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.

Post-Consumer Parenting

We have many jobs and roles as parents, too many to note.  But all of these things happen to only one purpose – to raise the kids to make their way in the adult world; successfully, we hope.  Much of their success will be dependent upon their own efforts but it’s the simple truth that their efforts will be built upon the foundation that we give them.  If it’s crucial that we teach them about the great, wide world then we have to understand that the world in which we were ourselves raised has changed and that particularly goes to our economic system.  We must now purposefully buck the long-prevailing consumer-model – in which the lion’s share of American economic activity is predicated upon the typical American’s willingness to spend – as that is functionally dead.  We have to now raise our kids to both survive and live within a post-consumer system.

Post-consumer is a term typically tied to ecology and sustainability.  We see the term posted on the park benches made from recycled plastic products and on cereal boxes touting that they’ve been made from 30% recycled paper and cardboard materials.  It has come about because of the earth-friendly ecology movement that launched in the latter part of the twentieth century and the whole movement has a new-age, California, touchy-feely vibe to it.  Yet post-consumer also has a much more hard-nosed aspect to it that is intimately tied to what we’re seeing in both America and the world around us.  Remember that the words ecology and economics are at their heart related to the same thing, albeit from different angles.  Each is based upon the prefix eco-, derived ultimately from the greek oikos-, meaning household or habitat.

Ecology literally translates as the study (-ology) of our household or habitat but became synonymous with the environment in the wake of a series of widely covered environmental disasters such as the infamous incident in which an Ohio river, the Cuyahoga, caught fire in the late 1960s.  It was inconceivable to even the most common person that water could be so utterly polluted and fouled that it lost the most basic property of being able to extinguish burning debris floating upon it.  Coupled with a multitude of images of dead and befouled wildlife and adopted as a cause by the then-young and hip Boomer generation and it took on today’s evocation.  Economy is a word likewise coupled with the root of household and habitat but from a different aspect, that of how it is numbered (-nomics).  Step back from the hard-math financial aspects promoted by many economists, economics is at its heart a matter of how our resources are not only numbered but allocated and – boy howdy! – are we looking at the America of today.  Wealth gap, anyone?

Ours is at least the third generation to be raised under the consumer-driven model of the economy.  This model conceives of the average American – the consumer – as a driver for economic growth and was first proposed by macro-economists in the early twentieth century but didn’t become an economic reality until it was pushed in the years immediately following the Second World War.  The principal economic driver beforehand had been Business and Capital Investment but its collapse in the Great Depression meant that American political and economic leaders began to look elsewhere for a driver to supplement that if not outright replace it.  What made the consumer-model possible was more than just the growth of personal income via well-paying jobs; it was also that many costs previously borne by the individual were now partially borne by other sectors of the economy.  Insurance for health-care costs was becoming a standard benefit for corporations that hired many Americans.  Educational costs for the youngsters was subsidized by the state first via the GI Bill of 1944 and then subsequently through public funding of state supported colleges and universities.  Old age was no longer feared economically as there were corporate and public-sector pensions and the government now guaranteed a base minimum via Social Security.  There was now not only income, but disposable income that allowed for the things – the niceties – that were previously unaffordable to previous generations.  The wants that we’ve now been ably taught to accept as needs.

The truth is that the consumer-driven model is now functionally dead, an economic zombie shambling along and awaiting the merciful head shot that drops it, allowing it to be kicked into the gutter and out of the way.  The very factors that made it possible are either falling away as we watch or gone completely.  We’ve now seen almost an entire decade of falling family incomes and the wealth gap is increasing to levels unseen since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.  Health insurance?  Increasingly unaffordable and shifted back to the family and individual.  Educational costs?  Disproportionately expensive and with public funding cut back, costs borne more and more by the family and youth.  Retirement?  Likewise shifted back to the individual with an increasing reliance upon self-funding via the IRA/401k.  The you can have it all mantra with which we were incubated in the consumer-model system is now replaced by a painful and simple reality.  You can’t.

This sea-change is the truth with which we have to contend and which we will have to teach our children.  It is not, however, a truth that the economic and political establishment wishes to acknowledge.  Establishment mouthpieces such as the Wall Street Journal print missives to the American public telling them that they aren’t doing their part as consumers.  Economists at the Federal Reserve publish studies about Americans not spending and slant their phrasing phrasing negatively when they state that Americans are hoarding money.  When former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke to a group of high school educators, his choice of terminology was telling.  When he referenced teens, he referred to them as students and young people; when he referenced adults however, he predominantly used the term consumer with the implication that our job is to raise our young people to be consumers.  In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks, then-President George W. Bush even spoke to the American people and urged that they shouldn’t let the terrorists win but should instead go back out and shop.  Seriously…shop?  So obviously, spending money matters.  Questioning the consumer model is a threat to the corporate profits that are directed to a smaller and smaller cadre of executives and investors that make up the high tier of the wealthy class.  Questioning this model is a threat to the profitable tenure and security of our elected and government officials, many of whom will exit government to cushy sinecures in the private sector.  Acknowledging this will require the public will for change that is a threat to the cancerous symbiosis between the corporate and political sectors that is, at its heart, fascism.

The rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as presidential contenders is a clear sign of the public pushback.  There are commonalities at the core of each movement that ultimately lead back to renewed opportunity for the individual and most importantly, sustainable, living-wage jobs.  There are massive differences in how each candidate would hope to achieve these ends but when you cut through them, the heart of each pertains ultimately to trade, jobs and income.

This consumer-driven economic model that we’ve followed has been around for longer than the lifespan of most Americans and like anything, it will change and be replaced by something else.  That is at the heart of our present upset because nobody knows with what it should be replaced and such a real-life process is neither as sterile nor academic as it would seem when written on a page.  What the Establishment seems to want is a perpetuation of the model even though they understand that it continues the hemorrhage of the American Middle-Class until the. masses of our countrymen are reduced to a servitude of dead-end jobs and interest payments.  It’s what they know and as the saying goes, if you give a monkey a hammer, then that’s what it’s going to use.  However, that doesn’t square with the great mass of Americans who understand that something is badly amiss yet can’t precisely enunciate what it is.

So here are the takeaways.

First, the Consumer-Model economic driver of the past six-plus decades is officially dead.  It has been killed by a combination of falling incomes on one side and competing demands for that same income on the other side.

Second, the Corporate/Political Establishment has a vested interest in perpetuating this dead model.  The Corporate because it allows money to be extracted from someone else – the Consumer – and redirected to them.  The Political because of unchecked campaign finance practices and a post-political career revolving door into the lucrative corporate sector.

Third, we cannot assume that whatever replaces the consumer model is already pre-ordained.  What we are witnessing with the utterly unexpected rise of Trump and Sanders are early salvos in a contest between this Establishment and the diverse citizenry.  If the Gilded Age is any example, it will be a contest that will last for decades.  That means that we have to remove our noses from Facebook pages and begin to think in the longer term.

Fourth, parents must begin to purposefully raise their children so that they aren’t herded into a dead economic system that views them solely as prey.  We must be overt and direct in our conversations with them and we must likewise model an economic behavior of controlled consumption that is, for many of us, uncomfortably new.

We must become the first generation of Post-Consumer Parents.

Whither Thanksgiving?

There have actually been occasions when I’ve written because I’ve been wrestling with a particular issue and the process of writing has helped to clarify points and issues for me.  This is going to be one of those articles and yes, it does pertain to how a larger American practice is impacting the PracticalDad household.  Most specifically, do I go out for “Black Friday” Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving Day itself?

In the past two decades, Black Friday has taken on an entirely new focus in American culture.  I used to think that the term was a pejorative amongst shoppers and retail staff to describe the conditions that prevailed as people crammed into stores and waited in lines for special loss leader products; I later learned that it actually referred to the accounting ledgers of many retailers, who hung on at a loss through the year as they awaited the post-Thanksgiving holiday buying season and the chance to move into the profitable black.  As a kid, I knew that the folks would take us out on the weekend immediately after Thanksgiving for a Christmas buying spree but over the ensuing decades, that time span between the holiday and the shopping start has shortened.  My own experience with Black Friday began more than a decade ago when a close friend – my may-as-well-be sister invited me to join her for a pre-dawn excursion to shop for presents at a now-defunct mall toy-retailer.  This entailed getting to the mall at 330 AM to find a good spot in line for the 530 AM store opening; the other mall stores would open around 6 or 7 AM.  This began more than a decade-long tradition of grabbing the pre-Thanksgiving newspaper for the shopping ads, which she and my wife would study to find those items that might best work for the Christmas lists for the half-dozen kids that comprised our two households.  It became an exercise in the travelling salesman problem as we would split up lists and hit multiple locations and the cellphone made it a logistical effort worthy of transporting an army battalion.  As our kids aged and wanted to get into the act, this would be multiplied and we’d have four or more individuals in multiple locations, all searching out their particular item for another person in one of the two families and it became a rite of passage for the youngsters to join in the fray.  The culmination of the experience would be lunch with any combination of the two families before heading home for a return to regular activities.  When Youngest was finally old enough to come along for this established tradition, the rest were old enough that they’d moved beyond the toy phase and time had worked it’s natural change upon the process.

Time also worked its own change upon the larger process as the stores opened earlier and earlier and that 530 AM opening became an almost quaint anachronism.  More stores opened at 530 AM and earlier and then the push to be first moved the opening times even earlier into the early morning hours.  This has become a vicious cycle as stores – desperate for sales in an economy with a faltering middle class – continuously pushed the time envelope back further and further until only the other year when suddenly, stores were opening on Thanksgiving evening itself.  As I sit here and think about it, three of the stores at the forefront of the early Black Friday morning sale – KB Toys, Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things – now defunct; it would seem that the desperation by these dying retailers fed a frenzy that’s taken on a life of it’s own.  But there’s now a pushback as stores now purposefully advertise their willingness to let the employees have time with their families and people take note of the seeming callousness of the ones opening Thanksgiving Day.

So here’s the crux of the situation.  I agree that the stores should stay closed on Thanksgiving and hadn’t planned to go out until early Friday morning.  Yet both Eldest and Middle will be working on Thanksgiving Day – one at a mall retailer and another at a local restaurant – and my own family’s Thanksgiving meal is purposefully being moved up to an earlier time to accommodate the evening work shifts.  Youngest has also asked for a specific item that’s being sold as a loss leader at a retailer with a 6 PM opening on Thanksgiving evening.  He’s agreed that the item is costly enough that he’s willing to contribute to defray the total cost and now the question is whether I go to the retailer in an attempt to purchase the item.  Given that it’s a loss leader that would be far more expensive elsewhere, it’s certain that I’d also be leaving far earlier in order to stand in line.  So do I just acknowledge the practicality and give in to an already shot family Turkey Day or do I say no?

So that’s where I’m at.  But whatever is decided, I hope that you and your family have a wonderful Thanksgiving.  We’ll see what happens.

Craigslist Chic

Society changes as the younger generation rises to take its place and begins to supplant the dying-off elders.  It always happens and now is no different from when the Boomers supplanted the Silent Generation.  But we now have a problem since our economy is predicated upon consumption and yet incomes are declining and the demands upon the family budgets are growing. So how is that change occurring?  Watching Eldest and one of her peers, who I’ve had the privilege of knowing since that young woman was in early elementary school, is both educational and reflective of what’s occurring in the broader society.  It can best be described as what I refer to as Craigslist Chic.

With the news that family median income has again dropped to levels not seen since 1989 and poverty rising to new levels, it’s a new world for those who grew up expecting a particular lifestyle and finding that it’s simply unattainable.  There’s been an expectation of a newer house in the suburbs with newer automobiles, late model appliances and in a nod to this new generation, an array of interconnected devices that increasingly make up what is referred to as the sensornet.  And advertising continues to push this drive to have as much as it ever has, promoting the image and the goods with unabashed enthusiasm.  There’s obviously a gap growing here between the desire for the things and the ability to afford said things and the rise of Craigslist is one of that ways that people are managing to bridge that gap.

The site began two decades ago and in its earlier days, had a touch of the wild west aspect to it with news blurbs coming across about the occasional individual who was trying to sell a kidney or engaging in some odd and unsavory transaction.  As full disclosure, I managed to go for years without viewing Craigslist and only began to seriously view it after Eldest began perusing it on a routine basis.  The situation was now reversed because in their much younger years, I routinely monitored electronics and the media ahead of them and when the kids were truly young, I would periodically watch bits and pieces of MTV and BET to see what was happening with the culture.  At twenty years old, Craigslist is now a veritable institution on the web and as I watch, it’s become one of the key ways that the youngsters are bridging that gap so that they can far more affordably attain what’s been trotted out over the years by the consumer machine.

It has been fascinating to watch Eldest, who has the goal of her own place yet has grasped that the old ways of just walking in and furnishing a house or apartment en masse is no longer realistically operative.  She approaches the goal as a puzzle with the parameters of currently available funds, wants and available prospects via Craigslist; she is assured of safe storage because we’re already holding furniture left by other family members for when the kids are on their own.  I’ve watched her spend free time quietly perusing Craigslist with the occasional comment to her mother about how she likes this or that particular item and on a few occasions now, I’ve gotten the word that she’s gone to a particular place in order to look at one thing or another and sure enough, a piece of furniture winds up in my garage for safe disposition until its time is come for use.  In the case of the other young woman, my might-as-well-be niece, she furnished her first apartment via an assortment of means.  Utilitarian furniture came from her parents’ house to supplement what little she’d already accumulated, she purchased from highly discounted furniture stores and found to her surprise that she could purchase a like-new set on Craigslist for a fraction of what she’d seen the same set in a retail furniture store.  The site has become almost ubiquitous and the ability of consumers to connect with one another and transact goods outside of the traditional retail will only place even greater stress upon the traditional bricks-and-mortar economy, already stressed by the rise of online retailing.

The other aspect of Craigslist is its inherent teachable lessons in human nature, and this is where the youngsters might need some input from their elders.  It’s a truism amongst any retailer, either brick/mortar or online, that the customer is always right and almost all businesses at least make an attempt to honor that.  But Craigslist allows the person to interact with any kind of person and that goes partcularly to ethics – moral, immoral or simply amoral.  In my few instances of Craigslist usage, I’ve run into two instances of ethical lapses; the first was a misrepresentation about circumstances as a young adult trying to make a buck as a used car dealer misrepresented himself in a potential car sale while the second jacked the price of an item when he realized that he’d been dealing with my wife and I didn’t have a hard copy of what they’d discussed.  In the first instance, a young adult was with me and we walked on the transaction and in the second, I wound up paying an additional $30 on the deal that I didn’t realize the issue until I was almost home.  This doesn’t mean that all Craigslist sellers are dubious, because they aren’t.  But it does mean that if you know that your youngster is actually thinking of using it, it would be helpful to offer your assistance as they move forward and I suspect in most instances, they’d be willing to accept the input.  At the minimum, talk to them about some simple safety rules:  first and foremost, if you’re going to meet someone, make sure that someone close to you knows the physical details of the meeting – time, location and the identity of the seller, even if just the Craigslist identifier – and more preferable would be having someone come along with you.  Second, meetings when possible should be at public locations and if for any reason your internal alarm system is triggered – y’know, I’m a bit uncomfortable with this – find a reason to simply decline the potential transaction and get out of there.  Third would be to assure that you have a record of all communications – digital or hard-copy – to avoid the prospect of any he said/she said scenarios that might spiral out of control.  Beyond that simple threesome, you can discuss whatever other aspects you wish.

Having been around for two decades – an eon in digital terms – Craigslist and it’s peers aren’t going anywhere.  It serves a purpose and that will only increase as the youngsters use it more and more to help them bridge the gap between economic reality and the images of adulthood that they’ve been sold throughout their youth by the consumption machine.  But if you become aware that the kids are using it, feel free to offer your perspective because you have the experience factor that they haven’t yet acquired.

Managing the Transition to Adulthood

You might not think about it now, but that child that you tuck in each night will at some point reach adulthood, or at least some semblance of it given the present economic circumstances.  Just as we should never have gotten into Iraq without some serious consideration about the endgame, parents should begin to consider their own endgame with the kids, i.e. phasing out their own responsibilities and passing them along to the nascent adults.  It’s a question that my wife are only now starting to consider with the Eldest of our three children, who is now entering her senior year in college and is legally able to drink.  How should the parents phase out their present responsibilities?

It’s not like it used to be where the kids left home after graduation – high school or college – and got a job that permitted them to become financially independent adults.  The jobs environment of the decades through the 1990s is no longer operative as the one-person-full-time-with-benefits job model has been replaced with the multiple-part-time-no-benefits job model; what some have begun referring to as the gig economy.  This move towards a newer, more uncertain way to make a living exacerbates what has become a debate on when adulthood actually begins.  The consumption model of the economy is predicated upon the formation of households to sell all of the wonderful stuff that makes a house a well-furnished house (not a home, just a well-furnished house unless you put in the effort and time) and when the young people cannot afford or are unwilling to make those decisions – moving out, marriage, parenthood – then the result is a slowdown in the economic driver as those milestones are, at best, delayed.  Toss in the albatross necklace of student debt and there’s a true impediment to economic growth.  The result is that there a fair number of middle-aged parents who are doing what they can to help their nascent adult offspring; the question that you should consider while you still have time is to what extent you wish to go?

When I survey the panoply of Opies that I’ve come to know through the older two kids, Eldest and Middle, there’s a massive disparity between what different parents will do for the kids.  At the one end of the spectrum are the sets of parents who actually expect the kids to help with paying the multiple household bills that come in, including mortgage and utilities.  The thought process seems to be congratulations, you’re now an adult and despite only having a part-time job, we expect you to chip in as a full-fledged adult.  The fact that Junior might only be a high school graduate or have outstanding student debt overhanging him is irrelevant to the situation.  The kid – adult? – is expected to contribute even if it means that he’s further handicapped and prohibited from getting out on his own because of this requirement.  While it is unscientific, my observation seems to be that these cases are predominantly amongst parents who are best described as working class or blue collar and could likely be under financial stress as well.  In one particular case, the young adult has been told for years that once he reached the age of 18, he’d be responsible for his own food, clothing, transportation and would have to pay rent as well. 

The other end of the spectrum are those who not only stand responsible for educating the kids, but are also willing to provide financial cover for as long as legally practicable.  I know of multiple sets of parents who are keeping the kids on their employer-provided health insurance even after they’re graduated from college.  One close friend even researched the regulations and found that her chemical engineer son could stay on her insurance until the age of 25, even if he was well-employed with a plan that he could purchase through his own employer.  Since this young man has graduated from college and graduate school with a considerable amount of student debt – he once commented I’m in so much debt that I could start a government – every little bit that he can throw at the debt to work it down is worthwhile and their family understanding is that cover will be provided so long as the money goes to pay off the debt.  It’s ditto for the auto insurance and the caveat is that he and his siblings will stay on the auto policy until they can truly take on their own or they screw up and cause the premium to rise.  This also brings up the other aspect which is that of responsibility; if the parents think that the kid is responsible enough to appreciate the privilege that’s being afforded by the parents and is actually appreciative of it.  If the kid is technically an adult but the privilege afforded actually prevents him from learning by shielding from poor consequences, then nobody would think poorly of any parent that threw in the financial towel and said to hell with it.

So think about it and start to determine where you are.  It’s a multi-dimensional question with parameters of age – kid and parent – as well as breadth – just financial or extending to other areas – and personal philosophy.  But understand that it’s a question worthy of consideration as the present economic climate continues to warp and torque what was once conventional wisdom and practice about life and adulthood.

The Value of a Car…

If there’s anything that’s become apparent in the past month, it’s the necessity for having a vehicle in order to hold a job.  There’s always public transportation if both your home and job are near a route, but it’s highly possible that either one or the other won’t be near one and in that case, a car is vital for a livelihood.  Such was the lesson when multiple vehicles in the PracticalDad household simultaneously opted for a sit-down strike, creating mayhem in the otherwise smoothly flowing schedule.

This is a family that has lived with a vehicle philosophy:  buy newer used and run them until the wheels drop off and by that, I literally mean that.  Except for my wife’s Toyota – now at 11 years of age and more than 180000 miles – we’ve always driven used and four of the cars throughout our 28 year marriage have been towed away for salvage.  Some have died quietly, with a whimper or a simple passed away in its sleep overnight and one went with a violent fit, tossing a piston through the engine while running at 60 miles per hour on a four lane highway.  The point is that we drive them until they simply won’t be driven ever again.  Until recently, the stats on the four vehicles were that the youngest was my wife’s, at eleven years of age although that was also the highest mileage, followed by my rolling dumpster with 151000 miles.  Each of the older kids had their own beater, one a hand-me-down from Grandmother when she gave up her license, and each needed it since both worked two summer jobs to beef up the bank account for the school year.  We also know kids who have had to borrow one or another of our own in order to get back and forth to jobs because of their own want of a vehicle.

But the past month was a figurative wreck as first one car – Eldest’s – went down with what appeared to be terminal issues, followed by my own.  This left us with a math problem:  two vehicles split amongst four drivers, one of whom requires a fully functioning automobile and another two that have to make it to another four separate jobs between them, each job working a different shift each day.  The ten point question is this:  how do you make this work?  Given that Youngest also had his own set of activities and I run the household, the only way to conceivably make it work was to revert back to earlier years when Dad literally ran a taxi service.  If one of the working kids had a late shift and no one required use of a vehicle, then that kid drove to work; otherwise, it was once again Dad’s Taxi and it wasn’t uncommon for me to toting and hauling on a midnight run to a job.  It was the first of a series of lessons for the kids – the need for many of the working poor to have a vehicle in order to even have a shot at holding a job at all.

So apart from that realization, what other lessons came from the experience?  First was whether it was even an option to even repair it and Eldest already had done a visit to Kelly Blue Book to ascertain the value of her vehicle.  The second lesson was the value of a good mechanic.  Since I was out of town that week, she and my wife had it towed to a shop that’s done some of our repairs in the past but with which I’ve become increasingly concerned over the past year.  When they reported that her car had a cracked head gasket with repairs at a cost of $2700 – outstripping the car’s value of $2200 – I had it towed to another garage for a second opinion, recalling last Autumn’s out of state car repair event when the repair cost was significantly less than originally anticipated.  In this case, the second garage fixed Eldest’s car for less than $60; which was also the third lesson, the value of a second opinion.  Throughout the process, conversations with the kids about the progress continued so that they knew what was happening as it occurred.  The point was to not only keep the costs down and the vehicles running, but also to teach them so that they would have an idea of what to do should this happen to them in the future. 

The final lesson was about how to purchase a new vehicle and surprisingly, it was Youngest who came along for those sessions since his elder siblings were working.  While my van was likewise repairable, the risk of running old vehicles made it apparent that we still needed a more reliable car and since she deserves it, it would go to my wife.  Youngest sat in on the sessions with the sales reps but all heard the questions and commentaries to my wife – what do you really need and what do you really want?  Once the parameters were established, it was a question of finding what worked and most cost-effectively. 

So we now have a new 2015 to complement the others.  Both mine and Eldest’s were repairable and are in use, although mine is now used solely for hauling equipment, debris and yard waste.  It’s a little more for the insurance but it’s still cheaper than ruining one of the other vehicle’s interiors or renting a pickup truck.  The final point is this:  these experiences and decisions are all part and parcel of adulthood and it’s better to teach the lessons yourself when they’re available than just expecting that the kids will figure it out when they’re older.  If situations arise, identify them to the kids and talk through the process with them, engage them whenever possible and share the results with them.  For these everyday adult occurrences, no young adult should ever have to look back and say I wish someone had told me before.

When Real-Time Economics Hits Home

I live for teachable moments and the unfortunate reality is that larger macroeconomic issues do hit here within the household.  Such is the case with Eldest, who’s forking away as much into savings as possible for the coming year.

The larger issue is obviously the transition from a sustainable living wage economy to one of predominantly part-time jobs.  According to the government statistics – and I’ll admit to believing that a fair portion of the government reporting structure is rigged – there have been millions of jobs created within the past several years yet the majority of them are only part-time, sans the benefits which many of the previous generations received.  The scenario simply beggars the imagination and I recently asked Middle, the AP economics student, to explain how we could a record number of Americans both on food assistance as well as out of the workforce yet have what some economists might consider as full employment with a rate of – at that time – 5.4%.  To his credit, he did identify ask whether the jobs were full-time and that led to some conversation and explanation about employment statistics…most especially that once a person had any kind of job, even a part-time job at 15 hours weekly, they were no longer considered as unemployed and therefore out of the unemployment rate calculation.  And this is where the problem lies: that we’re now reaping the globalization policy effects as sustainable living jobs for the typical person have been outsourced to other nations.

It was a short conversation with Eldest the other morning about when she was working over the next two days, since the body count is always a factor in dinner plans.  She updated me on her hours and expressed frustration with one of her employers.  I have to give her credit since she’s willing to work and puts in time at two separate jobs, one within the restaurant business and the other within retail.  She successfully schedules her hours and is able to routinely work more than 45 hours weekly and on some weeks has surpassed 55 hours of work; it was the same last summer when she put in similar hours albeit only with the restaurant.  The difference that she’s finding however, is that as a non-server employee at the restaurant, she was paid hourly instead of wait-staff rates and the hours that she garnered – because she routinely picked up every other employee’s shift request – meant that she made significant overtime.  So significant that when the management finally reviewed their records late last August, they found that labor costs had risen beyond budgeted because of all of her overtime pay.  Their conversation with her was actually gentle since they recognized that they had a keeper as a hostess but the message was clear – no overtime for you!.  That carried over into their hiring for this current summer as they hired sufficient numbers for hosts and hostesses that the ability to garner overtime would be simply impossible.  It’s crazy, Eldest commented, since there are hosts who might only work for one or two shifts each week…I mean, it’s stupid.  I went to the question of why they might do that and once she got past the irritability of it’s perceived stupidity, we got to the meat of labor costs.  They have a budget within which they have to keep and the unfortunate reality is that it’s presently a fully-blown employer’s market with a surplus of available labor to meet needs; that it’s not at all uncommon for employers to now have an excess number of employees available so that fewer shifts can be given to many and any possible overtime avoided.  That paid benefits might only go to those few who actually work more than 40 hours weekly makes it a two-fer as almost nobody hits that mark and that aspect of labor costs is dropped from the bottom line.  Her bottom line is that she’s seeing how the same number of hours worked at two jobs leads to less money because the overtime differential is gone.  The conversation petered out as she prepared to leave to meet with a friend but she did take the commentary in and I suspect that she’s processed it.

There’s been a recurrent point that bothers me.  We live in a society that’s been parsed and segmented and all of the various news media play to their own fan base.  MSNBC, Fox and CNN all have their various segments and much of the commentary goes to the notion of them, that others are either the cause or the effect of one policy or another.  But the simple truth is that what’s occurring around us isn’t happening to them, it’s happening to us and in many cases, the us is our children since they have to live with the effects of the various corporate policies as they play out.  It’s not your kids or my kids, it’s our kids.  The more that we can recognize the larger issues within our own daily lives, the more that we can teach them and help them learn to navigate this system of ours.  And hopefully create the template for change that’s more positive because it’s sometimes the little things that cumulatively make a larger difference.

Like a college kid’s willingness to work overtime.

Conversations with the Kids:  Corporate versus Local

One of the great issues of our day – and one that casts a shadow over our youngsters as they move forward – is that of the power of the corporation versus the power of the individual.  We’re in a time that’s most akin to the Gilded Age of the late 1800s as the uber-wealthy, the corporations and the financial sector hold outsized control of the levers of power in the nation.  The situation has become so outlandish that the Supreme Court has ruled that capping the amount of political contributions is a violation of the right of free speech, including that of corporations which are at their heart, wholly fictitious legal entities created solely to earn a profit for a small group of initial investors.  Until there is significant enough unrest to force change, and that was at the heart of the labor conflicts of the late 19th century, this is the world into which my children will enter.  So what can and should I do as a father and parent to prepare them for entry into that world?

Short of singing union songs about beating up the scabs in lieu of grace at the dinner table, there are two important things, even if they seem insignificantly small in the moment.  The first is to understand that the kids are watching you and taking their cues from you in how they deal with the daily issues of life.  Many parents wonder whether the kids are even paying attention as immersed as they are in the electronic ether but I believe that they are paying attention to both your actions and inactions.  If I’m going to preach the inequities caused by the rise of the corporations at the expense of the individual, then I’m going to have to be far more purposeful in my own spending and that goes to where I shop.  The persistent drumbeat of consumerism – buy more, buy cheap – over decades of advertising does create real cognitive dissonance for someone who’s shopping.  The simple reality is that purchasing an American made consumer product is probably going to cost more simply because the labor costs of an adult labor is greater than that of Chinese peasants or Indonesian children.  The upshot is that there’s going to be less money around for the stupid crap that so many Americans purchase in the hopes of filling whatever emptiness exists in their lives. 

The second thing is to constantly look for situations in which you can have conversation with the kids, the proverbial teaching moments.  Such instances do crop up and two did so within the last week.  In the first case, Eldest called me from college with the news that her car had a flat tire.  No big deal since we purchased a AAA membership for her when she took the car to school and she’d already contacted them to arrange service.  She also arranged to have it towed to a tire dealer for a new tire, which was fine thus far.  But we parted ways when she then told the tire dealer – a Firestone dealer – to have the mechanic look at other issues under her hood, which she couldn’t specify apart from a perceived shimmy and grinding noise.  The bill was coming back to me and my immediate response was to tell her to have the dealer contact me directly.  When they did so, they had already done some looking under the hood and had a list of things that could be the issue and were of possible concern.  Eldest was concerned about the driveability of the car while I was more concerned about a vehicle which, in my opinion, had issued the dealer a fishing license.  If the tire hadn’t gone flat, the car wouldn’t have been there in the first place and with so little specificity, I was greatly concerned that the repairs would be unnecessary and financially excessive.  In the end, I authorized only the purchase of two new mid-range tires and asked for a list of what they considered possible causes and then directed Eldest to take the car to a reputable local mechanic, one who had serviced the cars of other family in that area for decades.  Eldest had the list of suggested repairs in hand when she went to the local mechanic and after a test drive, he solved her issues with a $50 repair that wasn’t even on the dealer’s list.  The lesson to Eldest was that the corporate dealers had no loyalty to any individual and were usually only concerned with their own bottom line instead of yours.  A good local mechanic however, was intimately aware of the power of referral and good service and was generally in the mindset that customers were also neighbors as well.

The second moment occurred with Youngest, an aspiring drummer.  His first drum set is a decent beater set from a thrift store, a reputable brand that has simply seen better days despite it’s continued usefulness.  It was good for the first year of practice in which the user typically beats instead of plays the drums but the boy is moving beyond that.  He asked for a floor Tom to supplement the existing pieces and that request led to a visit to a local Guitar Center, a corporate music store that specializes in rock n’ roll stuff such as guitars, drums, keyboards and amps.  He understood that this was simply an educational visit on top of a small purchase to help repair a high-hat cymbal and listened as I spoke with the employee in the drum section.  The employee was clear that while they might be able to get ahold a floor Tom on special order, the usual route to purchasing drums was to buy an entire set in order to get a significant price break and if we wanted, there were any number of good mid-line sets that he could show us.  I let Youngest look but demurred on anything apart from the needed piece and the boy left the store with stars in his eyes for a set that cost in excess of $800.  But while on the other side of town, I passed a locally owned drum store that services multiple counties and decided to stop in to learn more about floor Toms and buying by the piece instead of the set.  The owner is a younger guy who’s decided to be the go-to guy for the region and is far more well stocked for all manner of drums than the corporate Guitar Center.  He took me to a room in which there were a significant number of used Toms available, traded in by previous drummers.  We spoke for a good quarter hour and the gist of the conversation was that no two drummers were alike and in fact, many preferred to buy by the piece and assemble their own custom set.  He challenged the statement that you should only buy by the set and confirmed by belief that there was greater profit – and salesman commission – in selling by the set; it also made it easier for a staff that wouldn’t be as familiar with the merchandise as someone who did this full-time.  I have since shared this with Youngest, including the fact that there’s greater commission for a salesman who can sell an entire set at one time, even if it is pricier than the customer might be able or willing to afford.  The upshot for each child has been a lesson in practical economics, that you’re liable to get better and more customized service from a local merchant who has skin in the community’s game.

As the middle class is winnowed away, there will be increasing social and political friction until there’s a breaking point.  I don’t profess to know what the final result will be, except for the fact that the resources and opportunities available to our adult children will be less than they are today let alone what they were when we were young.  My job until that time is to teach the kids and help them find a way to safely navigate this economy with some integrity.  If I can also set the stage for a future more vibrant and diversified local economy that’s able to withstand the corporations, then that’s the added bonus.  I will continue to search for the teachable moments as they arise and in this corporate version of America, those moments will repeatedly present themselves.