This review originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator.
By Don Peck
Crown Publishing ($25)
Rejection letters were my postcards from the lost summer of ’92.
I’d graduated from the Harvard of the North into the teeth of a recession. No one was hiring. Everyone was firing. Baby Boomers hunkered down in their jobs. And freshly minted grads with bachelor’s degrees in political science and master’s degrees in journalism didn’t stand much of a chance.
All through that sunless and soggy summer, I made a daily trek to a job centre and then over to the library to read the help wanted ads in newspapers from near and far. I sent out a forest worth of resumes, got a sapling worth of rejection letters in return and joined the starting lineup of Team NEET (not in education, employment or training).
After four grinding months of fruitless searches and marinating in self-pity, I lowered my sights, pulled up my big boy pants and learned to say yes. I said yes to a job at the restaurant where I’d worked during high school. Yes to a string of freelance gigs where I earned about $2.50 an hour. Yes to a part-time job working weekend nights at a daily newspaper. And, a full year after graduation, yes to a job that launched what’s been a rewarding and durable career.
It’s been 19 years but that lost summer has left both an indelible mark on my psyche and empathy for 20-somethings who’ve been battered and bruised by the Great Recession.
The Millennial generation is sinking, warns author Don Peck, an award-winning reporter and features editor with The Atlantic. “Many twentysomethings will emerge from the Great Recession with their earning power permanently reduced, their confidence dimmed and their ideals profoundly changed.”
Making a bad situation worse is an ingrained sense of entitlement and a highly structured and scheduled childhood. Peck says the checklist generation has a serious lack of independence, entrepreneurialism and sense of perseverance. “Trained throughout childhood to disconnect performance from reward, and told repeatedly that they are destined for great things, many are quick to place blame elsewhere when something goes wrong and inclined to believe that bad situations will sort themselves out — or will be sorted out by parents or other helpers.”
But it’s not just 20-somethings who are struggling. The Great Recession has accelerated the sorting of winners and losers and the hollowing out of the middle class. A two-speed society is taking shape, with a highly educated professional class moving ahead and everyone else getting stuck in neutral or falling into reverse. In March of this year, the U.S. unemployment rate was 12 per cent for people with only a high school diploma, 4.5 per cent for college grads and 2 per cent for people with professional degrees.
A large, white and predominantly male underclass is forming along with a new politics of grievance. In growing numbers, women are the breadwinners in working-class and non-professional middle-class families. In the United States, men suffered roughly three-quarters of the eight million job losses in 2008 and 2009. In January of this year, 18.8 per cent of men in their prime working years didn’t have jobs. Fewer prime-age men have been employed than at any time since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking the statistic in 1948. As the male-dominated manufacturing sector shrinks, the female-dominated service sector grows.
“Joblessness corrodes marriages and makes divorce much more likely down the road,” says Peck, who was told by the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia that marriage is an increasingly fragile institution among couples without college degrees.
Peck calls chronic and all-consuming unemployment a pestilence that slowly eats away at people and families and becomes society’s most noxious ill.
“One of the largest long-term risks to society is that the norms of a very large class of people, in a very large number of places, are now changing in unhealthy ways.” A broad array of measures of family dysfunction are blinking red. The lives of moderately educated families increasingly mirror those of high-school dropouts, burdened with financial stress, job loss, partner conflict, single parenting and troubled children.
These pressures can prove to be fertile ground for discontent. South of the border, public views toward society’s more marginal members have hardened since the crash. “Proliferating signs of a turning inward and a narrowing of minds should not be surprising,” says Peck. “As hard times linger, they reliably produce resentment toward outsiders, suspicion of unfair treatment and zero-sum thinking. Frustration is typically strongest not among the most marginalized groups, but among the newly marginalized, those whose status and self-image have collapsed the most abruptly or are in the greatest danger of doing so.”
Peck says the Great Recession offers a preview of where our economy is headed and what’s in store for our communities. “While this preview is troubling, it is also clarifying. Many of the deepest economic trends that the recession has highlighted and temporarily sped up will take decades to fully play out. We can adapt successfully to them, if we start now.”
According to Peck, the key to building a stronger, more resilient economy and healthier society rests on smarter, more creative and decisive government actions and a renewed private commitment to civic responsibility and community life. “This was not a vanilla recession and vanilla responses will not end it,” says Peck.
To save and strengthen the middle class, Peck recommends a continued push for better schooling, clearer paths into careers for people who don’t immediately go to college or university, better access to affluent communities and dynamic cities and stronger support for low-wage workers.
Yet Peck says we tend to underestimate the costs and consequences of a lingering recession and overestimate the risks of aggressive action to jump-start the economy. We should expect little if any action from governments that have already closed the door on stimulus funding and are focused on reducing deficits through funding cuts.
“If we remain stuck in an economic climate in which stagnation and disappointment are the norms for large numbers, the most likely risks to our politics are not rogue leaders or an insurgent populist party. They are endless vacillation, low levels of public trust, and political options that are stunted by a poisonous atmosphere and heavy discontent.”