Resurrecting the Price Index: Rationale

We are again in Terra Incognita and our only guides are a few accumulated studies of a hundred year-old predecessor pandemic.  This is like trying to find the most efficient route from New York to Salt Lake City using a 1932 Rand McNally map.  The fear is palpable and not least of which is the concern about the national food supply, especially since John Tyson of Tyson Foods took out full page ads warning that the food supply chain was breaking.  While this piece was going national, there were also warnings about the virus having an inflationary impact on food prices.  Are there serious problems?  Absolutely.  Are they as terrible and fear-inducing as it appears?  Not necessarily.

Societal shocks happen and they are always followed by fear, if not outright panic.  Our history is that we have had problems with food prices and supply before, most notably during the Second World War, and we managed to survive.  What is different is that Franklin Roosevelt’s government had sufficiently advanced notice that there would be another war and had begun thinking ahead.  Today?  Well…that depends to whom you are talking.  The simple reality is that there are no easily ascertainable data points to assess developments at the retail grocery level and the lack of data feeds uncertainty and fear.

This is why I am resurrecting the original PracticalDad Price Index – which I calculated monthly from November 2010 to September 2016 – and modifying it to follow activity within the grocery stores.  The original index was created as a kitchen table project to ascertain the impact of the Federal Reserve’s novel Quantitative Easing programs upon food prices in my vicinity.  It was calculated both to satisfy my own curiosity and to serve as a small data point for a larger online community.  It’s one thing to read wonkery, but another to actually see it in concrete terms.

The modified market basket, methodology and results will be covered at length in the next article.  For now, let’s go from pondering questions of inflation at the molecular level of three local grocery stores to a more global perspective on prices and inflation.

Understand that inflation is simply the decrease in a currency’s value, as measured by it’s purchasing power for goods and services.  There are three principal reasons for this.

First, there is demand, such that people are willing to spend more for that item with the supply of that item being relatively constant.  The stunning rise of a single Bitcoin is an example of that but that glorious moment in our history when Americans believed that a house was an ever-increasing investment works as well.  Our realization that a house wasn’t so is a good example of the inverse, deflation.

Second, an inflationary or deflationary effect can arise out of a good’s supply.

The oil supply shock of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo caused prices to spike simply because there was an immediate halt to the flow of oil to the US with no corresponding decrease in demand to offset it.  In economics parlance, this was a simple shift in the supply curve to the left with demand being equal.  The shift from Intersection A to Intersection B resulted in a rise from a price of P1 to a price of P2.  Real life, unfortunately, was quite a bit messier.

Finally, the purchasing power of a currency can be affected simply by the sheer amount of money available within the system.  What most have forgotten is that inflation for food – particularly meats – was already an issue prior to the 1973 Embargo.

There were calls by housewives for “Meatless Meals” as a push-back against grocers and protests broke out across the country.  Housewives blamed grocers and the grocers pointed their fingers at farmers, who kicked the can of blame to the feed producers.  Where did the final responsibility rest amidst this idiot firing squad?  Actually, it was a result of the persistent and signficant increase in the amount of money within the economy starting in the 1960s.  The Federal Reserve itself terms that era as The Great Inflation and notes that the period began in 1965 and ended in 1982.  Why those years?  Because 1965 saw the beginning of LBJ’s Vietnam build-up as well as the inception of his Great Society programs.  And 1982?  That’s when then-Fed Chairman Paul Volcker turned off the tap and ratcheted interest rates to nosebleed levels to rein in the resultant inflation.

There is nobody – absolutely nobody – who can tell how this plays out in the grocery aisles.  There are competing articles about incipient inflation and incipient deflation, which is really where the mass of Americans have been stuck since 2009.  So take a side and argue away because each argument has merit and honestly, the act of arguing serves nothing better than to satisfy a primal intellectual urge, a form of mental masturbation.

What this C-19 Pandemic has managed to do however, is create a situation in which all three factors are now simultaneously in play amidst the real economy.  In the short term, the supply of specific food groups is curtailed and all things being equal, there should be a spike in the prices for those groups.  But all things are not equal here because while there’s the supply question, the American people have suffered a cataclysmic – and that’s an appropriate word for these circumstances – demand shock in loss of income, strained as it already was for the past decade.  Refer back to the Supply/Demand chart shown above.  The family income supported Demand curve hasn’t so much been shifted left as it’s been tossed into the bottom corner like a broken corpse.

Our present drama is playing out amidst these first two factors of compromised Food Supply and cratered Family Income, contesting one another like fighters in the late rounds of a championship bout.

But the third factor, the Money Supply, is waiting quietly outside of the ring and that is what literally awakens me on the occasional night.  In the wake of the 2008 Financial Crisis, the Fed’s three QE programs created trillions of dollars and in the process extended the Fed’s balance sheet to amounts previously unimagined.

Growth in M1 (1975 – 2015)

That it didn’t tear Joe Six-Pack a new one is a testament only to the fact that the economic, legislative and electoral policies since the repeal of Glass-Steagall literally created two stand-alone economies:  one awash in wealth for the uber-wealthy and another that diminishes the American Middle Class a little bit more each day.

My wife once asked me, if the goal was to create inflation, where is it?  The inflation is there.  It is encased in the equity markets and the prices for exclusive properties in places like New York, San Francisco, the Hamptons and Potomac, Maryland.  It is encrusted in the wealth accrued to billionaires and near-billionaires and their purchases of art, excess consumption and doom shelters in New Zealand.  It is wrapped up in projects such as Jeff Bezos’ effort to create a ten thousand year clock as a monument to long-term thinking, the vicious irony being that it’s financed by a predatory reliance on short-term quarterly results.  And the inflation is locked away in the purchases of items of alternate value such as cryptocurrencies and precious metals, which are now physically almost unobtainable despite having a stable paper price.  Go figure that one out.

As global economies pursued this race to the bottom with their respective currency values, the Fed acknowledged that it had to begin raising interest rates to something remotely approaching historic normalcy.  It’s not surprising that the stock market became cranky during this period because it’s flow of cheap credit was threatened.  There’s a reason that President Trump demanded zero and negative rates from the Fed, regardless of the damage that these rates do to real activity.  But in the immediate aftermath of the Pandemic’s onset, the response was to salvage the economy by again dropping rates and extending lifelines to a wide variety of corporate and financial entities.  The result of these lifelines from the government and the Fed?  $6 Trillion in the course of the two month period ending April 15, 2020.  That money is now coursing through the bond and equity markets, which have stabilized since the roll-out of the various programs.

Yet the average American gets a one-time check of $1200 with an additional $500 per child.

At the end of the day however, our economy is built upon the premise that Americans must spend for any recovery to happen.  That’s why the Administration pushes to get the economy re-opened and money flowing, even though the infection and fatality numbers in many areas still fail the President’s own criteria for re-opening.  That is why we hear establishment commentary conflating legitimate saving with ridiculous terms like “hoarding cash”.  Sure dude, I can’t cover a $400 car repair but yeah, I’m good for a beach week to help the economy.  Ultimately, the average American will not be able to consume unless the Federal Government renders real and meaningful assistance and the two bifurcated economies are rejoined in even the loosest fashion.  Whether it is debt relief, guaranteed income or any number of other programs that remove the noose from the neck of the 99% and/or ratchet down upon the 1%, the economies must be rejoined and a re-balancing must take place.

That’s when the trillions of dollars set loose since 2009 are liable to return.  If it happens, that money will begin flowing through the real economy and we will be set up for a replay of The Great Inflation, except that the Americans of this generation won’t have the financial health of their great-grandparents to survive.  The resultant inflation will ignite and what we witness in the next year will be child’s play in comparison.

It is possible that these fears won’t be realized.  But make no mistake that the American economy – and the political body – is seriously ill.  One of the criticisms of the repeated actions of the Fed’s QE programs is that it’s akin to treating cancer with copious amounts of painkillers.  The patient feels better but the cancer continues unabated.  At some point, the treatment must occur in all of its unpleasantness.  As a survivor of cancer and any number of other medical issues, I attest to the value of a painkiller in the moment; I also understood in the moment that my survival was predicated upon a simple submission to the treatment and all of the side-effects.

Apart from the sheer ability to draw breath for yet another day, there’s an upside to survival.  It is the understanding that despite the worst fears in the moment, they are at that time, only fears and not guaranteed realities.  You learn to acknowledge the fears and set them aside, managing your life one step at a time and taking each step as it comes.  The fears are there.  They are real.  But until they actually occur, they can be managed one step at a time.

So it will go in the grocery store.  We will manage as best that we can because that is ultimately all that we can do:  our best.  In the meantime, I will work to put a recognizable face to the abstract notion of the cost of food and the reality of the supply chain.  That will be the next article:  The new Market-basket.

 

After High School: Helping Find the Path

I wish that I had known that I had the option to go to trade school…

It was a simple comment uttered by Eldest as were driving together, her toddler daughter buckled in behind us.  It was also one of those remarks that grabs you by the scruff of your cerebellum and shakes loose an unheard huh?  She was quick to note that that she was thankful for her education – a Bachelor’s degree – but increasingly she had found that she enjoyed the process and reward of working with her hands.  I took – take – no offense despite the mental response but it’s a comment that has raised a larger question in the past several months:  How do we, as parents, help our kids ascertain their educational path after high school?

The question is especially germane today.  It’s now clear that some form of further education is necessary for most to avoid a lifetime of minimum wage jobs, but the pathway for such a crucial life decision is booby-trapped for many.  The tripwire is that higher education – Big Ed, as an acquaintance referred to it – is a business that requires a steady stream of bodies to fill the seats of the lecture halls.  The Claymore mine is the realization that there’s a clear discrepancy between the living-wage jobs available and the education required for hiring.  We’ve turned out a plethora of liberal arts degrees but there are few of those graduates with the skill set necessary to run a CNC machine.  The Punji stick is that the decline of the middle-class family has shifted the responsibility for educational financing back to the student herself; the likely accumulation of debt will eliminate the opportunity to repeat the process again.  Don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for any college to say we’d love to have you here but we’re gonna give you a pass because honestly, it’s too much debt for you to handle.  That depressing commentary will have to come from you.

Full disclosure:  We have delivered this message to all three of our children and doing so sucks.  Hard.

I’ve thought about Eldest’s comment repeatedly in the ensuing months.  My second immediate thought was a defensive yes, you could always have opted for trade school but that’s really not the truth.  It’s not the truth because the trades weren’t a pathway made clear to her as an option through the myriad conversations across the tween and teen years.  My mantra from her middle school years starting in 2007 was we have to get you educated with as little debt as humanly possible; I was looking at the trends and numbers and recognized that student debt could be a serious impediment to a decent adulthood.  I could follow the economic news and extrapolate that back to my family at the molecular level of the economy.  I could even see that the living wage jobs were swinging back to a STEM orientation and skilled manufacturing.  But the simple reality was that the skill set that I knew, with which both my wife and I were raised, was rooted within the route of college and the liberal arts and that was the consequent focus with our kids.  My own upbringing was in a corporate mid-management level household and in my teen years, the parental conversation was to push for a degree that enabled me to make a living for myself.  It was what my parents knew.  My father was a product of the mid-20th century corporate environment and from his viewpoint, and my mother’s by extension, there were always going to be corporations that would afford a reliable income and retirement to dependable, smart employees.  My final college decision was based upon a school with both strong journalism and business programs.

Many of our life choices are informed by what we learned in our upbringing.  Working with my hands was not a significant part of my early life.  I helped my father remodel the family basement and learned to perform essential maintenance upon my car but that was stuff that my parents considered what any functioning adult should know.  There were other opportunities afforded to me by my father but I didn’t find them of interest and he didn’t push me to learn.  When I did talk to him about following him into computers during my teens, his literal response was Hell, no.  I can teach a goddamned monkey to write programming but I can’t teach one to write a proper paragraph or speak in public.  So it was the liberal arts for me, which was good because I found in college that I was, in some respects, dumber than a goddamned monkey.

So, what if I’m raising a child amidst a time of tremendous change?  What if my skill sets are not applicable to an economy in flux?  Like any other part of parenthood, there are few exact answers but I will offer the following.

First, remember that there’s a goal to parenthood:  you are raising your child to to walk out the door and support herself.  It’s the goal from the first delivery room cry and one that threads throughout her years with you.  What it means is that you don’t wait until her junior year in high school to attend a college financing night and then ask her so, whaddayawannado?  I’m not saying that it’s the credo that you tell yourself every morning when you look in the mirror but it is something that remains within the back of your mind, especially as she ages and moves further along to more diverse options within the educational system.

You must become intentional in your parenting.

Second, you have to pay greater attention to the culture and politics around you.  Foremost, understand the difference between news and news commentary and act accordingly.  It’s telling that during the past week of this Covid-19 pandemic, the most watched news programming is now ABC Evening News and not the news networks.  Pay attention to different sources of information and check for veracity.  It’s time-consuming but the good news is that we now an insane amount of information available instantaneously within our phone’s grasp.  Or you take to heart what my father said to me routinely:  pull your head out of your ass and look around.

Third, you’re going to have to be almost countercultural with your child in terms of screen and electronic media consumption.  The hours spent in front of a screen have obviously increased and there is little to indicate that the trend will reverse anytime soon and it will simply have to be part of your routine to monitor platforms and hours and listen to her kvetch around boredom (despite the simple fact that there can be value in children contending with boredom).  But it’s crucial that she learn to pay attention to the world around her and she won’t do that immersed in a screen.

Fourth, try to provide a wider variety of opportunities for her.  If you know hunting and gardening, then do those things with her.  But don’t be shy about crossing things up and taking her to an art exhibition either.  A large part of parenting is moving outside of your comfort zone.  An inveterate reader?  Great.  Read to her and then go hiking with her.  It not only provides a wider perspective of the world but also an opportunity to appreciate her budding personality.  One of the eccentricities of the past several decades is the proliferation of expensive advanced-instruction youth sport leagues.  The catastrophic loss of jobs and income from this pandemic is going to put a crimp in that business model and the opportunities will most likely devolve back to the parent coached/run Little League model.  It’s going to be incumbent upon you as a parent to make those opportunities happen, even if you have no experience with that.  Honestly, some of the best coaching that any of my kids had were parents with no previous experience.  Thank you, Rob, Jeff and Scott, wherever you are.

Fifth, figure out how you want to handle praise and criticism.  The first is critical for toddlers and small children but how are you going to begin balancing the two as she grows?  Boundless praise is meaningless and boundless criticism is fatal.  Ascertain the development norms for age levels and move from there.  Think about your style of delivering each and what you and your partner provide.  My kids learned that if they really wanted to parse performance for constructive criticism, the go-to person was my wife.  I, on the other hand, actually gave at least one of my kids a rousing comment of Don’t Suck before games.

Sixth, pay attention to the guidance and course suggestions that she will receive from school, especially as she ages.  Parents and teachers are natural allies but systems are built to serve the large majority of students and there are liable to be instances in which she is not part of that majority and will not be served by the recommendations.  Pay attention to what she brings home and listen to what she’s saying, then don’t be shy about calling to verify what you’re hearing.  Kids commonly mangle what they’ve been told but there can be circumstances in which they are absolutely correct.  This will come into play with course selections and loads when she’s older.  Fortunately, our experiences have been positive and the administration has been willing to work with us on multiple occasions.

But it wouldn’t have if we had missed the occasions.

Seventh, let her fail and hold her accountable for failure.  Be clear about your expectations and then do your best to hold her accountable.  It’s an immensely tricky and subjective topic:  Are my expectations reasonable?  Are the repercussions reasonable?  Are there legitimate mitigating circumstances?  How do you respond if you mishandle it (and believe me, I have done that)?  The corollary is that you should be willing to share some of your own screw-ups.  There is plenty of commentary about developing resiliency in kids but I think that the most critical element is learning that mistakes need not be terminal and that they can be overcome.

Finally, just because you believe that you are deficient in something doesn’t mean that she will be.  Part of the joy – the adventure – of being a parent is watching your child develop into the adult that she becomes.  If she comes to you with the wish to do something with which you are aren’t familiar, or just dislike, don’t automatically dismiss it.  If possible, find an opportunity to let her experience that thing with someone who is both capable and trustworthy.

I’m sure that you’ll come up with other points after reading this, since this is truly only a point of departure.  But remember the takeaway:  you, more than anyone else, have the critical role in helping her ascertain her future path.  The capacity to fund it, fully or even partially, is irrelevant.  What matters is that through the next eighteen years of her life, you and your partner will be the ones to raise and guide her, who know the fullest extent of her capabilities and have her true best interests at heart.  And the best interest is this:  allowing her to enter adulthood as a productive and moral adult with the capacity to move ahead in her life.

After that, the rest is on her.

Notes on the Supply Chain

As the country leans into a lockdown and fear intensifies, there is another side-bar conversation about the strength and/or fragility of our supply chains.  Our out-sourcing of pharma and manufacturing has bitten us in profound ways but apart from ventilators and PPE, that is a step removed for many.  The immediate concern for most pertains to the food supply chain, which adds yet another layer of tension to an already fearful scenario.  Large numbers of people now enter the grocery store intent on finding what they can before they are potentially gob-smacked with someone’s aerosolized germs.  But what is notable about this grocery scenario and can we draw inferences for moving forward?

Yes, there are.

Let me start by explaining my background.  First, I have not only been the stay-at-home parent who has done the bulk of the shopping and cooking for that time, but I am also a data-driven economics geek.  My wife, BH, now takes a greater role than earlier and much on the generated lists now emanate from her facile mind.  But in the early years of toddlers and small children, this was predominantly my responsibility.

Where this merged with economics was in 2009-2010, in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis and deep recession.  At that moment, the Federal Reserve Chairman was Benjamin Bernanke and it was clear that The Powers That Be had advance notice of problems at his 2006 start; his area of academic expertise was in the errors of the 1929 Fed in responding to that year’s Depression.  Bernanke had argued that the Fed exacerbated the stock market collapse by failing to provide liquidity for the market as it  struggled.  His response, unproven and academic, was that the Fed should have provided as much liquidity as possible and the collapse in late 2008 provided the opportunity to test his theory by supplying liquidity via the first of multiple rounds of Quantitative Easing.  The debate, loud and rancorous on Economics and Finance blogs, was whether this untested theory would work or instead spark rounds of runaway inflation.  My own questions went to how this would affect my own family.  Because I was involved in the establishment of a local cost-of-living survey in my distant past and had spent time conferring with its national creators, I decided to lever this experience into the creation of a kitchen table project, the PracticalDad Price Index.

The Index kicked off in November 2010 and focused upon a market basket of 47 common grocery items.  My intent was to see what happened to the prices of this local basket as the QE program – and its successors – rolled through the economy.  It continued monthly until  personal circumstances dictated it’s ending in September 2016.  An offshoot of this focus upon pricing for almost six years was a new appreciation for the food supply chain.  It’s not typically notable unless something is wildly amiss, such as a run on toilet paper in a pandemic but over that span, there were distinct changes in the grocery supply chain as grocers and suppliers adjusted to the ongoing decline in purchasing power by a weakening American consumer.  What is notable about the supply chain?

First, the name itself is misleading.  We talk about the supply chain as though it was a singular monolithic entity with a single controller, but it isn’t.  The supply chain is a dynamic – almost organic – entity, involving the input of hundreds and thousands of retailers and suppliers in a geographically and economically diverse nation.  It evolves over time to respond to the data fed to it via market and economic research and the sheer volume of literally billions of transactions involving an untold number of products at different price points.  It is continually changing as grocers and producers meet consumer changes in spending power, habits and trends.  Some entities fail in bankruptcy or are taken over by competitors.  Others offer cheaper alternatives for sale to the consumer.  The point is that it can and does change in real time.  Personally, I don’t envision so much of a chain as the visible sinews and tendons of the economic body working both individually and collectively at the same time.  One sinew would be dairy and another produce, yet others involving meat sources and consumer non-durables such as health and beauty products.  Each sinew answers to distinct inputs and trends with the collective result of an economy reliably providing needed goods to the consumers.

Second, the supply chain is built to respond reliably within a certain timeframe BUT the pandemic has shortened that ruinously.  The inputs that drive the process are now wildly disordered and the processes are momentarily overwhelmed.  The consumer, already declining, has had a catastrophic loss of income.  Entire sectors of the economy are suddenly and completely closed.  There is an immense and out-sized need for certain items, particularly related to disinfectants and cleaners, that utterly outstrips the ability of those sinews to meet those needs.  There is concern that the food sinews will be compromised for fear of viral infection among those workers.  This doesn’t even touch upon toilet paper, the disappearance of which suggests that most Americans believe Covid-19 will completely deforest the continental United States.

It was reported this week that dairy farmers in some regions were forced to dump raw milk, an infuriating development when millions are suddenly unemployed and food banks increasingly stressed.  My original take was that it reflected a collapse in dairy pricing, as occurred during the 1929 Depression; in that period, farmers and herdsmen destroyed crops and dumped milk because it was the only way to bring supply into equilibrium with a break-even point that supported even minimal prices.  Another article explained the rationale behind the decision to dump and while immensely frustrating, it makes sense.  In the Great Depression, episodes of dumping only occurred after years of being mired amidst years of poverty that wouldn’t support even minimal prices.  This episode is founded again upon the concept of time; the inability of dairy producers to find the packaging that would allow the product to come to market to meet the suddenly soaring demand.  The supply chain is not built for and cannot adapt to a shortened time frame.

Third, the factor of time now also drives many of our shopping habits.  American workers and families have felt the pinch of demands upon time and this has carried over to the grocery shelves.  Many products are now processed in some way or pre-packaged with the intent of minimizing the time required to cook and serve.  The cost for such products however, is driven upwards because the much of the labor for preparation has been taken up into the manufacturing process.  In essence, time truly is money and it’s a trade-off that many Americans have made for decades.

Fourth, observations from recent grocery trips indicate several things.

  • The scarcest items are those that either require the least amount of household labor to prepare or require a higher amount of pre-market processing or travel in order to bring to the shelves.
  • The produce sections at the entrances of multiple groceries have been consistently well-stocked, except for lettuce (which is hilarious since my wife routinely reminds me that lettuce is mostly water and the least-vegetable vegetable on the planet).  I have been surprised to find that bananas and citrus are still plentiful although that might change as the travel network degrades.
  • Canned goods have been in persistently high demand for their long shelf life but they have remained available; this is liable to change if the virus depletes the workforce in the plants.  Likewise for canned soups, pastas and sauces, peanut butters and orange juice.  There are instances in which there are less popular types of canned vegetables or beans in greater quantity as people ignore them for the more commonly preferred types.
  • Non-dairy and specialty milks (Lactaid/soy and almond) have been depleted but there has been a reasonable supply of locally sourced standard milk (whole, 2%, non-fat).  Likewise for yogurts and cheeses.  Specialty yogurts requiring greater processing are depleted while simpler yogurts have been there in sufficient amounts.  Locally sourced and block cheeses are available while the shredded variety is more depleted.
  • The meat cases were sporadic.  I’d noted lesser amounts of ground beef and boneless/skinless chicken while there were still sufficient amounts of other meats.  This observation was confirmed on the grocer’s website with the note that price was higher and availability more limited but that this should remedy itself within the near future.  Eggs were in sufficient amounts but the price per dozen had almost doubled and the grocer noted that that should revert back to norm shortly.
  • Breads were completely out of whack as those products requiring further processing are in short supply:  Schmidt’s 647 loaves are a prime example.  Other popular standards were sold out and one local grocer was replacing them with simply store baked white bread loaves.  My experience with one of those was that it grew mold far more quickly than its commercial bakery opposite, indicating a lack of preservatives.
  • While there’s been consistently brisk movement in canned vegetables, I noted on occasions that the 19th century predecessor, glass jars of pickled vegetables, were almost untouched.

What are the takeaways moving forward?  I’m operating under the premise that this pandemic will come in waves, like it’s 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic, and is likely to last into 2021 before ending.

First, the supply chain will reassert itself and adapt to the new conditions of problematic supply/processing and fewer consumer dollars.  The gist will be to save dollars by shifting the labor cost back out of the factory and into the household.  For example, instead of spending money on highly specialized yogurts, consumers will opt instead to purchase the simpler variety and add their own fruit or flavoring.  Instead of spending on canned beans, consumers will opt to reassert their time in the kitchen by remembering to put dry beans in a pot of water the evening before cooking.  Food preparation will become a more deliberative and time intensive activity as it was for our great-grandparents and forebears.

Second, consciously or not, people will begin to expand their own food supply chains so that they aren’t reliant on a grocery store.  I expect a return to gardening with the rise of the Corona Garden, much as the Second World War saw the rise of the Victory Garden.  As stay-at-home orders have rolled out across the country, there has been a significant increase in seed sales as well as a near sell-out of chicks.  Communities are likely to follow their 1970s  predecessors and set aside lands for more community gardens for those who do not have sufficient personal space to support a garden.  Another example of this would be our joining a CSA last year for produce, cheese and eggs.

Expand your supply chain within the store itself.  Seek out alternative foods that are more plentiful than the standards and try them.  Middle is presently back in the household for the duration.  When he joined me the other week at the store, we were discussing his new appreciation for Indian and Halal and when we went to the small foreign food section, it was almost fully stocked with rices, sauces, spices and chickpeas.  And yeah, the guy did a creditable job on an Indian meal.  Think of it as an adventure if you’re an optimist and a you’ll eat it and you’ll like it experience if you’re a pessimist.

Third, take time to do more planning.  Consider your menu choices as you walk through the next one to two weeks and buy accordingly.  As a society, we will no longer have the money nor the inclination to meander through a grocery store browsing for the next great impulse buy.  I suspect that lingering will be a thing of the past in stores.

Finally, be mindful of others when you are shopping.  Our community’s church sponsored food bank noted a 360% increase in the number of families requesting food assistance over the course of a single week.  During non-growing periods, the food banks are going to be more dependent on canned and processed foods and those able to still get to the store will be in a better position to purchase fresher foods and cook for themselves.  Also consider essential workers and their families and leave the more easily prepared foods for them, because cooking isn’t likely to be on their agenda after a busy shift.

 

 

Declining Elders: You Should Probably Start Writing This Down…

To die of old age is a death rare, extraordinary, and singular…a privilege rarely seen.

– Montaigne, Of Age, 1575

Getting old isn’t for sissies.

– The PracticalDad’s grandmother (circa 1990)

You should probably start writing this down…

– BH, The PracticalDad’s wife (circa Autumn, 2014)

American Elderhood is terra incognita.  Our parents are living longer and yet the tide of financial assets to support them in their elderhood is ebbing, as is our own.  The structure of the family is imperceptibly changing as a result and it is up to us in the moment to figure out how to manage.  The model that we’ve known for the past three generations, retiring at a relatively early age and spending our later years with a degree of material comfort, is ending.  And it’s not just happening in the United States.  The general unrest in France is wholly rooted in the question of retirement funding and the unrest in Chile is partially rooted in anger at the status of retirement and pension funding.

Not only has the lifespan increased, but the causes and nature of death for Americans have changed as well.  At the turn of the 20th century, 120 years ago, the American lifespan was approximately 50 years and it has since risen to almost 80 years, with a few years differential by gender.  In that same span, the causes of death have shifted as well.  Back then, the top three causes of death for our elders were pneumonia/influenza, tuberculosis and GI infections whereas today, they have been supplanted by heart disease and cancer.  This doesn’t touch upon accidental death more than a century ago and the statistical rise of Alzheimer’s today; their elders died young enough that Alzheimer’s wasn’t a consideration whereas our elders won’t get offed when the family buggy is whacked by a train at an unmarked crossing.

Death was a quicker process back then and consequently, far less expensive.  Eldercare is challenging with a varied set of demands that range from assistance in ordering and managing medications to getting a declining Elder to appointments, and even attending the appointment with her.  Factor in the degradation of mental and/or emotional status that might accompany the decline and it can be highly problematic for both Elder and adult child.  My own parents were a microcosm of this disparity.  My father succumbed to a relatively short four-month course of cancer while my mother passed after a several year affliction with Alzheimer’s.  And it was early in that latter illness that BH made her suggestion:  You should probably write this down…

The suggestion was god-sent although it wound up being a far different thing at the end than at the outset.  It wasn’t a consideration for my father’s illness as his disease course was relatively fast and straightforward and he was in full possession of his faculties up to the moment of his death.  But contending with a lengthy and convoluted process like Alzheimer’s involved not just medical, but logistical and legal issues that made it the singularly most important tool in the endeavor, serving as a resource and stay against the confusion that arises out of contending with a stressful, prolonged and complex situation.  My exercise in this lasted for more than two and a half years and in the end comprised 63 typed, single-space pages with entries that only ended upon the day of her death.  But having done it and finally reflected upon it, there are some points that can be taken from the document and the process.

First, understand precisely what it is…and what it isn’t.  I referred to my notes as a journal at the outset and that, in retrospect, was a poor descriptor.  Journaling is now a practice in which someone engages to record their feelings and/or thoughts and is recommended for self-help and exploration.  Keeping notes for the process of Eldercare is wholly for informational purposes and you should expect that you will likely share at least a portion of the document with a sibling or spouse.  Full disclosure:  managing a parent with Alzheimer’s tinged with paranoid dementia led to instances of personal distress that are best left unrecorded for others.  To put it in terms of professional journalism, you are writing to cover the essential questions:  who, what, when, where, why and how.  If you are compelled to actually maintain a journal for reasons of self-care, keep it completely separate from the log notes and never mingle the two.

Second, decide if it’s even necessary and if so, whether it’s even the appropriate time to start the log notes.  It might not even be necessary, as in the case of my father.  But if you do deem it necessary to begin keeping log notes, there isn’t necessarily any hard and fast rule about when to begin.  It doesn’t just tick over automatically, such as the arrival of the first AARP magazine at age 50 or Medicare at age 65.  There should be a defining instance that drives the start of the process, and for the logkeeper, it will indeed be a process.  In my mother’s situation, it was a spate of mutually frustrating incidents for both my mother and I that led to my wife’s suggestion.  This was confirmed in conversation with my sister, who was also noting separate incidents.  Every entry that I made noted the date, except for the first entry which referenced an entire two month period followed by a synopsis of events.

Third, understand that this is something that perhaps shouldn’t be shared with the Elder.  Pride is a driving factor for many people and is especially so for an elderly parent who has raised you and saw you into your own adulthood.  It can be physically dangerous for them as they are unwilling to accept that their debility can pose significant risk, particularly in regards to the driver’s license.  Hell, I can attest to this in my own debility as my toddler grand-daughter will sometimes yell “Pop!  Cane!” if she sees that I don’t have it when we venture out somewhere.  Sweetpea, I love you to death, but please…do I have to?

The point is that while it is an invaluable tool for you, consider what their response would be were they to know.  I have met adult children who openly carry a notebook for the appointments and the elder is fully accepting.  In my mother’s case, her knowledge that I was taking prolific notes would have disastrously exploded in my face.

Fourth, establish ground rules on making entries.  What prompts an entry and what are your rules on maintaining it?  Mine had weeks between some entries just because there was nothing materially new to write.  If one daily phone call is just like another ad infinitum, what’s the point?  At other times, she simply refused to speak with me; there were a few instances when I made notes that I had at least attempted contact just for informational purposes.  But if there was a new thread of conversation, concern, allegation or news, then it was worthy of an entry.  Likewise, any interaction with another individual – doctor/nurse, lawyer, social worker – led to an entry just to help keep straight the growing cast of characters as well as their input.

The other two comments here are the need to stay current and disciplined in the process to minimize the confusion.  There were instances when I had to refer back to texts with wife and sibling to jog the memory, but that was the exception to the rule.  I also kept a small notebook in the glove compartment in the event that I needed to take a few notes after leaving her.  Finally, consider the depth of information that you are planning to retain.  I rarely wrote anything pertaining to exact medical findings – blood pressures, etc. – because that’s the purpose of the medical record.  If there was a material change in the physical or mental status and especially if it lead to some new circumstances, then I’d make the entry.  But I never saw the point of writing every last piece of data.

Fifth, expect to share this information with family.  When there are siblings involved, communication is critical to keep a bad situation from getting worse.  One of today’s boons is the technology that allows almost instant communication; texts were a lifeline with both my sibling and wife and there were occasions when we literally blew up the text feed.  But texts aren’t a great way to fully capture the gist of an extended conversation with the elder or a doctor/lawyer.  It wasn’t uncommon to follow a brief text with a lengthier email, followed by the log entry and towards the end, I simply did the log entry and then cut and pasted it into the necessary email.

It’s only been in the past two weeks that I’ve come to realize this:  Google Docs could have made my life much easier.  There are potentially thorny questions, such as who has administrative access and what are the family repercussions of limiting access; but with one sibling who was in lockstep agreement on where we were headed with our mother, it would have made life a bit easier.

Sixth, make certain that the information is backed up or printed.

If you’re a Philadelphia Eagle fan, you’re familiar with Coach Doug Pederson’s philosophy of the Next Man Up.  In the worst case scenario of your death, the document should serve as a reliable guide to what has occurred so far with your elder, making your successor’s work at least that much easier.

The last entry in my own log notes simply covers the final hours prior to Mom’s early morning demise.  There were separate notes for the logistical and legal activities that arose after the fact but it just seemed appropriate to keep them apart so they have no part of the log.  The binder then went into the bookcase and it wasn’t until many months later that I was able to read any part of it without anxiety or nausea.  There are a few entries from the month prior to her death that still affect me deeply.  But I have pulled it occasionally to read just to remind myself of certain things, and to see what can be taken from it for when my own family might be responsible for me.

And for the record, when the grand-daughter reminds me to take the cane, I take the cane.

 

 

 

So the Millennials Like Socialism…

It started as an online survey by victimsofcommunism.org and has wound its way through the media, news and social.  “It” is a survey result finding that approximately 70% of American Millennials (born between 1981 and 1996) would vote for a socialist candidate instead of a non-socialist.  It’s fed a breadth of spin-off articles breathlessly reporting the results as well as a slew of memes – many troll-created – mocking millennials.  This particular little meme crossed my Facebook feed several weeks ago.

My response?

Why so surprised?

If folks are surprised that upwards of 70% of millennials would support a socialist, then consider this percentage:  80% of millennials don’t expect to receive Social Security when they reach what we consider as retirement age.  I’m surprised that so many of the X, Boomer and Silent generations are so obtuse as to consider this news.  What Millennials have witnessed from their earliest youth is the Great Reversion, a thorough dismantling of benefits and privileges that were earned by and afforded to their elder generations:  income, education, health insurance, job opportunities…all of it.  Millennials are the first generation to be raised and come of age in this period, while their generational elders had at least some benefits of the preceding society and economy.

Maybe we need to first determine if Millennials are talking about the same Socialism as their elders.  Just remember this at the outset:  most individuals don’t reach a meaningful state of political awareness until at least their teens and what they witness during that period will largely shape their long-term political outlook.  So…what is Socialism?

There’s a distinct difference between what is meant by the two generational groups.  That the original survey came from victimsofcommunism.org is telling;  it is a non-profit organization created as an “educational and human rights foundation” (per their website) by unanimous Congressional action after the collapse of the Soviet Union.  The two principal nations – the Soviet Union and Communist China – billed themselves as Socialist and those most affected by their atrocities – including the generations of Americans who engaged in a sometimes deadly Cold War against them – will identify Socialism with the death and damage wrought by them.

Millennials view Socialism as something different however.  In the earliest years of the Millennial period, the Soviet Union was in decline and a distinct political resistance had formed in Poland.  When Millennials reached elementary school, the Berlin Wall fell and was followed within two years by the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.  The existential threat of totalitarian Socialism ceased and Millennials came of age without noting it as a meaningful factor in their lives.  As the earliest Millennials aged and were joined by their younger peers, they found a new brand of Socialism in the countries of Europe, later the European Union.  In many countries, there was free or minimally priced healthcare for the citizenry.  There was also heavily subsidized and reasonably priced higher education as well a network of state supported social programs that assisted citizens.  That these nations had free and democratic elections put a stake in the notion that Socialism, as experienced by their elders, was evil and deadly.

What Millennials hadn’t experienced, which their elders had, was determining how these programs were funded.  There’s an aphorism of uncertain origin:  if a person isn’t a socialist at 25, then he has no heart.  If he isn’t a conservative at 50, then he has no head.  Generations disagree with one another.  I once argued with my parents about taxes and drove my mother to a near-stroke by arguing that we should be willing and ready to pay our fair share of taxes; my father reminded her that I would soon be paying my own taxes as an adult and my attitude would probably change.  He was right and my willingness to yield my earnings to the government declined  dramatically when I was responsible for putting a roof over my own head.  But that dinner conversation was decades ago and despite graduating from college in the midst of a serious recession, my wife and I were privileged to enjoy the benefits of that period before Things Economic went seriously south.

How far south?

Far enough south that the youngest Millennials are through college and recognizing that the economic odds are stacked against them.  Think about it:  your hope for a middle-class life is dependent upon having some form of higher education yet obtaining that degree will leave you with an average student loan balance of $35,359.  If you land a job with health insurance, it’s increasingly likely to have a high deductible plan since more employers are shifting in that direction to offset the rising cost of having insurance whatsoever.  Fully 66% of all personal bankruptcy filings are attributable to the impact of medical bills, even with the presence of health insurance.  Housing is going to be costlier as the student debt load impacts your ability to save for a down payment to buy a house, yet the median rental cost has increased by almost 50% since 2001 (through 2015) while median household income has been static over that same period.  You will be responsible for your own eventual retirement via personal savings and expect that the Social Security net will be exhausted and closed.  And honestly, if persistent mass shootings in public venues and schools elicit nothing more than thoughts and prayers from those in power, can you actually believe that any meaningful assistance will be forthcoming that same group?

Millennials are learning how deceptive the American economic system has become.  It has been based for decades upon the notion that we are consumers with a crucial role as an economic driver first for the domestic, and later, for the global economy.  What we are experiencing is that we have instead become the consumed, fodder for the corporate predators who have gained a disproportionate level of control in society.

Yeah, it’s daunting.  If I were a Millennial, I would find it daunting.  So they will  band together as a voting bloc to push for a public response that helps them, much as their great-great-grandparents did when they elected FDR in a landslide over Herbert Hoover.  As the American Middle Class continues to erode, the Millennials are living the deterioration and are willing to forego a larger percentage of their present earnings in the expectation that their futures aren’t those of poverty and hopelessness.

One final comment.  I like Sam Elliott and if there is such a thing as reincarnation, I want to come back as his gloriously badass mustache.  But let’s do it homage by not taking it in vain on what is a meme likely created by trolls to sow further discord.  Take a moment to try to walk in the shoes of a Millennial and you’re liable to find that they can’t afford the kind with good arch support.

 

 

 

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