On Native Ground
A LIFETIME LIVED IN THE TWILIGHT YEARS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
October 20, 2011
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- Having turned 50 a few weeks ago, I've come to the realization that the decline and fall of the American Dream roughly parallels my lifetime.
At 50, I stand as the first wave of Generation X, the much-maligned "slackers" born between 1961 and 1981. My story, with a few variations, can be told by many of my generational peers.
I was born into the New Frontier and the limitless possibilities of America at its zenith in the 1960s. I lived in the three-bedroom house my father helped build, one of five children that he could support with his income as a machinist.
The families on my street in my little town in western Massachusetts were mostly working class. All the fathers worked, and most of the mothers stayed home to take care of the kids.
My mother didn't enter the workforce until the early 1970s, when my youngest sister started school. There was no need for day care, for she and the neighbors' moms all looked out for us as we roamed our neighborhood to play and raise mischief.
It was unusual to see a working mom, like Ethel, my next-door neighbor. She worked the night shift as a nurse in the local hospital's maternity ward by choice, so she could send her kids off to school in the morning and sleep during the day.
A single paycheck was enough to live a decent life, even for a large family like mine. Granted, by today's standards, our family lived a fairly spartan existence. But we did OK until the Nixon/Ford/Carter 1970s. The first Arab oil embargo and the 1973-74 recession was the beginning of the end of comfortable living on a single paycheck.
Suddenly the leftovers my mother brought home from her job cooking for my town's school lunch program became more important and my father's paycheck was no longer enough. By the end of the 1970s, my mother was working weekends as a cook at a local college and I was cooking Sunday dinner for my father.
My father was never completely happy about my mother working full-time. He was of the generation that believed a man was supposed to be a good provider and a woman was supposed to be home with the kids, even though by the time my mother was totally in the workforce, we were all out of grade school.
I graduated from high school in 1979, into the second oil embargo and the start of another major recession. I was the first member of my family to go to college, and it was the last gasp of an era when college was cheap and affordable. My first semester of community college that fall cost only $225, not counting textbooks and the cost of gas for commuting.
To help pay for my last two years of college, I joined the Army National Guard in 1981. In the Reagan era -- those years between the messy end of Vietnam and the end of the Cold War -- there was little chance my infantry unit would ever see combat. The free tuition voucher and the monthly paycheck were welcome during the 1981-82 recession, which was the worst post-World War II downturn until our current recession. My basic training company at Fort Benning was filled with guys from the South and Midwest who enlisted because it was the only steady job available.
I completed my bachelor's degree in 1983, but it took until 1989 before I got a full-time job that I held longer than a few months. After five up-and-down years in radio, I chose print journalism as my profession, and even though the 1980s were very, very profitable years for newspapers, it was tough getting a job in New England.
The so-called "Massachusetts Miracle," the prosperous high-tech economy that Michael Dukakis campaigned for president on in 1988, had passed me by. I was not part of the go-go, get rich quick ethos of the Reagan era. I wanted to be a reporter, and was fortunate enough to have almost no student loan debt. Credit cards were still new, and they helped tide me over until the time when I was sure that I would have steady, well-paying work.
I landed in Vermont in the extraordinary year of 1989, and started my career as a full-time newpaperman in the year of Tiananmen Square and the razing of the Berlin War. The Cold War had finally ended, and the talk was of "peace dividends" and a shift of national priorities.
Instead, we saw the 1990-91 recession, a war in Iraq and the growing power of the far right. A Democrat became president after 12 years of Republican misrule, but it was the Democrat, Bill Clinton, that gave us the North American Free Trade Agreement and the "the end of welfare as we know it." It was under Clinton that banks were deregulated, financial power was consolidated and off-shoring of jobs became commonplace.
But economic prosperity fueled by the tech boom papered over the devastation of the working class. My father died at age 45 in 1980, just a few months before Ronald Reagan became president. Had he lived, he would likely have been a victim of the changing economy that had no room for a guy who did with his hands what computerized machines do today.
I saw none of the 1990s boom, since I was a newspaperman in a small town.
Seventeen years ago, my wife and I bought a house. We loved where we lived and figured it was easier to find a good home than a good job. It turned out to be prophetic. A year after we bought our house, I was involved in another newspaper sale and another wrenching transition. The bad news was that I got fired for refusing to accept the pay cuts that the new owner forced upon us. The good news was the story I wrote exposing what happened helped get me into Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to pursue a master's degree.
Education, we're told, is supposed be the answer to surviving in a difficult economy. But even a Harvard degree isn't a guarantee for success, especially if you don't want to join the ruling class and want to stay a newspaperman. And I had no idea that George W. Bush was on the horizon, and an era that would make the Clinton years seem like a golden age.
I'm working at my fourth newspaper since leaving Harvard in 1997, and I am still earning the same amount I earned in 1999, not factoring in inflation. Sadly, after 50 years, 10 presidents, seven recessions, and two college degrees, I am one of the lucky ones that still has a job that pays a decent wage, and luckier still to be working in a place where intelligence and creativity is honored and I am able to do good work.
That constitutes success in this era of diminished dreams. That what the Gen Xers - hardened by years of economic insecurity and institutional rot, and fully accustomed to being lied to and let down by our leaders - have seen in our lifetimes. The American Dream vanished during our prime years, and the years of limitless abundance enjoyed by the Baby Boomers has become just a memory.
The generation that followed us, the Millennial Generation born between 1982 and 2002, earned the tag of the "self-esteem" generation. They were the golden children who were not going to be as disappointing as the Gen-Xers. They were pampered and coddled and told they were special. But the world they entered when they graduated from high school and college turned to be even bleaker than the early 1980s when I entered the adult world.
Yet it is these young people, the golden children, that are leading the Occupy Wall Street protests. Like their peers around the world, they are inheriting a world that is broken in so many ways. The only rational choice they can make is to rebel and fight for a better world.
I am in awe of the people in Zuccotti Park, and in other spaces around America, who are willing to put their bodies on the line to help midwife a new birth of freedom in America.
The words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoken in 1936 spring to mind: "There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."
I tried, in my decades as a news reporter, editor and opinion writer, to use my talents to make a better world. But at 50, my legs are weary and it's time to pass the baton to a new generation committed to change. I can't presume to offer you wisdom, except that there is no reason why you have to accept a life that is less fulfilling than previous generations.
So accept your destiny. Be the change. Don't be co-opted or discouraged. You have the numbers, but more importantly, you have the truth on your side. A better nation is possible, and it will begin not at the ballot box, but in the street.
AR Chief Correspondent Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.