american dream vs. american myth


Back in 2002, when she was 46, my mother was laid off after nearly 25 years with the same manufacturing company (she managed the office) in New Hampshire. Despite the fact that she didn't have a college degree, she was earning around $50,000 a year after having been with the company for so long. She had thought she would retire there. After the layoff, it took her about 6 months to find a new job that paid just $11/hour. Behind on her mortgage payments and without a partner to share expenses, she sold the house I grew up in (a tiny 2 bedroom ranch in a working class NH neighborhood) and moved into an apartment with roommates she didn't know. Everywhere she looked, employers were demanding Bachelor's degrees for administrative, receptionist, and customer service positions paying $10/hr. However, she's also heard from some other employers that her years of experience, including some at the management level, make her "overqualified" for these entry-level positions. It seems she can't win: no college degree, but too much experience; she was older (and probably better qualified) than many of the young managers who interviewed her. She doesn't have the luxury (of time or money) to go back to school and earn a degree; by the time she'd finish, she'd be almost 60.
In the years since then, my mom has changed jobs about 3 times in an effort to reclaim some of her lost income, and now earns almost $15/hr, or around $28,000/yr. She continues to look for better-paying work or positions with better benefits (like dental care, which she has gone without for the past 7 years), she now faces the added difficulty of recruiters accusing her of "job-hopping" because of the last few years of desperately changing jobs any time she had a chance to make an extra dollar or two an hour. She was able to move into a tiny apartment of her own, roommate-free, which was a small improvement. She continues to struggle to make ends meet each week, working overtime but still barely getting by. $28,000 may sound like a lot to some people, but when you consider she must pay rent, utilities, food, gas, repairs, insurance, etc., all on her own, it doesn't go very far. And it certainly doesn't cover ANY extras like movies, drinks or dinners out with friends, hobbies, vacations... let alone saving for retirement. She currently has $0 saved for the future.
In early 2008, the exact same thing happened to my father, who found himself in a very similar situation. Luckily, he is married to a nurse with a good income, so the repercussions were not as harsh. But he, too, went from making around $50,000 to less than $30,000, and it looks like it's going to stay that way.
In my opinion, the American Dream is a crock. I'm working on my Master's Degree in Social Work, and this is only becoming clearer to me. I wish I could get my mom to agree. The American Dream did a number on her. She feels 100% responsible for her entire situation and spends her nights worrying and wondering what she could have done better. There's nothing I can do to convince her that this is a societal problem, that she isn't the only one, that she doesn't deserve to live a life that consists only of a dead-end, stressful, underpaying job and television. This is America, the myth goes, and in America we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, make lemonade out of lemons, etc. etc. etc. She grew up believing in this myth, like so many others of her generation (and mine). That myth, not the layoff and subsequent hardships, is what's really made it tough for her these past seven years.

1 comment:

C Petrich, New York NY said...

So many stories. Mine began in 1979, when I was laid off as a photographer working for city government. After 10 years in business for myself, I was forced out by the big box portrait studios.

I retrained as a computer programmer, which took a year (with a wife and 4 small children), while I worked part time and my wife worked full time. I then worked for free for the school district for 4 months before a new director said, "Who are you? Do you want to work for me?"

Thirteen years later I was laid off. That was 2003. I went back to school for retraining as a Database Administrator, and then spent 2 years in contract positions that lasted 4 to 6 weeks. By this time I was 55. I found a 2 year stint as a programmer, was laid off, then found a spot as a DBA, was laid off 6 months later.

That took me to 58 years old. All the while I'm read up on whatever I can and retraining, this time as a Business Intelligence specialist. I found a spot working as such, and now, 6 years later, I'm finally back to about where I was before the school district let me go.

In all that time, we raised our girls, sent them to college, taught them how to get by themselves, travelled nowhere, stayed in our tiny house, hoping to hell we could keep our noses above water.

We are haunted by the uncertainties we came to know. We have kept our debt relatively low, but we have no savings. I'm 60 years old and expect to work another 10 years.

And now this recession, fueled by greed and fanned by political intrigue and congressional incompetence, is eroding the foundation of our future.

This is insane.

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