Six years into the great recession and…”We are not OK….”

Income inequality, the wealth gap, call it what you will, the problem is very real and is literally shredding the fabric of the  middle and working classes.  Progressives have coined the phrase “income inequality” to describe this destructive force.

Without trying to parse words too much, I think “wealth inequality would be a more comprehensive  definition of what is actually happening.  Either way neither description has that sound-bite “pop” that would capture the essence of this national tragedy.   Neither can come close to “class warfare”  which the republicans and tea baggers had the audacity to latch onto. Admittedly it was a brilliant stroke of political spin. They brazenly managed to take ownership of “class warfare” while they were launching  full scale nuclear Armageddon on the middle and working classes.

“We are not OK…”

Perhaps progressives should counter with something simpler, something less intellectual but more poignant. Over the holidays I had a dinner out with a friend of mine.  We were talking about our mutual financial worries.  I am self-employed, not necessarily by choice and my friend has just found a temporary reprieve from unemployment, but nothing permanent after more than six months of searching.  My friend, a special ed teacher,  is especially  adept at cutting to the chase.  She looked up from her cup of coffee and said…”Four years into a recovery and we are not OK. We are one diagnosis, one recession, one bad piece of luck away from financial disaster.”

Perhaps that simple phrase – “We are not OK” would resonate far better than “income inequality”.  It is a metaphor for the quiet desperation that is seeping into the lives of virtually all but the top 1%.

A terrifying truth…

Indeed – “We are not Ok” is symbolic of a terrifying truth.  Over the last six years I  have never worked so hard for so little in return.  Making any kind of a real income has been like trying to pin jello to the wall.   It has  been so relentless for so long and just never seems to get any better. When I get paid, its like giving a starving person a sprig of parsley with no accompanying meal. Like the little old lady in a famous commercial from my youth I’m left asking “where’s the beef?” After over six years of relentless recession, I, like almost everyone else know, am in desperate need of a real financial meal with meat, potatoes and gravy.

Most of of my friends are in the same boat.  Few are not in need.  Most of us are very well educated.  Most of us with at least one master’s degree. A couple of us have doctorates.

We did all the “right things”.  We got our educations, went into career oriented fields.  We worked hard and played by the rules.  Yet we find ourselves in middle age being referred to as “old” by perspective employers and  unemployable for anything long term, generally for very sketchy reasons.  Those who would employ us want us for pennies on the dollar with no mind or care to what the cost of living actually is. Many of us are resorting to our own business startups in light of impending poverty through wage deterioration.

Excellence and exceptionalism…that’s so 20th century…

“We are not OK” is symbolic of an ever larger big picture issue that goes beyond the millions of personal tragedies that this long financial crisis has brought.  Not only are we not OK, but we don’t see any path back to becoming “OK” once again.

Once again I go back to the conversation I was having with my friend. When our talk turned to excellence and education, the educator in her had to note that she could no longer tell her children that working hard, striving for excellence and settling into a career track where they could hone and perfect their skills would keep them safe and secure.   There is no safe and secure and when that rug is yanked out from under people, excellence and exceptionalism  seem to get tossed over the side as well.

The brutal irony is that in order for us to climb out of this mess, what is needed on the macro level is more people striving for excellence and exceptionalism, not less.

But on the micro (or individual) level,  what worked in the 20th century does not work now.  The American dream of striving for more and being rewarded for our ingenuity  is gone, and gone with  it, is the impetus to discover.  Breaking new ground, inventing something no one ever dreamed or thought of before is risky business. The failure rate is high. It is the type of venture that people engage in when they have a safety net under them  in the event they should stumble. When times are perilous, people don’t stick their necks out to strive for greatness.  Instead, they play it safe.

Excellence takes the back seat to schmoozing and networking…

Playing it safe means crowding into fields that are known to be lucrative.  The problem being that these fields are generally saturated with people  – all seeking the same thing – financial security.  In such an atmosphere, success has more to do with who you know rather than what you know. If excellence was the paradigm for success for the latter 20th century, networking, marketing and schmoozing are job-one in the 21st century.  What happens when education and hard work  fails in favor of connections, networking and marketing?   Nothing good I can promise you.

This is not the stuff of new inventions and bold innovations and laying a foundation for the future. Sadly its the opposite.

The innovation/invention squeeze is integrally linked to income inequality and the commoditization of highly educated people.  You bring down the ability of highly skilled talent to actually earn an living doing what they are good at and what our country desperately needs them to do in order for us to thrive again as a nation and its game over.  Which brings me back to the initial take home message for this post. “No, we are not OK.”

© 2014 – RGHicks – – All rights reserved.





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