As I See It: Nostalgic for Normal
June 20, 2011 Victor Rozek
“To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful.” At least that was psychologist Carl Jung’s dismissive opinion. For something that is hard to define, “normal” gets a bad rap. It’s like being average: everyone wants to be thought of as above average, but not if it means being abnormal.
What’s considered normal may simply be a matter of numbers and context. If enough people buy a pink car, we become a pink car nation. If pink cars become obsolete, the next mode of popular transportation becomes normal. Then there are sub-groups that contextually delineate normality. If you’re wealthy, it’s normal to have wealthy friends. If you work in an industry where everyone is educated, having a degree is commonplace. If you’re a soldier, the world is violent. If you’re an athlete, fitness is assumed. Normal is also what goes on around you.
Which is why white people assumed their dominance and good fortune would go on forever. There was nothing in white history to suggest otherwise. For generations, the white middle class enjoyed high employment and a comfortable standard of living while other races struggled. That was the normal way of things. But as the dinosaurs discovered, things change, sometimes with unforgiving rapidity. One moment life is good and the future is ripe with possibility; and the next thing you know, a meteor is blotting out the sun.
According to journalist and two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist Ronald Brownstein, the white middle class is beginning to wonder why it’s getting so dark at noon. The folks of European descent who brought you cathedrals and clipper ships, cars and computers, Madonna and moon landings, report being increasingly alienated and pessimistic about the future. While they were busy maxing out their credit cards, the job qualifications that defined normal changed, leaving many unprepared for the future.
Demographic data helps explain why. Brownstein, writing for the National Journal, says Census Bureau figures show that even as late as 1990, “whites without a college degree represented more than three-fifths of adults.” That’s an extraordinary statistic. Many were no doubt people who, decades before, found jobs and middle class wages in the manufacturing sector. Over the last 20 years, however, while the world changed, the white middle class didn’t. Today, “whites without a four-year college degree remain the largest demographic bloc in the workforce,” writes Brownstein. In fact, “whites who have not completed college remain the backbone of many, if not most, communities and workplaces across the country.” In fairness, it should be noted that it’s the college educated people who consistently get the nation into trouble. Still, insofar as the future belongs to the educated, the paucity of education is disturbing.
In retrospect, gaining additional education could not have seemed urgent. Far from being unsuccessful, for the white middle class being normal meant being well off. Houses, cars, toys; all the accouterments of American middle class life. The fact that much of it was funded by debt seemed both remote and manageable. But then the context changed. We slid into a knowledge economy, and ignorance could no longer buy bliss.
Brownstein details the results of a recent survey conducted by Pew Charitable Trusts’ Economic Mobility Project. When respondents were asked whether they anticipated being better off economically 10 years from now, 55 percent of college-educated whites said yes, as compared to two-thirds of blacks and Hispanics. But just 44 percent of non-college educated whites agreed. A nearly equal percentage believed they were worse off than their parents.
In spite of having higher unemployment rates than whites, minorities were far more optimistic about the future. “In the most telling result, 63 percent of African-Americans and 54 percent of Hispanics said they expected their children to exceed their standard of living.” Minorities now comprise the majority of the workforce and, as barriers based on race and ethnicity dissolve, opportunities and optimism correspondingly expand. College-educated whites, however, are less optimistic. Only about 40 percent expect their children to secure a higher standard of living. And non-college whites are the gloomiest, writes Brownstein. “Just one-third of them think their kids will live better than they do; an equal number think their children won’t even match their living standard. No other group, is nearly that negative.” And given that access to higher education is becoming less and less affordable, they may be right.
The current frenzy to cut support for public education will have a profound effect on redefining what is normal for the next generation. As Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times noted: “For a country that prides itself on social mobility, where higher education has been a traditional escalator to a better life, cutbacks in access to college are a scandal.” Without adequate education, the only recourse is to work harder, longer, for fewer and fewer returns. “The average high-school-educated, middle-aged man,” says Brownstein, “earns almost 10 percent less than his counterpart did in 1980.” Minorities earn even less.rn rnThe recession further redefined normality. Everyone was hurt, educated or not. Between March and December of 2000, the Nasdaq lost more than half its value and dragged high-tech industries down with it. In the next eight years, Silicon Valley would lose 85,000 jobs, a full 26 percent decline of IT-related employment. And like the Rio Grande as it nears the Pacific, the venture capital river dried up to one quarter of its former $8.5 billion flow. Lack of investment speaks of pessimism even among the monied classes.
“[A] huge bloc of Americans increasingly feels itself left behind and lacks faith that either government or business cares much about its plight,” concludes Brownstein. A recent CNN poll doubles down on Brownstein’s concern. The survey found that 48 percent of Americans expect another Great Depression within a year an extraordinary reversal for what once was a tirelessly optimistic nation.
Granted, conditions were far different then. The unemployment rate was 25 percent and there was no social safety net, which makes you wonder why so many politicians are hell-bent on recreating those conditions by eliminating the very programs that allow the 25 million unemployed and under-employed to survive.
The IT community will fare better than most, being not only well educated but serving as the hub of the knowledge economy. Still, persistent high unemployment, downward pressure on wages, and the lack of upward mobility will make it seem as if we’re all swimming against an unyielding current.
Nostalgia for the past is really a longing for what was once normal. In this case it’s the availability of jobs, livable wages, and the great American promise of a better life–especially for our children. That so many people no longer believe in that promise is deeply troubling, especially for those who were fortunate enough to have lived the dream. And given the abysmal state of governance, recovering our native optimism and creating a new normal that we can all live with, will require what can only be described as abnormal leadership.
Jung would say, “I told you so.”