Every morning the men went to work. All of them. By car, by commuter train, by bus. In that blissful dawn everyone had a job. It was part of the victory dividend and it was the way of my world.
My father left the house by 6 a.m., sometimes earlier. He had to make rounds at the hospital and, several days a week perform surgery. Office hours started around 8 and then teaching and lab time in the afternoon. He didn’t come back through the door until six pm and even that was sporadic. Several nights a month there were county medical society meetings to attend.
Naval Reserve duty accounted for another few evenings. The Navy had put him through medical school during the War and after it was over he stayed connected to the service, re-upping for reserve duty. He had risen up the ratings and Lt. Commander Goldfarb, who to my certain knowledge had never been to sea on a naval vessel, found his monthly stipend for providing medical services to genuine sailors and their wives at the Philadelphia Naval Yard very useful.
The rolling river of America’s Calamity has many tributaries but its headwaters are to be found in the changes to work and how it is valued.
History through data is not always the best way to learn about the past but to understand America’s slide to calamity a few numbers are very useful. In America, in the “fabulous 50s” and “soaraway 60s,” when I was a kid, the unemployment rate averaged around 4.7 percent. There were unemployment spikes during the four short, sharp recessions that occurred in those two decades but many years the unemployment rate was under 4 percent.
The pull upwards on that figure came from the African-American community, where unemployment is always higher. But in that blissful time of the 50s and 60s even the African-American unemployment rate was in single figures. It has been in double digits since the 1970’s.
The most apposite number to describe the employment situation is this: around 98 percent of men in their mid-20s to mid-40s—my father and his friends’ ages—worked full time.
And the jobs were full-fat, 40 hours a week, plus overtime. Gigs were for jazz musicians.
Women also worked. Until they got married and pregnant. Then the women stayed home. They had to. The population of the US would rise by 18.6 percent in the first decade of my life and it wasn’t immigration that was driving that growth. Babies, babies everywhere.
But even in the midst of the baby boom women worked. In 1960, 36 percent of women in child-rearing primetime, early to mid-thirties—my mother’s age—participated in the labor force. In 2015 that figure was closer to 80 percent. That is probably the greatest social change in my lifetime.
Most of my father’s friends were self-employed. Many were professional men like him, or owned businesses and business always seemed good.
They were confident and cocky. It wasn’t just the war. All these men had grown up in the Depression. They had a sense that the door was wide open to something much better and they were very happy to step through it.
Some, like my father, had grown up middle class during those hard times. But his best friend, Jerry, had grown up very poor in Brooklyn. “Mike,” he said one evening, when he and his wife, Elaine, were over for cake and coffee, “most of the guys I grew up with became criminals. I could have been one of them but I couldn’t do that to my parents.”
But Jerry was, without doubt, still a hustler. The war changed his trajectory. The GI bill put him through college. He earned a degree in electrical engineering. But he never lost the street patter. Soon he was a sales engineer for a major manufacturer of televisions and radios and then he struck out on his own, middle-manning electrical supplies from Asia, and then he diversified his interests and invested in other start-up electronics companies and never seemed to suffer a reverse.
“The luckiest Jew in the world,” my father would say after Jerry cleaned him out at the fortnightly poker games that rotated around our suburb, Penn Valley, or when the man came back from sales conventions in Las Vegas or the Caribbean, pockets bulging with his winnings.
There was another friend, who was also rescued from depression poverty by the war. Cap’n Joe, was not a real captain but he had been a real US Army Ranger. He had been up Pointe du Hoc on D-day. Not a lot of Jewish boys could make that claim, so he got much respect from the adults in my life. Cap’n Joe made connections in the army who helped him set up a huge army surplus business. He too had the street patter, he too had great success.
Memory can’t always be explored or explained through the five senses. A scene from that time: a backyard on a summer evening, a barbecue, the kids playing catch or roughhousing, the men laughing, the women laughing as well, each over different things. Through my sense memory I could tell you the color of the sky, the feel of heat, the itch of freshly cut grass on my naked shin, the smell of burning meat (nobody could barbecue) the sound of the laughter but none of this would tell you what the memory is. The memory is confidence. That this moment in life after the depression, after the war, after the anti-semitism—because the blood of six million European Jews had bought a respite from hatred unparalleled in Jewish history—this moment was heaven. And the adults were enjoying this world for all it was worth.
Life wasn’t perfect. Businesses went bust or had bad years. But it wasn’t a general condition. And there was always the sense that you could get back on your feet quickly. Money was there.
It was there to be made if you wanted to make it and wages had purchasing power. They had to. Credit cards were only just coming into general use. The American economy ticked over based on people’s real earnings, not credit.
Diner’s Club was launched the year I was born. The year we moved to the suburbs, Bank Americard, a credit card issued in California, the big suburb, came into being. The year I got my driver’s licence, 1966, came Mastercard.
The credit card had genuine utility: Banks and businesses in one state often didn’t cash checks from another state. If you were on business out of state and ran out of money, that was tough luck. As Americans took to the ever growing Interstate Highway system in greater numbers for business and for pleasure, the ability to pay with plastic was a huge help.
Then the banks realized there was profit in those usorious APR’s. They began to mail cards out unsolicited. “Like giving sugar to diabetics,” said Betty Furness, President Johnson’s Consumer Affairs adviser.
By 1970 the average balance on credit cards was $185, around $1,247 in today’s money.
A public outcry ensued. A law was passed, making it illegal for banks to simply issue credit cards. You had to apply for one and go through a credit check. It was a law not too rigorously enforced. In 1979, my first credit card arrived through the mail without my asking for it. I was an out of work actor collecting unemployment at the time and no one’s idea of a good credit risk. The card had a $500 credit limit, a little more than four times the value of my weekly unemployment check.
Wages have been stagnating since the 1970’s but the proliferation of credit cards has masked employers’ tight-fistedness. American consumption is powered by credit card debt. Today the amount owed on plastic fluctuates between $800 and 900 billion.1
Tennessee Ernie Ford sang about owing his soul to the company store. Nowadays, many Americans owe their souls, their playstations and their groceries to the credit card suppliers.
Credit cards are marketed as a tool to help teen-agers learn about money but cash is the best way to learn about money. Cash you earn.
I earned my own. My CV of paid work starts with delivering the Main Line Times, a weekly paper, when I was 12.
When I was 15, I went to work every Saturday with the Feltons, friends of my parents from synagogue. They had a lighting fixture shop on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia.
I had to learn the stock and with it a whole new vocabulary: sconces, pendants, model names. Working on the wrapping station I had to acquire a certain dexterity in wrapping glass pendants and chandeliers. But mostly I had to figure out how to deal with customers who were not from my background.
Germantown was in transition. When Lee Felton had set up his business, the neighbourhood was full of European immigrants, Italians and Irish mostly. But by the time I started working there, white flight to the suburbs was pretty much complete, and the customers were overwhelmingly African-American.
When I got my driver’s licence I left the lighting store behind and switched from delivering the Main Line Times to covering high school football and wrestling for the paper. The pay was maybe ten bucks a story.
In the summer I worked as a junior counselor at the summer camp I had been going to since I was nine.
It was no big thing to work. Once you were in your mid-teens you were expected to work for part of the summer. Most of the guys I knew had some kind of job. Some worked for their fathers, others spent the summers doing manual labor: lawn work, painting, hanging sheetrock. Girls worked as waitresses or in hotels down at the Jersey shore. Work paid for a seaside holiday.
Work/job/employment was always present in our lives. and while our parents carried the Depression in their memories for us that was ancient history. There would always be a job for you.
Employment was useful beyond the money it put in your pocket, it was a practice step into adulthood.
In the time I’m telling you about more than half of American teen agers worked in the summers. Sometimes, when there was a recession, that number might dip below 50 percent. But the number would rise as soon as the economy moved forward.
But that changed a quarter of a century ago, in the recession at the start of the 1990’s. Summertime teen employment has never recovered the ground it lost then and that has been the case with each subsequent recession including the catastrophe of 2009-2010. Today maybe thirty percent of teens find paid employment in the summer.2
Kids from wealthy families can burnish their CVs for college applications as unpaid interns but others are stuck: no jobs and no internships.
And for those Americans who were born in the Fifties, when the glow of victory suffused everything but who have not escaped the changes in the world of work unscathed, the years since the 2008 Crash have been brutal.
1.9 million people lost their jobs in the four months after Lehman Brothers crashed. Most of them did not work in financial services. They were pre-emptively downsized.
Pre-emptive downsizing is a useful management tool. A recession begins, and even if your business is not particularly effected, it is a good time to streamline payrolls. With automation and cheaper labor overseas many of those jobs do not come back when the recession ends. That was certainly the case in the recession at the end of Bill Clinton’s term of office. But going back to the Reagan recession in the early 80s many of those laid off were never recalled when the downturn was over.
Bruce Springsteen noted the phenomenon in 1984:
Foreman says these jobs are going, boys, and they ain’t coming back.
In the 21st century all professions have been hit. My own, journalism, has not been spared.3 The year before the crash there were 71,000 newspaper reporters, news photographers and editors in the US. That’s down to 34,950 as I write these words. Radio news, where I spent the bulk of my career, has seen a twenty percent drop in jobs.
The Children of Victory were disproportionately represented among those laid-off after the crash of 2008 and had the hardest time getting back into full-time employment. More than half the over 55s who lost their jobs were still without work five years later. And among those who did get back to work many had to accept part-time jobs. 60 percent of those who found full-time work had to take a pay cut.
People survived by judiciously liquidating retirement accounts or taking social security years before they planned to. And those credit cards have their uses. The average American household currently has $6271 in credit card debt, five times the level in 1970.
I know about all these survival tools because I was laid off in 2005 from a job in public radio. I was in my mid-50s and would never again have full-time salaried employment. I cashed out my few retirement accounts, tapped into social security years before I planned to, ran up credit card and overdraft facilities.
And I never stopped working, I just started earning dramatically less.
The second thing I did after being informed my position at a Boston public radio station was being eliminated was visit the Bureau of Labor Statistics website to check out what the data said about my prospects for a return to full-time salaried employment.
It was not a pretty picture. If I did not find another position within six months—not quite a fifty percent proposition, according to the BLS—the odds of ever having full-time salaried employment again dropped dramatically. And, if I did beat the odds and find a job inside six months, the likelihood of being re-employed at the same salary was virtually nil.
The data guided the decision. There was no point concentrating all my time and effort on looking for another full time position. So, while circulating my resume in the hope of beating the odds, I returned to freelancing, something I had done in my 20’s and 30’s.
I wrote a book. Then joined an online news start-up for a monthly honorarium and stock in the company that proved worthless when it went bust after five years. I started a small radio production company that still makes a few radio programs for the BBC every year.
And I was lucky.
Generational generalisations are useless to everyone except clickbait journalists but here is one that I think holds up for Americans born in the blissful post-war dawn: The overarching theme of our four decade-long work life has been the steady erosion of the sense that you can always make a buck. That employment is easy to find. Lose a job, find another. Business fails, start another. OK, maybe you have to move to another city but you pick yourself up, dust yourself down and start all over again.
Not any more.
America has entered a new epoch in which you will, if you are lucky, have a 20-year window of full-time employment and can lay the foundations for the stability that comes with it: buy a house, set aside for retirement, educate your children.
Those leaving education whether after high school, university or graduate school will face a longer wait to find full-time salaried employment
Once you get past fifty you will be on borrowed time.
The pattern of pre-emptive downsizing particularly those over fifty is being repeated in the pandemic economic downturn
How this ends, I don’t know and neither does anyone in government, industry, or handing out venture capital to a firm that won’t exist in 18 months.
If you are 50-plus, and spent twenty years in employment and now are freelancing, working part-time or have become an “entrepreneur,” as I have, you are like a polar bear walking on Arctic ice in these days of climate change. Any second the surface under your feet could melt and you face a life or death swim to your traditional feeding grounds—assuming the new ocean currents haven’t borne the fish away.
The creation of the gig economy, and the fear of those in full-time employment that their jobs may be casualized and turned into gigs, has eroded belief in the future more deeply than the steady lowering of the unemployment rate can inspire it.
As I write this, the latest job figures in the US show the unemployment rate is recovering from the pandemic spike and is now down to 6.2%. But 100 million Americans of working age, nearly 40 percent of those in that category, are not participating in the labor force. Not all of them, despite the memes of the media, are cashed out baby boomers retiring to enjoy the good life at the expense of those who come after.
The morbid effects of this change can be seen everywhere in American society. For the first time since accurate data was collected, life expectancy began to decline for white working class people. The “not working” class is the more accurate term. Princeton economics professors Ann Case and Angus Deaton coined the phrase “deaths of despair” to describe this phenomenon.
There are metaphorical deaths of despair that can’t be measured.
Work is a force that gives life meaning, particularly for men, and when it disappears it is like death.
It is a form of death for the individual but also for the society from which he or she feels detached. That’s why I say the headwaters of America’s calamity lie in the way work is valued, not just in terms of wages paid, but in an unquantifiable sense of social worth.
Every morning the men went to work.
When I finally got married and found my path in life, I mimicked my father’s behavior: going to work early, not coming home until the job was done, traveling whenever I was asked, often away for weeks at a time.
Fatherhood came late to me. I was laid off two weeks before the birth of my only child. I have never stopped feeling embarrassed and inadequate at being at home when my daughter leaves for school in the morning, and being there when she gets back. It seems an unnatural state of affairs.
A man should get up and leave the house and go to his job and earn enough to provide for his family. It was what I was taught by example when I was a child. It was the way of the world. It was a world where 98 percent of the men my father’s age worked full time. Today only 88 percent of American men in that age range work at all.4 That ten percent decline represents a huge statistical change. And across all age ranges, more than 30 percent of men do not work.
After women going to work in record numbers, men not going to work in record numbers is the second biggest social change in my lifetime.
The data offers no reasons for this decline and the phenomenon has not been adquately explained by economists or sociologists or historians. But the individuals reduced to numbers in the data understand the reasons and they have memories that pain them every day.
In the backyard, men laughed while they burnt hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill. The women laughed while setting out the potato salad and condiments and the heavily-sugared Kool-Aid and Hawaiian Punch for the kids.
Confidence poured off them. Cockiness, as well.
As they looked at their children racing around, I cannot imagine them thinking about the Depression, or the war. They had survived. They won.
Their confidence infused us and it has been a hard lesson to learn that those moments in backyards in the 1960’s, when the economy was always growing and every morning all the men went to work, was not a new normal but a never to be repeated era.
Bliss was it in that dawn to be a child of victory.
The Financial Times says:
Thank you for reading this far. Please share and tell your friends. There will be another chapter in two weeks. Meanwhile, visit the FRDH, First Rough Draft of History, podcast for more on America and hours and hours of other interesting stuff.