Down and out on the fast track

Dan Rodricks

July 15, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

What do we do with Mike? The resume describes him as "a hands-on creative leader with 20 years of diversified advertising, marketing and sales promotion experience with regional, national and international clients." He's a smart guy, savvy to the ways of the commercial world, and ready to be a "hands-on creative leader," even if that means working for half the $60,000 (plus bonus, plus stock participation) he used to get as an advertising executive in Baltimore and Washington.

He's been on the bench for a year, collecting unemployment, picking up some free-lance work to pay the rent. He's 54 years old and lives alone.

"Good thing my kids are grown," he says. "I can't find a job. I can not find a job. I've got resumes all over the place. The last interview I went to was for a job that paid $32,000. I said I'd take it. They said I was overqualified. That myth of 'overqualification' kills me. And then they say that if they hire me at $32,000, when the economy turns up, I'll go looking for a job that pays at my old level."

Which makes sense.

Except that Mike doesn't believe the $60,000-a-year job is coming back.

"We all know that this recession is very different," a Reagan revolutionary said with the Sununu-style smugness that seems endemic to the species. "Something very different has happened here. And we had better all adjust."

Well, not "all" of us.

Some Americans will do better than others through this recession, and the adjustments they face will be minimal -- a Lexus this year, instead of a new Mercedes, for instance.

Others, like Mike, will have to figure out what to do for a new career.

"My job is gone and I don't think it's coming back," he said over a sandwich at Henry & Jeff's the other day.

While this nation struggles to make its greatest readjustment -- from a Cold War military-industrial economy buoyed by sporadic real estate booms to a more complex economy of international consumer markets, service jobs and new industries of high-tech nature -- the adjustment seems to be taking forever. There has been almost no national leadership for the transition.

Guys like Mike have been caught in the No-Man's Land, rendered idle in a system that has not learned how to grow in new directions.

More than a decade ago, Jimmy Carter was faulted for delivering his notorious "malaise" speech. Ronald Reagan, appearing as President Sunshine in "Morning In America," was chief beneficiary of Carter's public relations blunder. He knew better than to discuss misery in public. He knew the nation was confused about its economic future and that, in its confusion, the last thing it wanted to be told was the truth: We had some major retooling to do.

Poor ol' in-over-his-head Carter was on to something, and we all know it. The U.S. economy was undergoing dramatic changes, rusting where it used to shine. We saw it all transpire before our eyes. We lived through it. For the first time in the American experience, a generation of men and women started to believe they would not live better than their parents. And they came to believe that, even as the Reagan revolution created unprecedented wealth. Underneath the glitter was a fear we did not want to face -- that we had coasted through the 1980s, that we hadn't prepared for the future, that we had lived almost apocalyptically, as if there were no tomorrow.

Tomorrow is here.

And the unshaken Reagan revolutionaries, disciples of the status quo, sneer at the suggestion their man's economic policies failed the nation. They tell us we'll just have to adjust to a more modest way of life.

"We all know," I was told by one, "that things are just not going to be the same."

For the Reagan revolutionaries, true-believers through three elections and still holding fast to the old voodoo, the problem with the country remains the "confiscatory" tax-and-spend policies of liberal Democrats.

The excesses and corruptions of the Reagan revolution? The opening of the greatest gap ever between rich and poor? The long delay in making the great sweeping adjustment from a Cold War industrial nation? The Get Mine Now attitude that came to be the legend of the 1980s?

Tut, tut. It's all a matter of adjustment, I'm told. The working classes, the middle class, ought to get used to the idea. Things are not going to be as they briefly were. The poor will always be with us. Some of the best jobs are gone forever. And that's life.

"Well, in that case," Mike said, "I guess I'll soon be sending you the address for the park bench I'll be sleeping on."

Or, to be more optimistic, next time at Henry & Jeff's, maybe he'll be making the sandwiches instead of eating them.

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