of the world's natural resources, some of which are becoming depleted by rapid population growth and increased standards of living. Now economies in other countries are expanding too, and we must compete with them for these vital resources. Companies in India, China, and South Korea, for example, are competing with U.S. companies for oil supplies in countries as far and wide as Myanmar, Canada, Russia and the many nations of Africa.
Such competition means U.S. business and industry must pay more for things they've long enjoyed at a low cost, such as oil, gasoline, natural gas, water, and everything we consume that requires such resources. These costs are, of course, passed on to us as consumers. More than half of Americans polled say, for example, that rising fuel costs are causing them financial hardship. Six in ten report they're cutting back on discretionary spending as a result of higher gasoline and energy prices.
Also, as costs of commodities rise, businesses that can no longer compete are forced to close, while others feel compelled to make major cuts in their work force and/or benefits. Federal, state, and local government services are also affected by these rising costs, and recent cutbacks in such programs as Medicare, Social Security, job training, and unemployment compensation are expected to continue.
5. A cultural shift in social responsibility. Such cuts in the private and public sector revenue mean that we as individuals and families are increasingly left to shoulder more of the cost for economic safeguards once provided by our employers or the government. We find ourselves required to: * pay all or a larger part of our health care costs
* manage our own retirement funds in place of guaranteed pensions
* assume the risk that accompanies such investments
* cover the costs of an economic crisis, such as being laid off, injured on the job, becoming seriously ill, or providing care for ill or disabled family members
This shift is having a particularly profound effect on the family. Long thought of as the backbone of economic security and stability, marriage and family are becoming an economic risk. Married couples and families are more likely to file bankruptcy, lose their homes, and fall behind on their credit card debt than are singles. "We're not used to thinking of children as an economic liability," says Jacob S. Hacker, author of The Great Risk Shift, "but fully one quarter of 'poverty spells' originate with the birth of a child." The Census Bureau tells us that for the first time, households headed by singles outnumber those headed by married ones. Also a first, 51 percent of adult women and nearly 50 percent of men now live without a spouse. This shift in the epicenter of risk is not just a U.S. phenomenon-it is occurring across the Western world.
6. Rising cost of essentials. While many things, such as T-shirts, digital cameras, video phones, and computers are becoming cheaper, most of our fixed costs, the essentials we must have, such as housing, utilities, gasoline, transportation, health care, child care, medication, and education, are becoming progressively more expensive. "Families are being forced to live beyond their means, just to pay for the basics, such as housing and health care," says Christian Weller, a senior economist for the Center for American Progress.
The average homeowner spends more than a fifth of his or her total annual income to pay the mortgage, property taxes, homeowner's insurance, and utilities. More than a third of homeowners spend more than 30 percent of their annual income on mortgage payments alone. With the U.S. population aging and living longer, rising health care costs are of particular concern. Over the past year, the cost of health care premiums rose to an annual average of $11,500 for a family plan, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. This doubling in only seven years is twice as fast as the overall inflation rate and salary increases. A Watson Wyatt study reports "a vast majority of employers are planning to cut or eliminate health coverage for current and future retirees." In fact, health care costs borne by both workers and retirees are expected to keep on increasing, says Paul Fronstin of Employee Benefits Research Institute.
While we can easily cut back on or do without a larger T-shirt wardrobe and forego the newest electronic device, living without the essentials is a much greater challenge we'd prefer not to contemplate. Yet some of us are already facing trade-offs we'd rather not make. Do I drive an hour each way to work from a larger home we can afford, or does the family stay in a cramped apartment closer to work? Does gas money come before regular family dental care, savings for college, or funds for a much-needed vacation? Do I reduce how often I take my prescription medicine, let it go unfilled, or make the credit card payment?
The prospect of having to make such trade-offs is spurring people like those you will meet in this book to step out of this discomfort zone and create new lives for themselves that safeguard their livelihoods and the quality of their lives.
Excerpted from MIDDLE-CLASS LIFEBOAT by PAUL EDWARDS SARAH EDWARDS Copyright © 2007 by Paul Edwards and Sarah Edwards. Excerpted by permission.
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