As Eldercare Comes Home

When not overshadowed by President Trump’s perfect Ukraine phone call, the national conversation in this Presidential election cycle pertains to higher education funding and healthcare.  But the issue that is approaching steadily from behind is how we’re going to manage our rapidly growing population of senior citizens.

Youngest and I sat before the television screen, watching and commenting upon the potential candidates during the fourth Democratic debate on October 15.  It was the usual back-and-forth and the only recurrent question between us was why in the hell is Beto O’Rourke still here?  But out of nowhere, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota caught my attention with her comments that apart from the two principal issues, who was paying attention to other pertinent topics, such as the rapid growth of the aged population in the United States – what she referred to as The Silver Surge.  Perhaps it’s that Minnesota has a significantly larger and growing elder population; next year, Minnesota’s 65-and-above age cohort will exceed the 17-and-younger cohort for the first time in their history and by 2030, more than 20% of Minnesotans will be senior citizens.  They aren’t as far along as Maine, thank you Jesus, but they are well on their way.

Klobuchar is right.  The almost complete absence of political conversation means that any meaningful programs moving forward will not pertain to the elderly; we will have to manage via programs cobbled together at the state and local levels.  The reality is that the onus will devolve down to the granular level of the family unit.  I purposefully stated that the issue is approaching from behind because the adult children in a society with a declining middle class are looking forward generationally, attending to the needs of their own families and children.  Kids are very squeaky wheels requiring investment in time and money and their parents will hear very little from their own elders about their conditions until there is a significant health event which knocks the axle off the elder truck.  It’s generally a two-way silence; the adult children are simply trying to keep things afloat and the elders say little out of pride, fear or shame.

So once again, it’s up to the family to work this out.  Our society has become so complex that inattention can have potentially catastrophic results personally, medically and financially.  The obvious question then is where do we even start?

The good news is that old age doesn’t just happen overnight, like – *POOF* – Mom’s suddenly old.  Aging is a continuum and while there’s always a downward trend, the slope is typically longer and shallower until there’s one or more medical events that sharpen the decline before culminating in death.  Perhaps the first question to answer then is where are your elders on the continuum?  Are they poster elders for Senior Olympics or are they already doddering around on gimpy legs with a laundry list of daily medications required for simple survival?  Even then, how is their condition mentally versus physically?  The body itself might be in decent shape for elderhood but Alzheimer’s, while severely affecting mental capacity, is a physical malady.

The question of location on the continuum is important.  Once you have a sense of that location, you can begin to consider some of the aspects that must be covered as they move forward along it and with that, a sense of the time and criticality with which these aspects must occur be addressed.

What are some of these aspects?

The Conversations.  American Elderhood can be aptly described as terra incognita for our society.  We’ve been obsessed with youth and uncomfortable with the concept and practice of dying.  Medical advances have pushed the envelope of lifespan so that the fastest growing demographics are our elders; and remember that there is not just one age cohort for the elderly.  But that increase hasn’t been correspondingly matched by either assets to financially support the longer lifespan or an increase in individual mental and physical capacity to support it either.  There have to be multiple conversations with them to help plan so that their waning days are as comfortable and meaningful as possible.  Given the complexity and emotional discomfort that can accompany such discussions for both elders and adult children, it’s entirely likely that these won’t be completed quickly.  The time to start having the conversations is sooner than later.

The Overwatch.  Is it possible to develop meaningful, yet discrete and respectful, tabs on how our elders are doing?  It’s been difficult to even find a term for this situation; surveillance is laden with negative connotations and is disrespectful to them, not to mention potentially counter-productive.  The difference between a declining elder and a kid is that a kid with an offended sense of pride can’t blind you by tearing up your HIPAA forms.

The Siblings.  Do you have siblings and what are their circumstances?  Are they geographically nearby and what is their relationship with both the elders and you?  How are the lines of communication and is there a delineation of responsibility?  Most importantly, are they willing to acknowledge elder wishes even if they might not be in agreement with them?

The Finances.  How aware are you of their finances and are they capable of handling them?  If you have to step in, are measures in place to allow it?

The Documentation.  There is a considerable amount of paperwork involved with the elderly and much pertains to assuring that their rights are protected, particularly as they become less able to care for themselves.  Everybody knows about wills, but do you know where your elders have theirs and is it accessible?  Is there paperwork granting Power of Attorney not just for financial matters but healthcare matters as well?  Do you have the appropriate clearance to speak with the potentially numerous medical providers?

The Allies.  The demands upon you will increase as your elders age and you will likely have to depend upon the assistance of others in the eldercare system.  Have they reached the point of requiring your attendance at appointments and who can get them there?  What if they have a pre-existing relationship with another professional, such as their own lawyer or financial adviser?  Do you have a go-to person for help in navigating a complex medico-legal eldercare system?

The Systems:  Healthcare and Housing.  You’ve likely been spending your time dealing with the kids and haven’t had to seriously consider the complexity, opacity and cost of the healthcare system and elder housing structure.  Getting a crash course in navigating them is frustrating and fraught with peril.  What exactly is the Doughnut Hole – yeah, that’s actually a thing – and why must your elder leave their continuing care retirement community for somewhere further away for skilled care?

The System:  End of Life.  Even if your parent has been clear about everything – communication, paperwork and documentation, final wishes – getting him or her to that point at which final wishes can be honored can be problematic.  Most of us have little experience with death and the confluence of physical and emotional factors can create an immensely stressful situation.  Is there clarity about what the final wishes are?  How do you contend with the potentially large number of specialists who might be called in because of multiple systemic failures?  What are the resources available to you?  What exactly is hospice and when is the best time to get them involved?

What’s the aftermath?

These various aspects itemize neatly, as though each was a Lego block that stacked and nestled neatly together in a self-supporting structure.  But the reality is that each aspect is more like a thread that would be woven among the other threads in a tapestry.  Each can dramatically impact another aspect for better or worse and how one works out can be dependent upon how well another aspect was addressed.

Caring for your elders – parents or grandparents – can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience and there are those who count it as a privilege.  But it can still be problematic and there are moments when you are likely to find yourself pushed and exhausted and at times, bereft.  Understand in those moments that you aren’t alone and if you’re able to look up, there will be moments of amazing grace emanating from circumstances and people that will pull you through.

Much of what that’s written moving forward will not necessarily be an exhaustive What to Expect When You’re Expecting type of guide to everything about aging.  But it will be framed extensively by the experiences of being involved with an aging parent with Dementia, including the missteps and miscues.  All of the aspects mentioned can be drawn directly from personal experience and to the extent possible, these experiences will touched upon so perhaps something of value can come from them.

 

 

 

 

Is the Multi-Generational Family Under-represented?

In 2018, Pew Research noted that the multi-generational family structure – defined either as co-habitation among two generations older than 25 years of age or grandparents and grandchildren – was making a comeback.  As of 2016, the last year for which data is available, 20% of American families comprised this model and this was the highest level since 1950.  When we think of this type of family, we recall the Walton family from the iconic CBS series The Waltons, which aired more than three decades ago.  When the series aired, the percentage of American multi-generational families was at or near it’s low point.  Since then, it has risen consistently and while there may be other reasons, economic factors play a front-stage center role.

The Pew Research definition is solid because it describes a family composition that is objectively quantifiable via census and sampling data.  But what if this is only a partial picture?  What if American families are altering their decisions and actions accordingly to account for the decline of the middle class, but in ways that are not as easily captured via standard data collection techniques?  What if familial generations are making decisions and arrangements that bind themselves more closely together to provide mutual care without co-habitation?  If co-habitation is changing the family structure – the skeleton – are there less overt changes occurring that re-knit the generational sinews in ways that quietly alter American society?  Such examples would include:

  • One generation purposefully relocating closer to another in order to receive or provide support, material or otherwise;
  • One generation providing childcare or other supportive measures;
  • One or more generations refusing to relocate because of the impact upon the other generations.

I note these examples because these are actions that I have witnessed both among members of my extended family as well as friends and neighbors over the past several years.  What I have come to realize in my adulthood is that while I would like to think that I am special –Thank you, Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street – there is actually nothing that special about me.  My actions, apart from that ill-considered goat and tequila incident in college, are generally rational and cogent.  This likewise applies to most people, who reside in a stable neighborhood along society’s Bell Curve.  Expand this observation to the larger population and perhaps there is more going on within the family structure than the definition provided above, material but objectively immeasurable.  What do you do if it can’t be objectively measured?  Should it just be dismissed out of hand?

In my case, I took the family dog for a walk around the immediate neighborhood.

Since 2017, we have lived on a cul de sac within a golf course community.  It’s clearly not representative of larger society and truthfully, we don’t live here for the golf.  In early 2017, we needed to retreat to a house that was more amenable to my own physical condition; specifically, one floor living with minimal use of stairs.  That the previous owner left behind a fully furnished theater room that allowed my sons to hear the Angels sing was just icing on the cake.  Our home is one of 28 units on the cul de sac and every four or six units are clustered together in duplex fashion.  Like most Americans, I don’t know every soul in the immediate neighborhood but after two years of conversations and chats, I have a sense of who lives in most of the units and their living arrangements, at least superficially.

I’m really not a creep.  I just pay attention.

As the dog and I strolled the neighborhood, I noted what I objectively knew for each of the 28 units.

  • Units 1 – 3:  One vacant and being flipped.  Two empty-nesters.
  • Unit 4:  My family, nuclear but providing partial daycare for a grandchild.
  • Units 5 – 8:  A traditional nuclear family.  A single parent household with child and roommate, the unit purchased by the grandparents of the adult daughter, and a unit serving as a vacation getaway for an elderly couple from another state.
  • Units 9 – 13:  Empty-nesters and elderly couples.
  • Units 14 – 15:  True multi-generational household with two adult generations and a grandchild (and a really cool Labrador).  Nuclear family with adults likewise providing daycare for grandchildren.
  • Unit 16:  Single parent with teenagers who returned to be closer to family.
  • Units 17 – 22:  Empty nest or unknown.
  • Unit 23:  True multi-generational household with two adult generations and grandchildren.
  • Units 24 – 28:  Empty nest or unknown.

So of 28 units, two meet the multi-generational definition and an additional four – including my own – have some significant interaction in which one or more generations provide material assistance to another.  This isn’t the least bit objective or statistically relevant but what makes this particular cul de sac in some way not indicative of larger trends within society?

The upshot?  It is possible, although not objectively quantifiable, that the multi-generational interactions are being understated.  The winnowing of the middle class and the opioid epidemic are fostering a greater interdependence among the generations than has been seen in decades.  Newer linkages are likely being formed because circumstances require them and unless or until someone can ascertain a means to measure this extent, these material interactions will be understated because they exist beneath the data gathering radar.

So perhaps the definition noted above is incomplete.  Perhaps it should be expanded from physical co-habitation to this:

  • One adult generation relocating to closer proximity to another, or refusing to relocate away from another, in order to give or receive increased physical or financial support;
  • Providing or receiving some form of physical or financial support (childcare, eldercare) between the adult generations.

There has always been some degree of supportive interaction between the generations throughout our history.  In my own family, my father and his parents were forced to move in with his grandmother during the Great Depression.  My maternal grandmother lived within two blocks of my aunt and that aunt routinely checked on her as she aged.  My own parents spent more than two decades supplementing my paternal grandmother’s income with a monthly stipend of $100 with which she managed to accrue a stunning quantity of makeup and costume jewelry.  But these common instances are overtaken because of the economic stresses upon the family from the middle class’ decline.

We teach and raise small children with the idea that they are each, in some way, special.  But we realize in our adulthood that we aren’t as special and are more alike to others.  We, as adults, make accommodations to the circumstances and physical surroundings that might be novel because they are new to us, but which aren’t as novel as they might appear because others are having to make them as well.

The next time that you take the dog for a neighborhood stroll, consider what you know and think whether there’s anything that can be extrapolated.  But I wouldn’t necessarily share it with many of the neighbors because they’re liable to think that you’re creepy.

 

 

The American Family Changes…

…these are serious structural changes to the economy that will necessarily flow into so many other facets of our lives – food and cooking, housing, education, medicine, child-rearing.

      –  PracticalDad, The Great Reversion  June 27, 2013 

The Great Reversion, which kicked into overdrive with the Financial Crisis of 2007, has now run headfirst into the social institution that the Conservative movement exalts:  the American Family.  Change is constant although most is ebb and flow.  But now, multiple separate data-points about the American family support the concept that its structure is changing in response to its long-term financial circumstances.

Let’s be clear.  There is no longer a true monolithic model for the contemporary American family and no one can lay claim to it, despite what the Religious Right likes to think.  But the separate data-points indicate that the great mass of families – religious or not – is looking at their respective long-term circumstances and making rational family-unit level decisions to best situate themselves for what they perceive to be their future.  We all know the mass of economic data-points showing what’s amiss:

These kinds of circumstances have an impact however, and that impact is now reflected in the long-term decisions of the family adults.  How so?

First, America’s Total Fertility Rate – known informally as our replacement fertility rate – declined in 2018 to 1.73, the lowest point since the Oil Crisis/Inflation period of the mid 1970s.  That was a bleak period two generations ago and I recall a conversation with a gentleman who commented that he and his wife were nervous about bringing new life into a world that was, in the moment, intimidating.  Circumstances improved however:  The Berlin Wall had fallen and the Soviet Union collapsed; even with 9/11, we entered a period in which homes were larger than ever and housing prices would only ever go up.  Money was cheap and anybody who could fog a mirror was able to borrow large amounts for increasingly unpopular McMansions.  And with that increase went the Total Fertility Rate.

Until approximately 2007 however, when the wheels came off.  Since then, the TFR has dropped and it’s low point is confirmed by a second fertility statistic, the General Fertility Rate, which measures the rate at which women are currently having children.

US Fertility Rates/courtesy Pew Research

 

 

 

 

 

 

The typical family is looking at it’s prospect and saying Nah Bruh, I think that I’m good for now…  And this is playing out in the second data-point.

Next, more younger couples are only having one child.  This is now the fastest growing cohort of families and has doubled in the four decades from 1976 to 2015, from 11% to 22% and if the article is correct, then it’s not going to slow appreciably in the near future.  It hasn’t necessarily been a financial decision since part of the interplay is the aspect of delayed motherhood from a greater participation in the workforce and the opening of previously closed career pathways for women.  But my suspicion, gut at best, is that people are looking at the cost, excluding higher education, and holding put at one child.

Third, the American family itself is quietly morphing from its historic nuclear family structure to a multi-generational model.  What we consider the traditional nuclear has been rooted for generations in the two-generation unit, parents and biological children together.  It has shifted itself as the racial, cultural and gender lines have blurred so that a modern nuclear family can be parents of two separate races or the same sex, and the children can be adopted instead of related via birth.  Studies have shown that this particular unit structure can be found in records back as far as the 13th century in England but the sociologists’ research of the 20th century has linked the economic development since the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century, as well as our own domestic economic growth, to the widespread availability of the nuclear family; it was this foundational unit that was able to move to where the opportunities for economic advancement were then available.

One particular economic issue today pertains to this very concept of labor mobility.  Economists have noted in the past several years that the percentage of Americans willing to move for employment has dropped by half, from the 1980s to today, from 20% to about 10%.  It’s notable that from 2012 to 2017, this number declined from one in eight Americans in 2012 to one in ten in 2017.  Labor mobility matters because it allows for the best match of labor demand and supply so that productivity is maximized at the greatest benefit to labor.  Consider Detroit’s auto industry in the early to mid 20th century.  American automakers were able to turn out autos at such a rate because they were able to obtain a healthy supply of labor, much of it from the Black communities of the American South.  For all of the social issues that were engendered, the pay for black workers in Detroit was still higher than what they were able to earn in the Jim Crow South and significant numbers of Blacks moved northwards to take advantage of it.  But when labor mobility declines, as it has, then there is a mismatch between the demand and supply of labor and each aspect suffers.  Middle had a college classmate who graduated with a degree in video sound editing and his goal was to move to Silicon Valley; but with the cost of housing so wildly out of reach for the average person, this youngster would have joined others living in vehicles as they worked in their chosen field.  The result?  He stayed on the east coast.

If the nuclear family is a two-generation unit, parent(s) and children, what then is the multi-generational model?  The first thought of many Americans is that of The Waltons, the Depression-era family portrayed on the iconic television show of the 1970s.  They were a nuclear family that became a multi-generational family by dint of having the grandparents live under their roof.  But multi-generational is more than that.  According to sociologists at Pew Research, the multi-generational family model is composed of parents and adult children past the age of 25 or grandparents and grandchildren or any other combination of greater than two generations.  Right away, we recognize two circumstances that have come into focus from this definition.  First, the number of young adults that are now living at home because of their student debt load.  As of 2016, approximately one third of adults between 25 and 29 lived with their parents, triple the percentage who did so in the 1970s.  The second situation is the rise in the number of grandparents caring for grandchildren because of the parents’ instability due to economic factors or more tragically, drug addiction.  The raw numbers aren’t nominally huge, but the percentage of grandparent-headed households has increased in less than a decade.

Percent/Nominal Rise in Multigenerational /courtesty Pew Research

When you note the rise in the percentage of multi-generation families since 1970, also consider the arrival of the immigrant family; both Asian and Hispanic families tend to have more than two generations under the same roof, often because of financial reasons.  Despite this, the percentage of multi-generational families has risen across all racial demographics.

But these factors account for what has happened thus far and don’t necessarily reflect the impact of what will come; expect the multi-generational  model to make far greater inroads as we move ahead.  Simply put, there are going to be far more elderly Americans with far less savings to support themselves through their remaining years and the existing social infrastructure for their care is seriously insufficient.

The first thing to understand is that there is no longer a single demographic cohort for the elderly and these cohorts aren’t growing at the same rate; there are seniors, the elderly and the Old AF. The demographic models are such that the number of elderly Americans, 65 and above, will outnumber young Americans by 2035.  However, the number of those between 75 and 84 will increase by 100% while those above 85 will increase by 200% by 2050.  The raw number of the elderly population is going to outpace the number of workers available to support them via government financed social programs.

The second factor to consider is the state of the seniors’ finances.  According to the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies,  the median savings for people in their 50s and 60s is $117000 and $172000 respectively.  Many in those age cohorts recognize that it isn’t enough and fully expect to continue working past the traditional retirement age of 65 and the percentage that do is now at now at 20%, double the level of 10% in 1985.    Coincidentally, the percentage of older Americans still working was 29% in 1949, about the same time at which the percentage of multi-generational families was as high as it is now.

The paucity of savings is further complicated by the global experiment with artificially low interest rates. Our national monetary policy for longer than a decade has been to push interest rates to the lower ranges to both encourage consumption – I have to hold back a laugh when I consider the prevailing credit card rates – and assist in managing the interest costs of our national debt.  This is good for the federal government and companies, who have persistently taken on large amounts of debt for the purpose of buying back their stock.  But it is horrendous for middle-aged and elderly savers who, at one time, depended upon the interest income from their lifetime of accumulated savings to fund their nest egg.  As rates have been consistently low for more than a decade, those in or approaching their senior years have been forced to shift their investment focus to riskier investments in the hope of obtaining a higher return.  This is a sea-change from the traditional approach of shifting to safer and more stable portfolios as retirement is reached.  If you are 56 and have $172000 in savings, you are going to run a greater risk of losing it before you hit your final years.

The last factor is that the infrastructure for elder care is simply inadequate for the numbers of older Americans coming down the pike.  Elderly Americans are covered for many, if not all, medical expenses via the Medicare program; most importantly for very elderly Americans, this can include some, but not all, aspects of nursing home residency.  Corollary expense, such as hands-on care for assistance in Activities of Daily Living (ADL) is not covered and is left to the individual or family to pay.  In addition, there is a cap for the per diem fee that Medicare will pay nursing homes for Medicare patients so there is limited profitability for nursing homes in the Medicare program.  The upshot?  There might be a specific number of nursing beds available in a locality but there is only a subset of those that are available to elderly citizens whose primary coverage is via Medicare simply because of insufficient revenue; this isn’t referring to the rates of return on the business but actually even maintaining any profitability at all.

The other aspect to the infrastructure question is simply one of labor.  The dispersion of the American elderly demographic isn’t uniform and some areas are more hard hit than others.  Maine is now what the World Bank classifies as a super-aged entity, noted by a fifth of the population being older than 65 years of age; this is the first state to reach this milestone and by 2030 – 11 years from now – more than half of the states in the country will cross that threshold.  If there are an insufficient number of nursing home beds available for the most infirm, then the next best step is to do everything possible to keep them in their own homes.  It is less expensive and theoretically possible to make this work – except that there are vicinities in which there isn’t enough available trained labor to support that goal of in-home services.  Maine is the first state to face the situation and service providers are simply declining to take on new clients because they just do not have the people to provide the services; the families who are in the area are then forced into situations, often intense, for which they have no minimal resources and training.

Let’s connect the dots.

  • The elder generations will grow significantly and disproportionately, relative to younger generations.
  • These generations lack the assets to support the care that is likely to be required in their much later years as debility and deteriorating medical conditions require greater spending.
  • The infrastructure, both physical and labor, for elder care is insufficient at present in many locations for this growth.
  • The present political conservative political sentiment will preclude significantly increased spending on elder care programs and much of the burden will continue to be shifted back to the family unit as has already happened with retirement, cost of higher education and health care costs. Even if there is a massive shift towards greater social spending, the conversation among the Democratic candidates relates to healthcare and higher education benefits with little mention of Eldercare.

There are simply too many soon-to-be elders and they don’t have the money.  Any correction of the hollowing out of the American Middle Class will likely take decades which means that even the younger generations aren’t going to have the resources and they in turn will have to rely in some measure on their own adult children when they reach their own elder years.  This is the upshot of living through the Great Reversion since our forebears often had to stand for some measure of responsibility for their own parents and grandparents and this is how it’s going to be moving forward.

Raising children can be difficult and teens even more so.  But our grandparents could get through those years with a sigh of relief at the lifting of responsibility because their own parents had the assets to largely support themselves in their dotage.  Many of us are only going to have a few years of respite before we are forced to re-assume that responsibility for our own elders as they navigate their final years.

Understand that your own children are watching you and you’ll want to set a decent example for them when they are, in turn, responsible for you.

Looking Forward: Young Parents and the Changes to Higher Ed

My wife and I sat together on a wet May Thursday morning, awaiting Middle’s University Commencement ceremony.  Attendance wasn’t mandatory for the graduates since they would be receiving their degrees separately at the ten individual college ceremonies but Middle decided to enjoy the moment and walk with willing others of his college.  It was a moment of celebration marred only by the absence of his siblings:  Eldest, who couldn’t leave work until later that morning and Youngest, who was obligated to take an AP exam that afternoon.  It was no different from the other notable events that provide the milestones for our lives and the recurrent question came back to me…when did he grow up?  Parenthood is a “forest for the trees” experience as you become so caught up in the multitude of activities, events, practices, concerts and games  that time slips by until one of these milestones allows you to stop and climb the ridge from which you can now see how far you’ve come and how far there is to go.  But instead of looking back as so many times before, I wondered about the set of ridges that mark the trail now traveled by Eldest with her own husband and small child.  She and Hub will have their own valleys, forests and ridges and far ahead, standing like the earliest glimpse of the Rockies from the eastern Colorado plains, will be their own child’s departure from high school.  I asked myself as we waited, what will that look like?

That question has since redefined itself into two questions:  the first is simply what might have changed by the time that they reach that departure point?  The second is what do they need to consider in the time that it takes to get there?

What will have changed?

The principal change – and it’s already begun – is that a college degree will no longer be the default for post-secondary education.  The cumulative levels of student debt and the decline of the middle-class family are already impacting attendance levels apart from the simple fact that the demographics for young adults are now almost a decade into decline.  The idea that a kid can go to college and then “figure it out” is no longer operative because the funds aren’t there to support that concept.

Second, expect a corollary increase in the demand for trade school education and a willingness by the educational system to promote it.  There is a new awareness that there are decent living-wage jobs available – even in manufacturing – but that the educational requirements are technical and often not requiring a four-year degree.  Several years ago, Mike Rowe noted in a Popular Mechanics article that his guidance counselor actively promoted college to the exclusion of vocational and trade school, even when he stated that he wasn’t certain that college was for him.  Since I am roughly the same age as Rowe, I can attest to the same scenario in that vocational and trade schools were the proverbial red-headed stepchild…there, but unloved and often denigrated.  It’s taken damned near four decades and a staggering non-dis-chargeable student debt load of $1.5 Trillion that actively hinders economic progress, but the word is now afoot to revive the skilled trades.

The economics are prompting a shift in attitudes.  The youngsters see what’s happening to their elder siblings and peers and are compensating to avoid it.  New and upgraded programs are becoming available as the trade schools are abetted by both businesses and unions to provide training for the jobs that are in greatest demand, locally and nationally.  Employers with aging workers are individually recruiting young adults to be trained for replacing the retiring workers.

Third, many smaller colleges will be forced to either close outright or at best, curtail their program offerings and work to establish a niche.  In some ways, a modern college is no different from any ill-fated big box store; each lures individuals with the promise that whatever they need can be fulfilled so going elsewhere won’t be required.  As Middle wryly noted several months ago, that’s so typical of a college…they hire a single professor and market it as a department.  The unfortunate reality is that the carrying cost of the product is no longer sustainable when the customers begin to shop online or simply diminish in number.

The same is now happening with Higher Ed as smaller institutions now realize that each major and program of study has a specific carrying cost and that some of these programs are financially unsupportable.  Sweetbriar College, a small all-women’s college in rural Virginia, was on the verge of closing in 2015 but was saved when outraged alumni raised almost $30 million.  It’s niche moving forward will be a greater affordable emphasis on STEM careers for women, which is attracting sufficient interest and attendance to support the costs of the programs.  So if Little One wants to to pursue a specific course of study, it’s very possible that she’ll have to travel beyond the local state institution.

Fourth, There is still going to be a price-tag for an education.  Ignore the Democratic campaign promises for free tuition and wide-spread student debt forgiveness  (although Sanders paying for such via implementation of a Tobin Tax variant is an elegant two-fer that aims to put a handle on the algorithm trading that has taken over the US financial markets).  This is not going to be free.

Any national election cycle is akin to the Wizard of Oz, in which we are asked to pay no attention to the man – or woman – behind the curtain.

The Great and Mighty Sanders/Warren can promise free tuition and debt cancellation to excite and motivate the base but the reality is simply that despite our national wealth, there is only a finite amount of resources and the issues confronting us are deep, structural and expensive.  If you think that I’m wrong, consider what is going on behind the Congressional curtain.  Members of the House and Senate have introduced bicameral legislation  that will once again permit the discharge of student debt via bankruptcy while other members are introducing legislation that eliminates administrative fees in federal student loan programs.  If the political class was even remotely convinced that there existed such a kill switch for student debt and out-of-whack tuition, then Senators and Representatives wouldn’t be tinkering behind the curtain.

Fifth, expect that there will be a much broader and expanded program of national service – not necessarily mandatory – for youngsters just out of high school with subsequent access to education benefits, akin to veterans.  It’s an old idea put forward again by Pete Buttigieg as part of his Democratic candidacy.  Why?  First, it gives an eighteen year old the opportunity to gain experience and real world exposure before actually expending the resources and energy to find a meaningful path in life.  Second, it provides society with a potent, vibrant and relatively inexpensive labor pool that can be utilized in needed areas across the country.  Third, it’s a response to the Balkanization that is occurring across America as youngsters could be sent into under-served areas to work with populations that are increasingly viewed as those people.  Such programs aren’t new to our history, it’s just that we have little recollection of that history.

If you don’t agree, answer this:  what was the Civilian Conservation Corps?

What Do You Need to Consider?

While I would love for there to be a simple checklist, there isn’t.  But there are some basic precepts to consider through the course of the next fifteen -or more – years.

First, expect to provide a greater attention and intentionality to parenthood than my generation.  Parenthood’s first rule is that your life is no longer your own and your foremost responsibility is raising that kid.  In the early years at least, minimize the screen time – eliminate it if you can – and force your child to go old-school.  Get them interacting with you and others, playing outside, becoming bored and exploring their external and internal surroundings.  Understand that from a communications perspective, you want the initial conversations about life to be with you and those that you trust.  This isn’t about being wildly conservative and cutting your child off from the outside world; it’s about understanding both how critical these early years are and that there are others who care more about seeing your child develop as a revenue stream than as a person.  They – the media and entertainment complexes – very much want to have a conversation with your child and from their perspective, the earlier the better.

Part and parcel of this as she ages is what I refer to as Parental Reconnaissance.  Use the available resources to help you understand the background and options of her expanding interests.  When Eldest slipped into a wider variety of music in later elementary school, I would flip to the playlist on her favored station’s website and see what was trending as popular; I then reviewed the lyrics on lyrics.com.  It was likewise with Middle and his expanded music interest.  Youngest has developed an avid interest in politics and policy and regularly follows certain Podcasts.  On a recent trip, my wife asked him to sync his phone to the car’s Bluetooth and we spent several hours listening to segments from his favorite political commentators.  Our agreement was irrelevant; the point was to understand what he hears and by subsequent conversation, what he believes.

This carries over into career interests and future livelihoods.  Most kids leave behind their childhood goal of becoming a race-car driving firefighter as they  mature and their horizons expand and there comes a point around the ‘tween years when they begin developing new interests.  Use your evenings online to seriously research what’s involved in pursuing them as a career.  If it’s marine biology, what’s involved in education and what are the job prospects?  What about becoming an actor?  Some foreknowledge – gained at the expense of late night free time and research – helps frame future conversations so that practicable decisions can be made.  This is especially the case for kids who decide that their career goals involve new and unknown-to-parent vocations such as social media influencer or video-gamer – yep, they are real things – so it’s worthwhile to at least become even slightly conversant with the business side of things.  Consider Lori Loughlin.  If she truly understood what her daughter, with a six figure contract, was doing, then she likely wouldn’t have gone over the edge on college.  Hell, if my kid had a six figure influencing contract by her senior year, the 529 plan would be riding a roller-coaster at EuroDisney.

Second, help your child determine his skill set.  Start with what you do yourself and take it from there.  If you swing a hammer, make sure that she sees you swing a hammer.  If you cook, make sure that he sees you cook.  On a trip to Louisiana, I met a bayou guide who discussed the locale and life in the bayou region and he was obviously proud that his children, no older than middle school age, could handle a firearm and actively contributed to his family’s annual food supply.  That morning, he commented, his daughter had bagged a large deer and his wife was already in the process of beginning to clean it for the rendering process.

Be careful, however.  The college-degree-over-all approach of the past four decades created a thundering lemming herd as everyone did it simply because that’s what was sold by the business and educational systems.  The reality is that it will take significant time and effort to help her determine that skill set and it’s possible that the skilled trades aren’t the best fit.  Don’t be a lemming in the other direction.

Third, you can disagree on whether the youngster makes that post-secondary decision alone.  But it is inarguable that the process on arriving at the decision is not an individual one; it is a family process.  Even if you cannot help fund it, what matters is your on-going and serious input in helping her reach the best decision.  The past two decades are littered with the wreckage of young adults who received little or no guidance on their path and honestly, I have never heard of a college telling a youngster, we’re too expensive so don’t come.

I recently encountered the mother of one of Middle’s childhood friends and we chatted about their individual whereabouts.  She commented in the conversation that she had sat down with her son and outlined loan repayment scenarios – she had only just finished repaying her own student debt – given the various athletic scholarships he was being offered.  The upshot was that he decided to live at home and attend the local state university.  My personal What the ****? moment from that chat was her statement that multiple parents had advised her to say little because it was her son’s decision to make.  Seriously?  They’re willing to let a teenager, a nascent adult-in-training, take on potentially tens of thousands in debt that will dictate job and life choices for the next two decades because it’s his decision?  You aren’t an 18th century father arranging a smithy apprenticeship for the youth.  You are however, helping culminate what should be an on-going conversation built upon years of talk, exploration and effort that helps set her upon a path leading to a self-sufficient adulthood.

Remember:  If you aren’t having the conversation, someone else will.

One other note about this process.  It’s been more than two decades since the typical American family was saddled with financial burdens not wholly borne by the grand and great-grandparents.  Retirement was largely shifted to the family as pensions disappeared; likewise with increasingly expensive health insurance and higher deductibles.  Sustainable wage jobs were shipped overseas wholesale.  Couple this with the stratospheric rise in the cost of education and the result has been that burden of funding that education has, in many cases, shifted from the family to the youngster herself.  It’s possible that you will be one of many young parents unable to pay for the entirety, or even part, of her education.  No matter what feelings that might stir, understand this:  as a generation, you are the first in our history to have to raise the children in the midst of a complete reversion to a lower standard of living most reminiscent of our great-grandparents.  Recognize it and make the changes necessary to assure that your own children have the upbringing and skill sets to allow for the adjustment to a new normal.

Finally, you are going to have to become more aware and engaged in the political realm than your parents and grandparents ever were.  Things didn’t just screw up this completely accidentally and overnight.  We – your preceding generations – became complacent and tuned out of the political process.  We literally adopted the 1960s hippie acid phrase – Turn On, Tune In, and Drop Out – and adapted it to our entertainment and electronic lives so that we didn’t pay attention while the economically and politically connected few rigged the political system to their benefit at the expense of the average American family.  Warren Buffett commented in 2006 that there had certainly been a class war and that his side was winning.  What has happened to the American Middle Class isn’t just the tide of history.  It has also been the victim of a decades-long mugging by a wealthy class that has usurped the political process via poorly controlled lobbying, uncontrolled political contributions, a lucrative revolving door between public and private sector, and a heavily dosed financing of talk radio sock puppetry inciting both conservative and liberal angst.  You are going to have to pay attention to the issues and proposed laws.  You are going to have to find that singular issue that incites you and follow it, spreading the word to peers via conversation and social media.  You are going to have to be willing to make life unpleasant and uncomfortable for politicians at all levels.

Frankly, since you are busy dealing with small children, it’s now incumbent upon my generation to take this task forward.  But you are still going to have to be better than we were.

There is no single right way to prepare your child for adulthood.  My wife and I have been through the process twice thus far and both times had significant differences.  It is likewise for the third child.  But what each has had in common is an early attention to coming adulthood and much conversation over a long period of time.

Oh, and one final remark before I shut up.  If you think that today’s politics are unpleasant, consider the royal Hell that your younger Gen Z siblings are going to unleash when they fully involve themselves in the political process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eight Years: The Great College Search and Wile E Coyote

Raising children is in some ways like taking a long hike in the woods.  Each stage of childhood is a different part of the forest and parenthood is nothing if not a forest for the trees experience.  A parent can get so caught up in the minutiae of life – practices, appointments, homework, schedules – that he can miss the larger picture, see just how the forest has changed.  This is especially when the children are clustered close enough in age that there’s no reason to revisit a section to assess its change since last trekked.

In the PracticalDad household however, there is an eight year span between Eldest – now a wife and mother – and Youngest, now a high school junior.  This means that we have revisited multiple parts of the copse and are now trekking again through that part pertaining to life after high school, known as The Great College Search.  Such a span and trek begs the question, how has this area changed in the intervening eight years?  Where were we then and where are we now?

This is the first thing that comes to mind.  Don’t worry, it will make sense.

 

 

Attending college was mostly a no-brainer when Eldest was a junior in 2011.  After decades of economic growth and development, both business and academia pushed the concept that the United States was now a knowledge-based service economy.  Millions of manufacturing jobs were lost to competition or simply outsourced overseas so we no longer made things as much as provided needed services to both the rest of the world and one another.  Toss in data supporting the income differential between a high school and college, a liberal sprinkling of fairy dust about finding yourself and fulfilling your dreams and it was off to the races for the institution of Higher Education.  College enrollment rose over the decades as a growing number of students rushed down the cattle chute for a degree and the demand curve took over:  if you have relatively stable supply – and this one is stable because starting a college isn’t easy – then the uptick in demand shifts the price upwards.  Et voila!

How much upwards?  In the twenty year span prior to 2008, Eldest’s freshman year of high school, the cost of public tuition rose an average of 4.1% beyond the actual rate of inflation.  Even after the Financial Crisis of 2008 and the subsequent Great Recession, the cost of public tuition rose 3.1% beyond the rate of inflation.

Students were prompted heavily to attend college – Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs fame noted how his 1980’s guidance counselor actively demeaned trade school and promoted college – while a rip-current of economic factors undercut the students and their families themselves.  Medical care was increasingly offloaded to the family via declining coverage and disproportionately rising medical costs.  Retirement was likewise offloaded to the family  as company pensions were increasingly eliminated in favor of employee savings programs.  States began reducing budgetary funding for higher education as the conservative mantra of personal responsibility and fiscal prudence took hold.  Remember those millions of manufacturing jobs?  Yeah, about that…  The replacement jobs in the new knowledge-based service economy were usually at a reduced wage with neither medical benefits nor pension.  It sounds dry and academic in a single paragraph, but this grinding process has taken place over the course of decades.

Student debt by 2003 was approximately $250 billion and in less than 15 years had almost quintupled to $1.4 Trillion (Trillion deserves to be capitalized).  One crucial change emerged from the combination of the rip-currents and the damage caused by the Great Recession:  the burden of student debt shifted largely from the family unit to the student.

So, how have things changed between 2011 and 2019, the siblings’ respective junior years?

First, families and students are now asking is a traditional college degree even worth the cost?

I might disagree with Rush Limbaugh in many regards, but he is correct when he says that words have meaning.  One of the responses of higher ed proponents to the disproportionate rise in tuition was to change the terminology.  College was no longer a cost as much as it was an investment.  Elders have commented that decades ago, the price tag for college was such that a middle-class family could pay for it in a relatively short time frame.  In Accounting parlance, cost implies a short period of time.  But at some undetermined point, the price tag rose sufficiently to shift it to a longer time frame for repayment and this changed the terminology from cost to investment and that word, investment, means a longer repayment period.  The corollary was that the additional wages gained by the degree would outstrip that of the high school diploma but this ignored a simple reality cognizant to most good accountants:  wages concentrate on the cash flow of the individual and this is inherently short term in nature.

If people want a future that includes the prospect of a meaningful retirement – actually a relatively new concept since our great-great-grandparents usually died in the traces – then they must be able to accrue sufficient assets to support them.  That entails a long-term perspective.  Given everything that has already been offloaded to the family, the addition of student debt to the budget makes asset accumulation much more difficult.

Consider this.  The research arm of the St Louis Federal Bank studied available historical data to determine the wealth effect of a college or post-graduate degree versus a high school diploma from the 1930s to the 1980s.  There was a much larger impact on the wealth accumulation of our great-grandparents in the 1930’s and 1940’s than for the grandparents and parents of the later decades as the rate of accumulation declined over the decades.  And yes, there is a racial disparity between white and black graduates although the results for both races pale in comparison to their circa-1930’s elders.

The combination of factors – macroeconomic and debt – is leaving Millennials with a financial position far worse than their own parents at a similar age.  The median net worth of a Millennial is now -$1900, a drop of $9000 from only 2013.  This generation is like it’s predecessors in wanting to someday retire but they have to first climb out of a seven foot hole and even then, the value of the degree won’t propel them as much as it did with their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

You’re bothered that Millennials want socialism?  Be happy that some wild-eyed, debt-laden lumbersexual doesn’t douse you with beard oil and set you alight.

Second, what demand giveth, demand taketh away.

The societal push to obtain a bachelor’s degree was the nitrous booster to the engine of increasing student population.  When Eldest was a junior in 2011, there was still a rising number of students available for the pool of prospective applicants.  That number had been increasing for the better part of 15 years as the high school graduation rate reached a peak of 83.2% before beginning to decline.  Couple that with an actual fewer number of high school seniors and except for an anticipated bump in the mid-2020’s, high school graduates will reach a level in 2032 less than that in 2013, the year after Eldest’s graduation.  The institution of Higher Ed has been hit twice.  The first was that great disturbance in the Force during the first half of the decade when millions of students and parents simultaneously uttered What the…?! on realizing the extent of student debt.  The second is simple math:  there just aren’t enough bodies to continue filling seats.

How Higher Ed is responding is drawn from the textbooks of any Marketing 101 class and it has appeared in this household.

First, a marketing professor will tell you that the key is to find a way to distinguish yourself from the competition.  In other words, develop a brand.  There are some standout institutions with a Brand – Harvard, Stanford, Penn and Yale.  But those are only four of literally thousands of colleges and universities nationwide and all of them need to fill seats.  What I’d noticed between Eldest and Youngest was in the amount of contact that colleges were having with the kids.  Eldest received her first mailer just before Thanksgiving of her freshman year in 2008 and over the ensuing two years, that volume increased almost exponentially until the attention span was exhausted, both for her and for us.  The mail simply began to stack up and we honestly stopped paying attention.  It was different for Youngest however.  He got a mailer from the same university his freshman year – ‘sup Washington University? – and then…nothing.  There was an occasional piece of mail but the absence of mail over the next two years was jarring.  I commented about this to him a year ago and he responded that there wasn’t much in the mailbox but his email account had been swamped with college solicitations since freshman year.  He was particularly irritated by the repetitive mails from several, who were akin to the insecure kids demanding approval.

There are two reasons for the shift.  The first is mundane in that it’s just cheaper.  Save money on the paper, the ink, the mailing costs that go into an effort with a minimal return.  The second is emblematic of big technology today and consequently more worrisome:  more institutions are data mining the youngsters.  Some of what’s occurring is simply a greater effort by the admissions staffs to understand their successful students, in terms of graduation rates and self-described satisfaction.  The consulting firm providing this service to Higher Education defends itself by saying that they are only gathering data obtained from students who respond to a link in an email they received or from personal information on the college sites that the students visited.  But in doing this, they open their browsers to be mined for information both on what other school sites were visited, how often, and the sites visited prior to and after that digital college “visit”.

So cost isn’t the big reason here.  In an effort to differentiate and gain competitive advantage, the colleges are taking a page from the corporate playbook.  Apart from the sheer issue of data mining, this approach puts parents at a disadvantage.  Most parents do not have a handle on their kids’ email account, let alone social media, and aren’t privy to what is being sent by colleges.  If your teen is entering her junior year and you’re only now gearing up for The Great College Search, gird your loins for some hard discussion because a half dozen colleges have pitched tents in her head and two are probably whispering sweet nothings in her ear.  But Daddy, they’re sooooo environmentally conscious…

They had damned well better be at $60000 annually.

The other lesson that comes from Marketing 101 is that when all else fails, you can differentiate yourself simply by cutting the price of your product.  It isn’t widespread yet but more institutions – all private – are cutting tuition.  They have found that they have neither the cachet nor the endowments of the brand universities and I suspect that they see the writing on the wall for the private colleges.  Their response is to ride the curve early:  who panics first, panics best.  At a college visit to Rosemont College in suburban Philadelphia, we had the opportunity to talk with it’s president, who joined us at our lunch table.  She was an alumnus who returned and had already led it’s transition from a Catholic liberal arts women’s college to a co-ed school when a marketing research survey found absolutely no interest among prospective students in a 90 mile radius of Philadelphia.  Despite some improvement, they still found demand wanting so she had led the effort to cut their tuition by almost a third the year before.  Since then, we’ve received other mailers from private colleges touting their tuition cuts.  One local college took out a full digital highway billboard promoting to every passing trucker that it was cutting tuition by a third.  They missed the irony that the lower tuition was still beyond the reach of the average trucker’s kid.

The demand curve affects state-supported public education as well.  Their situation is different from the private colleges in that they are charged in their state charters to provide an affordable higher education for the residents of their states.  They have been charged with holding the line on costs and have not succumbed to the Mongolian Grills and climbing walls that have hit the private colleges; that said, they have developed the athletic departments as economic ventures that leave the privates in the dust.  Their bind is that despite the charters, they have to provide an education with modern facilities and declining state funding.  How to manage?  The admissions departments have started to monkey with the fine print of the charters, aka what the big print giveth, the little print taketh away.  The charter requires that the in-state rates are lower for residents but it says nothing about how many residents have to compose the incoming class; the result is that state institutions are shifting the class composition to increase the tuition revenue.  The result?  A state’s poorest students are being squeezed out of their final options to obtain a degree.

Price competition isn’t as much of  an option for the state institutions since they’ve already kept their rates much lower than many of the private colleges and universities.  What other options are there short of begging the legislature for more?

Another marketing professor would recommend looking at the state’s system as an on-going concern and each individual university within that system as a separate product.  Let’s use Pennsylvania as an example.  The state university system is known as PASSHE (Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education) and is responsible for the overall administration of fourteen separate state universities; note that Penn State is not a member of PASSHE and is best thought of Schrodinger’s University since it’s a public university and yet, it’s not.  The professor would assign a grad assistant to look at the entire portfolio of universities and suggest that the least profitable and economical be consolidated; it’s what auto manufacturers have done through the years and has led to the demise of such estimable brands as Oldsmobile and Pontiac.  An Ag Science professor would simply refer to it as “culling the herd”.  That’s the theory and unfortunately, that’s precisely what the Pennsylvania legislature did in 2017 when it contracted with the RAND Corporation to “review and assess” the health and feasibility of PASSHE.  There were multiple options recommended but consolidation was one, at least the one, that grabbed everybody’s attention.

Can’t control the price?  Cull the herd.

That’s where we’re at now.  Both the Millennials and Higher Ed have reached their respective Wile E Coyote moments of going off of the cliff and the only difference between those moments is the distance that each has traveled since the plummet began.  Millennials took the plunge years ago and are much closer to bottoming than Higher Ed, which is giving that pie-eyed stare as it recognizes its predicament.  We’ll have to see where that’s at when their population bottoms in 2032.

The Millennials

 

 

 

 

 

 

Higher Ed

The Re-boot

You should write a book.  

– PracticalDad’s  Better Half

It was a comment made years ago by my wife as the three kids were young and growing.  Eldest was then in middle school, Middle in the upper elementary grades and Youngest was only a preschooler.  I was then in the midst of managing a busy household and all that it entailed and the notion of being able to carve out hours each day to write seemed problematic.  But it was a good suggestion and a reasonable starting point appeared to be a website.  I could get into the swing of writing and the commitment tucked into the time constraints imposed by the household requirements of three kids and a working spouse.

And so in 2008, my alter-ego – PracticalDad – came into being.  Now please keep that year in mind.

Any relevant life-experience writing requires a thesis, an underlying premise that serves as a framework to tie together the wide variety of articles that could be written.  PracticalDad’s thesis was that fathers were capable of providing more for the than just the traditional paycheck; that despite the popular media, which often viewed fathers on the domestic scene as essentially idiots, men were capable of being highly competent and loving caregivers.  At the time, women faced glass-ceilings – and still do – but the incomes of women versus men were growing at a faster clip and the demographics showed that more women were by then entering college than men.  With this occurring, more time would be claimed and if family stability was to be maintained, then the father would have to pony up and shoulder a much greater load.  Most of the early PracticalDad articles were consequently based upon my own experiences as a stay-at-home father, from traveling with kids to what a father should understand about breast-feeding or communication.

But starting in late 2009 and into 2010, the thrust of the articles began to change as the effects of the 2008 financial crisis continued to ripple through the economy.  My response was to wonder this:  how does this affect my family and what I must do to help prepare them for the world?  The articles shifted from the prosaic family matters to questions of politics and economics and the tone became darker and in some instances, angrier.  It was an anger fueled by an early recognition that the adult world that my children would inhabit would be far more economically difficult than the world in which my generation – and the several preceding – lived.  This vein continued until early 2015 when the flow of articles slowed in response to the increasing demands of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s, notably spliced with a strain of paranoid dementia.  Couple that with the onset of a new round of personal health issues in later 2016 and virtually all new writing ground to a halt.  PracticalDad, for all intents and purposes, slipped away.

The other situations were resolved, the parent dying in the late winter of 2017 amidst a series of my own surgeries to address issues.  The subsequent mental dust cleared with time and as I looked around, I considered the website.  It still existed and while there was almost nothing new written, I noted that the syndicated feed had continued to grow even in its dormancy.  The site platform was antiquated and creaky and the design, fresh in 2008, was tired and dated.  The technical questions were overwhelming to a non-technical guy like me.  How to move everything to a new platform and if the syndicated feed mattered, could that go along?  From a writing perspective, how did I start again after simply ceasing more than a year earlier?  Most importantly, was there even a thesis that would tie together to drive new writing?  The reality is that all of us are now a decade older and there are plenty of other information sources for young fathers.  The questions were significant enough that it was easier to just not consider it at all.

But serendipity exists and it was serendipitous that the original site designer and programmer contacted me to discuss shifting the site to a new platform so that he could close out the server on which the original site resided.  He kindly took the technical end in hand and in the past several months migrated the articles and feed to this new platform and set things up for me to move forward.  The kids, now older, have encouraged me to get back to it and it was Middle’s suggestion that if there are still people reading, then perhaps re-start by explaining the silence and moving on from there.

The final question still remained.  Was there a pertinent thesis that served to drive the writing moving forward?  I re-read everything that I’d written for the site as well as other notes and even draft chapters for an unsubmitted book proposal.  The final piece was to force myself to re-read the Journal that I kept during my mother’s three year sojourn through Alzheimer’s.  Were my – and my family’s – experiences, entirely novel or did they somehow fit into a larger narrative of what’s transpiring in our society?

The unfortunate answer is that there is a thesis and it is this:  the economic, social and political changes that have occurred since 2008 – there’s that year, again – are not cyclical but instead structural.  What we are witnessing is the real-time wrenching adaptation of a society that is reverting in fits and starts to a standard of living reminiscent not of our parents or even grandparents, but akin to at least three generations ago.  Along with the ongoing damage to the American Middle Class, we are watching several generations of growth in a national standard-of-living being washed away like so much dirt from a Mississippi River dike.  The pressure has built for decades but it was with the 2008 financial crisis and the policy responses that the erosion began in earnest.  It most certainly affects the American family and how child-rearing is managed, even whether or not children are born.  What will be different moving forward is a far-reaching shift in the family dynamic as the nuclear family concept is challenged by a return to the old multi-generational model with elders assisting, and being assisted by, their adult children.  The myriad changes that affect the family, and the potential responses to them, will be the thrust of writing as we move forward.

This is not an intellectual exercise for me.  It has been a periodic topic of conversation with the kids at one time or another over the past several years.  It is truly saddening to have these talks with the kids; to tell them that they are going to have fewer opportunities and choices than we and our parents did.  They will be far more constrained by greater financial demands of health care, higher education and retirement that have been shifted to the backs of individuals and families by corporations and the various levels of government.  What is heartening personally is that each of the three seems to get it and I see efforts by each to accommodate that new reality.

So let me take a moment and re-introduce the principal cast of characters from the 2008 version of PracticalDad.  First, there is my wife, BH; she is a physician with more professional certification letters after her name than I have in my entire given name (it’s true, I counted).  Then there are the kids.  At the website’s start, Eldest was just entering high school; she is now a college graduate and a married working mother.  Middle was in upper elementary school and he is now entering his senior year at a major urban university as a theatre major.  Finally, there is Youngest, who was in first grade at the outset.  He is now entering his junior year of high school, working part-time and deciding on higher education.  The family is now joined by in-laws Millie and Phil, who recently migrated north to be closer to their daughter and Hub, Eldest’s spouse.

I had two rules at the outset of this kitchen table project a decade ago.  The first is simple:  while I reference my family, I refuse to post anything that might be even remotely construed as embarrassing.  Multiple finished articles were ultimately deleted before posting because someone might have taken offense or been embarrassed.  The second is that there will be no daily posts because sometimes, there is just nothing worth saying and if you’re going to read, there should be something worth reading.

It’s nice to be back.  And thank you, John, for your kindness.  I hope that you can take something worthwhile from this for your own family.

 

 

 

 

Back to the Beginning…What is the point of raising a child?

Congratulations.  You now have – or are about to have – a child.  You are about to embark upon two decades of experiences that will frequently seem like a forest for the trees experience because of appointments, practices, events, homework, trips, activities and chores.  It will seem as though you’re sailing through weeks and months and you think that you’ll have these children forever…but you won’t.  The typical child born today will live approximately 80 years and you will have him for perhaps the first quarter of that period.  So maybe it’s appropriate to consider a simple question before you enter the undergrowth of parenthood.

What is the point of raising a child?

It seems like a stupid question on the face of it.  You take care of them and they go out when they’re adults.  I’m not a guy who overthinks things, but is it – should it be – really that simple?  It isn’t.  Given the complexity and costliness of modern American society, it’s important to have a sense of what you want to accomplish.  It’s eye-opening to hear young people say such things as…I wish someone had told me that I should dress a certain way for an eventI wish that someone had explained the terms of my student loans before I took them onI wish that someone had told me that I couldn’t get a decent job with a bachelor’s degree in Western Civ Studies.  You hear enough of these things and it occurs to you that providing a roof and food is insufficient.  Granted, those are critical but it doesn’t have to be a slate roof and haute cuisine, either.  What matters is two-fold: that your child have guidance and an ongoing dialogue about what’s happening both to – and with – her; and teaching her how to think and navigate her way through adult life.

Consider this.  The cost of raising a child born today is now more than $230,000 and that’s even before any higher education.  It’s an expensive proposition.  Now suppose that you were going to build a new house that cost $230,000 and would be taking out a mortgage with a twenty year term.  Anyone would give forethought to the process at the outset, about placement and design and materials.  This isn’t to say that just as countertops should be granite or the flooring a rich hickory hardwood, so your baby should be directed to play in the school band, join a particular activity or take a specific class.  However, it is to say that just as you have a concept of what you’re trying to achieve in a house, you should have a concept of what you’re trying to achieve in raising this child.

So, what is the point?  If you sit back and listen to people – one of my favorite hobbies – you’ll hear those who are parents say some amazing things.  They want their kids to have a particular occupation or attend a specific type of college.  They raise their children to have more than they had growing up, or live in a particular style house or neighborhood.  They only want their children to date others of their own race.  They want their children to grow up to be devout Christians.  Or Jews.  Or Muslims, for that matter.  But they forget one simple fact: this infant that just puked on your new suit is a completely unknown quantity and it’s impossible to predict who she will be and how she will wind up.  Certainly, there are genetic factors, parental traits and family influences, but you don’t yet know what they are and you can’t account for how the outside world will impact this baby.  You have no way of knowing that this bundle might someday:

Attempt to set a new land-speed record;

Go to the local Ren Faire while cross-dressed;

Spend idle time using his bedroom wall for knife-throwing practice;

Run a simple errand to Kmart and within an hour, flip an ATV;

Satisfy the entrepreneurial urge by selling outmoded electronic games for a sizeable markup on Ebay;

Win a science fair, graduate with honors and become bilingual;

Graduate from Cal Tech;

Win a national award for high school theatre (yes, there is such a thing);

Hit home runs and provide support for a female friend who has been accosted;

Become a successful oil trader that can buy and sell you thrice over.

Make any bet about such events at this age and you’ll lose.

So again, what’s the point?  My own take long ago was to keep it simple: I wanted to see my children able to walk out the door into the great wide world as productive adults.  They should be able to think for themselves and be able to provide for themselves.  My wife and I weren’t going to raise Republicans, Christians, heterosexuals or lawyers.  We would raise them to make their way in the world and if they wound up as gay Republican Christian lawyers, then that would be on them.  I’ll grant you that that would be a particularly tough combination, but it would be their combination.

Take some time to consider what you think is your own point and use that as a simple guide going forward.  Look for experiences and opportunities that help support that point and be prepared to talk – a lot – with them with that simple point in mind.  Then enjoy the adventure of seeing who they become.

And yes, the instances noted above have all occurred.  Welcome to the adventure.

A View From the Ridge, Part 9

As I’ve written before, raising a family is a “forest for the trees” experience.  Life moves frenetically in a whirl of appointments, practices, homework, projects and activities; it is such that you can run for lengthy periods without noting both where you are and how far you’ve come.  It’s as if you’re working through the trail’s underbrush and you don’t pause to survey the surroundings until you’ve reached a spot where the forest has thinned, such as a tree-line atop a ridge.  I’ve chronicled such personal moments back to 2008 and this past Labor Day was another such moment, where I found myself – and my Better Half – perched atop one of the highest ridges that we’ve encountered for many a mile.

Eldest married.

When I began writing this site, she was in middle school.  Only recently confirmed in our church and yet to drive, to date, to hold a job, to graduate, to leave for college and then, return.  And now, she is married.  If anything gives a man pause, it is giving his daughter’s hand in marriage at the altar.  Some might deride it as intensely old-fashioned and antiquated, but this signifies to any father not only the turning of a page but the end of an entire chapter.  After I took my seat, I watched this young woman and rolled through memories back to her infancy, back to the first one when she turned her head towards me in response to that sing-song name that I called out as she lay across the room in a maternity ward bassinet, the same name that I repeatedly sang to her while in utero.  It was the same as I watched my two sons, Middle – home from college and reading aloud a selected poem for the ceremony – and Youngest, only a freshly minted high school sophomore and yet towering above everyone else in the bridal party.  They grow and mature and we are left to wonder, when did this happen?

It was a high ridge upon which to perch.

When things wound down and we’d returned home, I took the opportunity to look back at the terrain that we had crossed during the previous year.  It was a vista of twisted trees and thick, thorn-riddled underbrush that tore at clothing and skin alike.  Managing a mother suffering from years of degenerative paranoid dementia, culminating in her early morning death only months ago after a series of moves through multiple care levels in different facilities.  Disagreeing with a facility that refused to honor her final wishes, duly codified in writing and signed by a physician, further confirmed by her in a moment of coherence.  Managing increased personal debility arising from a long-ago encounter with lymphoma, now sufficiently advanced to force a move to a new, less physically challenging house.  And culminating with a new medical episode that lasted for months.  How do you manage through all of this?  You jettison everything non-essential and spend your energies on the most immediate requirements of the circumstances.  You lean heavily upon family and friends; my blessing was a wonderful wife and stalwart friends, a helpful future son-in-law and a youngest son who shouldered the increased physical and emotional load with grace and maturity.  And writing?  It had already slowed as my mother degenerated and with the onset of the other issues, it stopped completely.  In the moment, what is there to say?

But the house is brought both figuratively and literally back into order and you regain breathing room.  I now realize that there’s still much more to say about family and how what’s occurring in today’s world impacts our roles as parents.  More comments about educating the kids and setting them on the path to responsible adulthood; about kids and both politics and money; and how we as parents have to adapt our communications with our nascent-adult children.  Most importantly, there is much to be said about the other end of the age spectrum as we begin to look out for our own parents, who are now going to face new challenges for which many are ill-prepared.  This is perhaps the greatest stress for middle-aged parents, bearing responsibility for the generations that both succeed and precede them.  It isn’t easy and the challenges will only grow in a time when the family resources are further stretched.

There will certainly be other aspects of parenthood and family to be addressed, because the kids grow and change.  As do the questions and challenges.

PracticalDad Price Index – September 2016:  The Potemkin Village Shelves

Another month of pricing for the PracticalDad Price Index is finished and the results for September, 2016 are calculated.  The Total Index, comprising the full 47 item market-basket, declined in September to 98.28 from August’s 100.19, a full 1.91 basis points (November 2010 = 100).  The 37 item Food-only Sub-Index, comprising the 37 foodstuff items within the basket, dropped even more significantly from August; the September Sub-Index was 97.26, down 2.48 basis points from August’s index of 99.74 (November 2010 = 100).  This is one of the largest swings in either direction in the almost six year history of the PracticalDad Price Index.

Here’s a little perspective.  I began the Index in November 2010, in the midst of the Fed’s QE2 Program and both Index and Sub-Index climbed until they peaked in January 2015 (111.32) and December 2014 (115.13) respectively.  This was shortly after QE3 ended in late October 2014.  It took more than four years to induce these apogees but without the stimulus provided by the Fed’s programs however, deflation has ground away and the both Indices have literally collapsed.  The cost of the full market-basket was actually less in June 2016 than at the outset of the project and the food-stuffs segment likewise reached that point in July 2016, a month later.

One of the things that I’ve noticed while pricing for the past several months has been the quantity of items on the shelves and by extension, the condition of the grocery supply chain.  This is in terms both of the seeming appearance of more widely spaced shelves and also the periodic disappearance of items from the shelves completely.  It’s not like the photos of desolate shelves pre-hurricane or even the absolute disappearance of product a la 2016 Venezuela, but it’s little things.  A particular item will be gone for a month or two – not just unstocked but with even the shelf label gone – only to reappear later; in multiple instances, the item has not only returned but been supplemented by an even lower-cost alternative, what economists refer to as an inferior good.  When this has shown to be consistent in the subsequent months, I have have made note and replaced the store-brand with the inferior item in the index pricing.  Also noticed has been wider shelf spacing between products in particular grocery departments (health and beauty, cereal, hot dog cases).  If you’re willing to make the effort, check occasionally for empty space behind the front two rows of products, which might have been moved forward to the very front of the shelf to make it appear more well-stocked.  This Potemkin-Village effect is a wonderful metaphor for what’s become of the American economy as the media touts the stock market but the large majority of Americans grow poorer.  But it was a recent article about the effects of deflation upon the grocery supply chain at zerohedge that confirmed what I’ve noticed.  As prices have collapsed, the entities at the various levels throughout the supply chain are scrambling to adjust and companies are either surviving or dying and it’s the indications of this that are being exhibited subtly in the grocery aisles.

A View From The Ridge, Part 8

There have been moments in the life of this project when I’ve encountered what I now call a view from the ridge.  These are instances in which you get a sense that you’ve emerged from the thickets of daily family life – appointments, events, stuff – and find yourself at a juncture where you can suddenly assess where you’re at and where you’re going.  This late August morning is such a time.  When the first View note – linked above – was written seven years ago, Eldest was entering high school, Middle was entering his last year of elementary school and Youngest was finishing first grade and discovering a love for baseball.

This morning’s instance was the awakening to the fact that Eldest is now officially out of the household.  I awoke early and padded down the hallway, entering a closed door to a room that was now empty except for a single bed.  All of the remaining furniture and clothing was gone, packed up and moved out several days previously.  Such a process is slowly occurring in Middle’s room, now in college; it’s become clear that this past summer was his last at home as his own studies and professional development will require that he pursue opportunities in major urban areas.  All of the furniture is still there, but that which gives it personality – that which makes you understand that it’s Middle’s room – is partially gone to his new college digs.  Youngest’s room is still clustered there with his siblings’ rooms but he is now entering high school himself and gearing up for a Fall/Winter run at making the school baseball team, a far cry from the T-ball year when I started writing. 

In the other direction, the elder generation is finally settled after a lengthy period in which I sometimes wondered whether the sandwich in the term sandwich generation was actually a panini, hard pressed.  There are still rough patches ahead as age and disease process continue, but a look backwards is revealing for the thicketed woods through which we’ve come. What hasn’t changed through this is the presence of my Better Half, a person about whom I’ve largely been silent in the writings.  BH is my companion and love, a person with gifts at which I still marvel and without whom the thickets would be far more difficult.  And perhaps that’s the one of the biggest surprises as I sit here mulling what to write…that as the kids grow and move out into the world, you again find the time and energy to rediscover that one person with whom you began to travel the road.  Make the effort to step back from the day-to-day occasionally to apprise where you are and take stock of what you’ve come through, where you’re going and most importantly, who you’re with.