These findings are particularly interesting when juxtaposed with a separate report from the Pew Economic Mobility project. That report, which examined economic and social mobility in 10 Western countries, found that Americans actually appear to have less control over their success in life than their counterparts do.
In particular, the educational attainment of a person’s parents — a factor usually determined before that person’s birth — seems to matter more for mobility in the United States.
“There is a stronger link between parental education and children’s economic, educational and socio-emotional outcomes than in any other country investigated,” the report says.
As Richard Wilkinson suggested in a recent TED Talk, if you want to live the American dream — and have greater control over your own likelihood of success — you should probably move to Denmark, where the poor have a better chance of moving up in the world.
It makes sense that old people would have more money than young people, because they have been working and saving longer. But this wealth gap is massive by historical standards. In 1984, old people were a mere 10 times richer than young people. Not only have old people gotten richer since then, but the median net worth of households headed by young people has declined considerably.
Households headed by adults ages 35 and younger had a median net worth of $3,662 in 2009. That marks a 68% decline in wealth, compared to that same age group 25 years earlier.
Over the same time frame, households headed by adults ages 65 years and older, have seen just the opposite. Their wealth rose 42%, to a median of $170,494.
It gets worse, for young people: “37% of the young households held zero or negative net worth in 2009, up from 19% in 1984.”
The fact that this gap is getting worse helps explain why so many older Americans don’t get it, when the young people complain. The amount of debt young Americans take on today is way higher than it used to be, the opportunities for class mobility are shrinking, and the life choices that worked for earlier generations looking to join the middle or upper classes (college and homeownership) have largely become massive rip-offs.
…It is the primary argument of the austerity pushers (and their allies, the deficit hawks) that young people should give in and accept that “we” can’t afford to sustain the fairer society that older Americans enjoyed. That argument would be more convincing if the current Bad Times were affecting everyone equally, instead of simply the already young and poor…
I don’t know why people seem to be confused on this point.
The main impetus behind the Occupy Wall Street protest seems to be that more and more middle classed folks are struggling to keep one step ahead of financial disaster. They’re doing all the ‘right’ things to have a good (not fabulous, just good) lifestyle, but the system that used to reward you for following the ‘rules’ (e.g. getting an education) is now screwing you over for doing the same things (e.g. massive student loan debt).
Meanwhile, the wealthiest 1% in this country keep doing better and better. And their cronies in the government keep doing all they can to ensure that the wealth gap keeps widening.
Yes, the college students at the protests and bloggers covering it may be privileged with regard to most of the world, but the context of the protest is not global (at least, not at the moment); it’s domestic. It’s about how incredibly unequal things are in this country. It’s pointing out that we are rapidly shifting from a multi-class society (poor, middle class, rich) to a two-class society (poor, rich). It’s pointing out the exponentially increased difficulty for have-nots to become haves these days.
The fact that more middle classed folks are feeling the pinch of unjust economic and corporate policies is important here. The very poor don’t have the numbers, resources, or political clout to mount an effective campaign against the powers-that-be—they need the working and middle classes to be involved too.
That’s why the Wall Street protestors are calling themselves “the 99%”, not “the bottom 10%” or “the middle 70%”.
I recognize the sentiment expressed in the postcard — the ever-present possibility that you’ll un-self-consciously mention something from your childhood and be met with gleefully horrified looks and giggles, and not know what’s so funny about shrugging and off-handedly saying, “I don’t know if I really need to see a movie about it, I’ve watched my relatives do it tons of times” when someone suggests watching the documentary Okie Noodling. It’s an extra little mental effort you have to expend as you navigate social encounters, trying to imagine whether something as small as honestly answering a simple question like what was your favorite food when you were a kid might open you up to ridicule. It’s not really the laughing itself, which is often good-natured and comes from people who do honestly like you, that’s so bothersome; it’s the realization that you still don’t know the cultural rules, and thus can’t necessarily protect yourself from being laughed at even if you wanted to — or….that you don’t know what it is you’re doing that makes you a redneck in other people’s eyes.
Though this post is specific to the author’s experiences as someone growing up poor and white in rural Oklahoma, I think the overall point applies to all people who’ve experienced class mobility. It is mentally taxing to evaluate whether something about you, your childhood, your family, would be interpreted by an outsider as a source of amusement or condescension, e.g. “ghetto”, “chav”, “wetback”, “redneck”.