Ted Rall: Why I’m Pessimistic About Your Optimism

BreakingModern — Something jumped out at me while listening to a recent NPR profile on the Millennial generation: “Thirty-two percent [of Millennials] say they currently earn enough to lead the kind of life they want. And 53 percent say they don’t, but they think they will in the future,” Eileen Patten, a research analyst at the Pew Research Center, told the network.

“[Millennials] are optimistic about their financial futures,” said Patten.

This represents a big shift from my demographic cohorts, Generation X.

glass-half-full-ted-rallLike Millennials, Xers entered the job market during a long-term downslide in median wages and living standards punctuated by a deep recession. But we were pessimists. Unlike Millennials, we told pollsters — we were the first generation to do so — that we didn’t expect to live as well as our parents.

We still feel that way.

We feel that way about Millennials as well — we don’t think they’ll have as much of a (shrinking) shot at the American Dream as we did.

Unless there’s a seismic change in American politics or economic trends, Xer pessimists will probably be right. Millennials are wrong to be optimistic about their chances of finding a great job, earning a high salary, purchasing a home and being able to afford to send their children to a marquis college.

The reason is simple: capitalism’s tendency toward aggregation and monopolization. One percenters are making bank; as income inequality expands, everyone else is losing. Income inequality has pushed down median real wages since 1970. Meanwhile, living expenses — especially housing, fuel and college tuition — have skyrocketed at rates obscured by an inflation rate officially in the low single digits.

Don’t get me wrong: optimism is good. If you don’t think you can get ahead, you won’t bother to try. But it’s smarter to be realistic.

Researchers for the Urban Institute found that “Generations X and Y, meaning people up to about age 40, have amassed less wealth than their parents had when they were young,” reports The New York Times. “The average net worth of someone 29 to 37 has fallen 21% since 1983; the average net worth of someone 56 to 64 has more than doubled.

Thirty or 40 years from now, young Millennials might face shakier retirements than their parents. For the first time in modern memory, a whole generation might not prove wealthier than the one that preceded it.”

“My inclination is pessimism [about Millennials’ future prospects],” says Lisa Kahn, a labor economist at the Yale School of Management.

More dangerous than the mass psychosis denialism is a misguided optimism that lets one percenters off the hook. The good bad news is, young adults know things aren’t peachy keen now. The bad bad news is that, if they believe their futures are bright, and that all they have to do is wait out the current, temporary post-recession blues before the money starts rolling in, they won’t pressure stingy employers and uncaring politicians to pay them the salaries and create the social safety net they deserve and require in order to thrive.

Gen Xers aren’t much vested in the political system, but they’re old enough to remember unions and the role they played for more than a century in lifting living standards for Joe and Jane Average. If unions got their act together — for example, if they were to organize coders and other tech workers — many Xers would sign up.

Not so for Millennials. They’re too young to know what workers have lost. The only chance they as a generation, or America overall — because political unrest always originates with young adults — has to reverse the flow of power, influence and cash into the pockets of a tiny, highly insulated elite is for them to get seriously pissed off and take to the streets.

That won’t happen as long they keep feeling good about the future.

Exclusively for Bmod, I’m Ted Rall.

Image: Jenny Downing (glass half-full) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Ted Rall

Author: Ted Rall

Based in New York, Ted Rall is an award-winning political cartoonist, essayist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. He covers news, justice, music and privacy for BreakingModern. Follow him @TedRall.

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1 Comment

  1. Come on Ted,

    Xers were the first generation to see the writing on their children’s future wall but slaved on because of the cultural cocaine of the “American Dream” that was still sufficiently available to them … M’ers don’t want to see it now because they much prefer denial, after all, the alternative of slitting one’s wrists and watching the juice escape is so depressing!

    Xers ultimately became “safe-haven” cowards with two car garages and heavily taxed, government pension checks. Ultimately, M’ers have a much greater chance of transforming into impoverished revolutionaries, mostly because there really is no part of any pie left in America to get a piece of. In the end, its their prospective winter-of-discontent that makes the reality of mass incarceration FEMA camps currently mothballed across the nation a covert national fact.

    Human dieoff baby (in the billions), that’s what the globe’s inbred elites see as the planet’s long-term savior. So in the long term, who wins? Most always, it’s the people who took time to create a plan.


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