Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The American Dream Legend by Margaret Gullette

In the United States, the legend of the American Dream – open to all – actually becomes more significant as larger numbers of people go into economic free fall. The gap between what people might hope and what they are likely to get grows vast. Margaret Mead described what is required when social change goes wrong –feels too fast, too intense, too generationally divided, when the systems become brittle and individuals less secure. “The idea of progress, which provides a rationale for the unstable situation, makes it bearable.” Just before the 2008 election, as the gap grew week by week, nobody said the rhetoric about the American dream was a wicked lie. It was a necessary hope. It made possible and electoral success that few had initially deemed possible. “Change we can really believe in” really mean “Progress we can believe in.”

Yet the requisites for believing in life-course progress after youth have become more elusive in the U.S. over the last thirty years, as the country began to produce less, unionization declined, wages stagnated, and income inequality grew. Layoffs first appeared as a mass phenomena, absent a Depression, for the first time over two decades ago. And the highest rates of displacement in the 1990s occurred among midlife segments of the population. Unemployment is terrible for anyone, but many younger people find jobs quickly when the economy picks up, while many midlife people remain left out of improvements in the business cycle. Even if age discrimination is not the cause of a job loss, midlife discrimination can be a problem when looking for the next position. It bears repeating: Displacement among workers in their fifties and sixties often results in lower wages or lasting unemployment. Some are forced out of paid work altogether.

Seniority is the reason than any American can still acquire life-course benefits like respect as we age into our middle years and past retirement. It is not our own merits per se but the existence of a system of age-graded benefits that enables many of us to climb the ladder of income –up to a point- as we climb the ladder of years. But the United States, the richest empire in the history of the world, has been weakening seniority in frightening ways since he 1980s. The Bush administration decimated a well-established system by denying union protections to employees of the Department of Homeland Security, who amounted to one out of twelve government employees. The Supreme Court has weakened the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. The academy is weakening tenure: between 1975 and 1996, colleges saw a 12 percent drop in professors hired with the possibility of tenure, and a 92 percent jump in positions without the possibility of tenure. As business weakens seniority through downsizing, outsourcing, and clawbacks from unions, forces of de-professionalization are ending it tacitly through losses of authority that affect everyone from judges ( mandatory sentencing) to Doctors (HMOs).

The ‘midlife crisis” may have seemed like a hiccup in life-course storytelling when it was first named decades ago, but this innocuous, privatized, misleading term has turned out to disguise a vast national crisis. The degradation of work in America – longer hours, shorter tenure in contract jobs, fewer benefits, high and widespread unemployment, eroded or non-existent pensions – along with the cult of youth, are undermining the security and income support on which self-continuity and progress depend in midlife and beyond. Economic security is the truth offered to more and more Americans, at younger and younger ages, starting earlier for the disadvantaged. “Late capitalism fills young people with ambition and aspiration which by definition can only be enjoyed by the fortunate few,” Mark Brand writes in The Possibility of Progress.

Young people may have reasonable, class-based aspirations, but once the majority age past youth, hope for growing material success, more autonomy, efficacy, responsibility, trust –everything good in older Americans’ life-course stories seems less and less in their control. Too often, the only prospective narrative that makes sense is decline.

Adults too need help in maintaining their progress narratives, but it will not come from anti-aging products or blind faith in change. Governments, law, and market forces structure the conditions in which each of us writes our life-course narrative - conditions not entirely of our own making. These help some and deprive or neglect others. Whose progress is it?

Whoever acts privately on the preferential options for the poor – whether in Nicaragua, low-income areas of the U.S.A., or anywhere else in the world – is compensating for some basic government neglect or active government harm. Housing, clean water, health care, jobs –most governments in the world don’t provide them. They’re governing in name only. They have a flag and an army. Globalization means that more nation-states can’t do it: they are being ground deeper into poverty through debt repayment, exploitation, or resource extraction by multinational corporations and inhuman cuts to health and education via the International Monetary Fund. Even for children, such governments provided only in the barest way. Unless an international outcry focuses on subcategories of adults – people with AIDS, say, or the famine-stricken – neoliberalism finds a way to justify abandonment, arguing that self-reliance is the highest good (except for the rich), that grown-ups need to pay for what they get, that NGOs helping them ought quickly to become self-financing. The good work of activists almost always has this other face leering out at it – not a sad or remorseful face, which might be some comfort – but a malicious, blind or hypocritical face.

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