The American Dream turns nightmarish

August 31, 1993|By Stephen Franklin | Stephen Franklin,Chicago Tribune

How does this lament strike you?

Our pay raises are zilch, and our job security is history.

Our bank accounts are skimpy. Our debts are hefty, and our dreams of buying a first house or a bigger house or affording the kids' college bills are mirages.

We got the right degrees. We worked hard. We played by the rules. But our days are not the sunny ones we or our parents expected.

If you are nodding in agreement, then you belong to the generation of disgruntled baby boomers who, according to Katherine Newman, will be the first since the Great Depression not to do better financially than their parents.

There is nothing new about the realization that the American dream began to turn sour for millions in the 1980s. Liberal economists and sociologists began pointing to the problem as thousands of high-paying factory jobs disappeared in the last decade.

The tolling of the nation's economic stall eventually was picked up by political analysts, including one-time Republican strategist Kevin Phillips, who spoke of the potent rage of the financially unfulfilled middle class in his book earlier this year, "Boiling Point."

Dr. Newman, an anthropologist at Columbia University, adds a description of how disgruntled middle-class Americans have let their economic woes color their personal views of the world.

Her most striking observation is that the boomers' unique disappointment may lead to harsh political confrontations in the 1990s, greater intolerance for the less fortunate and an unraveling of the "unspoken social contract that glues America together."

While her definition of the problem is correct, there are problems with focus -- and this creates a somewhat flawed picture. In some cases, the economic situation is not as bad, and in others, it is far worse than she says.

There is little mention, for example, of the children of recent immigrants, the children of Asian, Latino and Arab families who have made great economic strides. Nor is there much accounting of the vast economic success seen by black middle-class Americans.

Similarly, the growing ranks of the nation's working poor, and the unskilled black lower classes trapped in cities bereft of well-paying jobs, are ghosts in this sweeping portrait. They are mostly absent because they do not live in the world Dr. Newman explored: an older New Jersey suburb that expanded with the arrival of World War II veterans and blue-collar families and is largely restricted by the explosion in housing costs to white, better-educated, white-collar professionals.

Nonetheless, Dr. Newman, whose work is based on more than 150 interviews during two years, offers an insightful analysis of what daily living has come to feel like in thousands of places where life might seem to outsiders like heaven on Earth.

Life in this anonymous suburb, which she has dubbed "Pleasanton," seems palpably unfair to some, however. Here is what one woman says:

"My father was an elevator operator all his life. My husband is a teacher. I would have thought right away of course we could afford to live in Pleasanton. We have better jobs. But we couldn't. There is no way we could live there. I really couldn't believe that I couldn't live in the town that I grew up in. I don't know what it says."

But the boomers' problems go beyond affordable housing. There is the dilemma, Dr. Newman writes, of the "moral mothers": Boomer women were raised to believe mothers hold families together, she says. But boomer wives nowadays also want a career, and, in many cases, need one to keep their families going. This conflict, Dr. Newman, gnaws at boomer wives.

Then there are the generation gaps, which, according to the author, are deep and angering. The boomers' parents can't understand why their children cannot do better. Older boomers, touched by the counterculture 1960s, wonder what life is all about. Younger boomers, touched by the Reagan years, wonder when they can get theirs.

One of the fruits of the boomers' frustrations, says Dr. Newman, is a furor toward welfare families, the unemployed and recent immigrants who rise right to the top. Financially squeezed boomers are likely to retreat, she warns, into political pigeonholes, looking for quick salvation from their woes.

What a dismaying vision. What a way -- if ever such a sweeping vision comes true -- to end what once was billed as the "American century."

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Declining Fortunes: The Withering of the American Dream"

Author: Katherine Newman

Publisher: Basic Books

Length, price: 257 pages, $23

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