Maryland's middle class apprehensive about future

October 14, 1990|By Holly Selby

They have been coming one by one to see Debra Conaway: real estate agents, stockbrokers, financial consultants.

"They're coming in because they want more stable jobs," says the co-director of the career focus program at Maryland New Directions Inc. in Baltimore. "They see the way the market's going: They're anxious about the future."

Her clients are not alone.

As gasoline prices soar, huge banks announce layoffs and Congress grapples with the federal budget, people can be overheard in places from grocery stores to beauty salons expressing similar fears.

"Worried? Yeah, I'm worried," says Larry Kramer, a Baltimore father of one who recently lost his job as a real estate settlement officer. "I stand in the grocery stores and look up and down the aisles, and know I can't buy all this stuff."

At a veterans' center in West Baltimore, job security is a topic of continued debate, says counselor Courtlon Ward. "There seems to be somewhat of a little panic going on, and the insecurities, worries about jobs, translate into stress."

In beauty salons, where people flock to have hair done and spirits lifted, the talk often turns to discussions of house sales or gasoline prices.

"When you deal with people often, they know you. . . . They come and they talk," says Lola Jones, of Lola Inc. "Real estate is what I'm hearing mostly about. They've decided to remodel instead of move or redecorate instead of adding an extension. More people are looking into buying better used cars instead of new ones."

Similar thoughts echo at the bar in the Charles Village Pub on St. Paul Street.

"As a bartender, I can tell you people are genuinely concerned. Sales are definitely off across the board. People aren't eating out as much, and when they do they're talking about high prices," says co-owner Ralph Truitt.

For many, that talk is becoming action. After a free-spending decade in which the national debt soared and names like Donald Trump and Leona Helmsley became household words, the word "moderation" is becoming commonplace; the idea of saving has new appeal.

"People aren't saying, 'I'm not going on vacation'; they're saying, 'I might not go as far.' People aren't making radical changes in lifestyle. My sense is they're moderating," says Ralph Rafael, a Baltimore psychologist.

"What we are seeing is a change in attitudes," says Algin King, chairman of the marketing department at Towson State University.

"We had a period, starting in the late '70s, which had a very high premium placed on materialism: the 'what's in it for me and my family?' attitude characterized by the so-called yuppie generation. It was a time in which people enjoyed spending money.

"Without question that cycle is winding down."

Some foresee a time of middle-class uncertainty.

"This recession is accompanied by a lot of pressure on financial institutions," said Frank Levy, economist at the school of public affairs at the University of Maryland College Park. "They had built up in the '80s. Now they're cutting back.

"And the shrinkage in the financial institutions translates into white-collar layoffs, hitting close to home for many in the middle class.

"In addition, Washington, which has long been considered recession-proof, is facing government furloughs and cutbacks, adding to the anxiety."

But some see the changed attitudes as a combination of economics and the maturing of the Baby Boomer generation.

"We've all become more conservative," says Mary Chambers of Chase Fitzgerald & Company Inc., a mother of one.

"I think it's part uncertainty about the economic future and part age."

For Federal Hill resident Shelley Welsh, economic reality hit home last month when she was laid off by a development firm in the Baltimore-Washington area.

Although she bounced back by opening her own business, Liaison-Land Development Services, she says, it's a big change: "All of a sudden these days, you go from free-style to budget."

But her still-employed friends are increasingly money-conscious, too. Dinner parties at home have taken on new appeal, she says. "They feel as though they should cut back -- and just don't go out as much as they used to. They figure they can just save a little money."

And "at least three of my friends aren't happy with the jobs they're in, but they're not about to move. It's nice just to know that they have a paycheck," says Ms. Welsh.

From the affluent to the hard-hit, many are taking measures to save a little extra -- just in case.

"We're trying to keep expenses down. We're not eating out as often. We probably don't go to as many movies as we did, and I'm cutting down on out-of-town business trips," says Cato Carpenter, a securities analyst for Alex. Brown Inc.

Even those who shop for designer clothing have mastered the words "either/or."

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