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Economic Stress – A New Normal for America in the 21st Century

By Dr. Robert Brown

When I finished graduate school in 2000, earning a Ph.D., I really felt that this would help to solidify job security and begin the journey to greater economic stability and growth. I knew that this shiny new tool would not be a one size fits all solution but it would certainly help a great deal. What I also had working for me was that my sense of self-empowerment had really gotten a boost from the challenges associated with pursuing and completing a doctoral program, from the financial burdens to significant levels of social isolation, which are often experienced when writing the dissertation. Even with this new sack of knowledge, I made the commitment to be a life-long learner and forged my way back into the world of work.

I knew that full-time academia was not for me, which is the route that many with terminal degrees pursue. I also knew that I wanted to be more autonomous than just working a nine to five. But, I was raised to go to school, get good grades, so that I could get a good job, which would increase my chances of gaining access to the American Dream, which is reliable job security, a home and a decent life, right?

What happened in the ensuing years were several jobs that came and went but no real momentum. Most of the work that I found did not require a Ph.D. with the exception of the adjunct positions that I have held. The truth was I was not getting a real return on the investment of an advanced degree. This was compounded by several layoffs during this period which broke my economic momentum. Given a choice of making a six-figure salary sporadically, compared to making $45,000 consistently, one quickly sees that economic growth is not possible without a steady paycheck. What began to happen was being in a position of feast or famine. On recovery from a layoff in 2003, I found work in the spring of 2004 and I remained in and advanced in the position until the end of 2006. During that time, I purchased my first home. This was supposed to be the culmination of the American Dream, or was it? In hindsight, the timing of my purchase was during the height of a real estate bubble that was absolutely in favor of sellers.

From 2003 to 2007, escalation clauses were a common feature of bids to purchase homes. So, if a home cost $250,000, a potential buyer might offer $269,000. It was also a time of interest only loans, with adjustable rate mortgages (ARMs), meaning that a buyer only had to pay interest and not principle. This typically lasted for five years which was followed by a sonic boom when principle and interest merged into one big and often unmanageable mortgage payment. As horrible as this has been for millions of homeowners around the country, another, more ominous storm has settled over the American landscape. Job security has become a thing of the past. It doesn’t matter what you do, how competent you are, how long you’ve done it, or your level of education. These attributes are being dwarfed by increasing numbers of layoffs, cutbacks, downsizings, mergers and outsourcing to other countries. My decision to buy a home was driven, principally, to get greater economic footing, or so I thought…

I closed on my first home on September 30, 2005. I remember the day vividly. About two or three days before closing, I had a constant headache… the stress of it all, I suppose. Once all of the documents were signed, I remember going to my new home, walking up to my new master bedroom and falling asleep on the carpet. It was a triumphant moment. Now, it was time to start paying for it!

My days would begin at 3:30 a.m. I lived an hour from Washington, DC by car, with no traffic, which is where I worked. I took a commuter train to the city, started the work day at 7:00 a.m., finished it at 3:30 p.m., and got back home around 6:30 p.m. That left three to four hours to eat, try to relax and prepare for the next day. It’s amazing how quickly your personal time flies during the week. By the end of the week, I was exhausted. And on weekends, I attempted to catch up on all of the things that I could not do during the week because I was, of course, going to work, at work, or coming home from work. I was making a decent salary but my quality of living was beginning to suffer. I had little time for anything else but work. On a particularly cold morning in February 2006, I recall the following:

The temperature was about 20 degrees with a 10 degree wind chill. I was up and functioning at my usual 3:30 a.m. to prepare for another work day. I would typically catch the bus to the MARC commuter train station but the previous week had been especially cold, not atypical for the second month of the year. As I looked at the news and weather, it was clear that I was not going to walk to the bus stop so I got in my car and drove the 10 minutes to the train station. Fortunately, the traffic was fairly light. But, in the age of greater traffic unpredictability and congestion, you never know what you might encounter.

On this day, I was early enough to ward off that creeping feeling of stress of another day of work by just being able to be still, if just for a few moments. I sat in my car wondering what the day would bring as I listened to music that was turned down low. As I wondered, I began to notice people hurriedly walking to the train platform. It was rather cold but what struck me was that each person seemed to be walking the same. It was as if they were not in full control of their bodies but were being compelled, by some force, to walk to the same place. Even more curious was that each person, men and women, seemed to walk with the gait of the emperor penguin, a rather large species of this bird that moves from left to right as it steps forward. I found the moment to be rather humorous and then I returned to my thoughts about the day. A minute or so later I heard the train whistle and prepared to bundle up. I got out of my car, locked it and quickly walked to the exact spot on the train platform to ensure that I got my favorite seat. I sat down, opened my book to the last page that I had read, the train slowly pulled out of the station and then, it hit me… I, too, was one of the people that looked like an emperor penguin!! That’s when it stopped being funny.

As the train made the hour and forty-five minute journey to the Nation’s Capital, a heaviness settled on me that I fully understood but I did not want to accept. After working since I was 16, the only thing I really had to show for this length of time was that I had worked nearly thirty years. I went to school, I got good grades so that I could get a good education, so that I could get a good job and have access to the “American Dream.” I was firmly entrenched in the nine to five world of work, which was getting me nowhere. The sobering irony was that with the highest degree that can be earned, I was experiencing the worst job instability of my entire life…

The lack of consistent work is a major source of economic stress for millions of Americans which is compounded by long commutes, increased work demands, toxic work environments, reduced pay and benefits and perhaps worst of all, no options for other employment opportunities. This kind of instability does several things. First, it disrupts the flow of income and/or any momentum that a person or family needs to live, not merely survive. Second, it could cause one to second guess their abilities and competence in the work place because fear and doubt may have intruded. Third is the revelation that a requisite for economic stability in the 21st century is generating multiple streams of income rather than just one, which is what baby boomers i.e., those born between 1946 and 1964, especially, have come to know. Fourth is understanding that your training, education and what you do for a living represent some of the tools in your toolbox but not all of them. What is your passion? What grand idea have you put off because you created the “story” that it is unrealistic or there is no time in your day to pursue it? What would you do for free to help others? What brings you joy? These are the kinds of questions that experiencing economic stress can force you to answer, which is a great thing.

You may have always known that your true calling is beyond the confines of a cubicle, an office or one location. It could be that your passions take you to a variety of settings, interacting with a variety of people, from different walks of life, cultures, experiences and professions. What you may need to consider is whether the life that you have prepared for is the life that you believe, deep in your soul, you should be living. If the two don’t match, you have the power to make a change but the choice, as always, remains yours. Choose well and stay tuned for more on economic stress.

Dr. Robert Brown

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