[This month's entry is another excerpt from the book length version of Twilight's Last Gleaming. It is from Part One: O'er the Ramparts We Watched. It is preceded by Chapter 6: America Loses Control of its Borders and followed by Chapter 8: Reconquista. I've chose to include this because it also works as a stand-alone essay. New readers can scroll down to earlier blogs to read the short version of my future history, Twilight's Last Gleaming, a blog explaining the premise, and chapters of an adventure novel set in my fictional universe. Copyright 2008 by Charles Hoffman]
7--THE DEATH OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
Even as the population of Hispanic Americans grew by leaps and bounds, birthrates among Anglo-Americans, primarily white Americans, plummeted. [NOTE: The term “Anglo,” as used in this account, refers to English-speaking Americans regardless of race.] Many Anglo men throughout the United States came to feel disenfranchised and, facing an uncertain future, were reluctant to start families. The problem stemmed from significant changes in the workplace that sent shockwaves rippling through middle and working class society.
Those shockwaves were first and most acutely felt by members of the so-called “baby boom” generation. The term “baby boom” referred to a surge in population following the Second World War. The baby boom spanned the period from 1946 to 1964. The elder generation that had survived the Great Depression and fought World War II returned to an America that soon became prosperous as never before. Upwardly mobile, they were eager to settle down and enjoy the benefits of a newly affluent lifestyle. Their offspring, the “boomers,” grew up during the era when American wealth, prestige, and power were at their zenith. It was a very forward-looking time. Americans living then sometimes referred to this period as the “space age.” This post-war period of prosperity came to an abrupt end with the onset of severe economic woes in the 1970s.
Of the baby boomers, those born after 1950 are of special interest. The early boomers were fortunate enough to enter the workforce at a time when the American economy was still expanding. Later boomers entering the workforce in the 1970s found themselves facing altogether bleaker prospects. Many were ill-prepared for the difficulties they were to face, having lived their formative years during an era of heightened expectations. It was as though they had grown up during a golden age, only to have the bottom fall out of everything just as they were on the verge of adulthood. Consequently, many became emotionally troubled. Sociologist Morgan Price, looking back in an essay written in 2054, designated the later boomers as “the Lovecraft generation.” This was a reference to the American author H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937). Lovecraft spent his childhood amid an environment of wealth and privilege, only to see his family’s fortunes collapse when he was a teenager. As an adult, Lovecraft endured humiliation and poverty. Before his death from malnutrition at age 46, Lovecraft produced some of the most vivid and disturbing horror fiction of the 20th Century. Dr. Price saw in this a parallel with the life experience and emotional angst of many of the later baby boomers.
The baby boomers were followed by what the contemporary media dubbed “Generation X.” The “X” alluded to the observation that this was the tenth generation to be born since the establishment of the American republic. Members of Generation X grew up acutely aware that things were changing, and not for the better. It was common for them to feel resentful of the fact that they were the first generation in American history not to live better than the generation that preceded it.
Many members of the Lovecraft generation and Generation X came to believe that the American Dream had played them false. “The American Dream” was a term first coined by James Truslow Adams in 1931. At the heart of the American Dream was the notion that, regardless of one’s humble beginnings, one could achieve material prosperity if one were sufficiently industrious. Unfortunately a vast number of those who had bought into the American Dream had a regrettable tendency to blame themselves for their lack of success or reversals of fortune, even in the clear presence of limiting external circumstances and adverse economic conditions. For many, a diminished sense of self-worth combined with financial hardship to engender myriad social ills. Alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, spouse and child abuse, and homicidal workplace rampages all became more widespread as the American Dream deteriorated. Several major changes in the economic life of the nation contributed to the Dream’s demise.
The first of these was the transition of America from a manufacturing economy to a “service economy.” Key manufacturing industries, including the automotive industry in Detroit and Pittsburgh’s steel industry, declined so severely that the Mid-western region of the United States came to be known as the “rust belt.” American business also largely abandoned the manufacture of appliances such as televisions, which came to be increasingly imported from abroad. With the decline of manufacturing came a widespread loss of well-paying positions that had previously enabled many working Americans to enter the middle class. Those formerly employed in manufacturing were forced to accept lower-paying positions in less prestigious service industries. Many such jobs paid a mere pittance, requiring individuals to work long hours to maintain multiple sources of income.
In addition to increased economic difficulty, the detrimental effect of this transformation on the psyche of the male American worker should not be overlooked. If the average working class male was not a warrior, explorer or pioneer like his ancestors, at least he was able to derive satisfaction from accomplishing enormous labors and producing tangible goods. Now he found himself relegated to menial and often inane tasks.
In the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, many working class men came to bitterly lament that their jobs had been sold overseas to the lowest bidder. This practice was known in business circles as “outsourcing.” Major American corporations closed down manufacturing facilities in the United States and established new operations in other countries to take advantage of cheap foreign labor. As one example, several American car companies relocated their assembly plants to Mexico. Ironically, some displaced American autoworkers found employment with Japanese and European car manufacturers who constructed new plants in the US.
Outsourcing also affected workers employed in service industries. In the early 21st Century, it became common practice for companies to outsource their customer service departments to India and other countries overseas. A consumer calling a company for assistance regarding one of its products could well find himself talking to a customer service representative on another continent. Such representatives required training in the English language and orientation classes in Western culture. Even so, American corporations found such measures more cost effective in the long run than hiring American workers.
A related problem, noted earlier, was the employment of undocumented illegal immigrants residing in the US as a means of skirting minimum wage regulations. In time, many frustrated American workers came to view this situation as an actual conspiracy by big business aimed at exploiting illegal aliens to create a new slave class.
Much like outsourcing, the practice of corporate “downsizing” also affected blue collar and white-collar workers alike. The necessity of laying off workers during economic downturns or reversals for the company had always been an unpleasant but unavoidable aspect of doing business. By the turn of the 21st Century, however, even solvent, successful companies routinely laid off workers in droves as an easy, expedient means of making themselves appear more profitable on paper. Since profits could be generated by either increasing revenue or cutting costs, many executives chose the latter as the path of lesser resistance. “Cutting costs” usually amounted to chopping workers from the payroll.
White-collar workers who found themselves downsized often felt stung by a sense of betrayal. The 1980s had seen an economic recovery from the malaise of the previous decade, and many young people at that time pursued the American Dream with renewed vigor. The most ardent of these were dubbed Young Urban Professionals, or “yuppies,” by the media. They comprised an enthusiastic dedicated workforce willing to go to great lengths to demonstrate loyalty to the company as a means of career advancement. The first major round of corporate downsizing commenced just a few years later, in the early `90s. Many former yuppies were forced to start over at the bottom of the ladder. Only a fraction of them managed to obtain new employment commensurate with their previous positions. Job-seekers with college or university degrees often found themselves no better off than those less educated. Underemployment became a commonplace, if largely ignored, social problem.
Still another factor in the changing workplace was the rise of the temporary employment industry. Temporary help agencies had been originally established decades earlier to furnish replacements for clerical employees who were absent due to illness or vacation. However, from the `80s onward, these “temp” agencies came to be used more widely as a flexible resource for business. Temporary employment grew from a few small staffing companies to a major service industry consisting of many such firms. Corporations found it easier to downsize their permanent staff, knowing they could hire and discard disposable “temps” as present needs dictated.
The March 29, 1993, issue of Time magazine published a feature article entitled “The Temping of America” that documented this emerging trend. The number of temp employees in the US eventually came to number in tens of millions. Many, if not most, such employees lacked benefits accorded full time permanent staff members such as health care and paid time off. Typically, a temp would work at a given assignment for a period of months, weeks, or days, and then contact his or her agency to see if another assignment was available. To ensure a steady flow of work, a temp would often register with more than one agency, sometimes with a dozen or more.
Many downsized or outsourced workers availed themselves of temp agencies. Others got by working two or more part-time jobs. Still others combined both strategies. Whatever the case, countless workers found themselves juggling multiple unsteady, unpredictable sources of income. This could make planning a budget extremely difficult.
A news report entitled “The Death of the Great American Job” referred to the manner in which the traditional livelihood consisting of a single full-time job had ceased to be a societal norm. The notion that one could work for a single company until retirement had, by the 21st Century, become a quaint relic of the past. The old corporate social contract that “if you take care of the company, the company will take care of you” had likewise been discarded. There was no longer any such thing as “job security.”
A dearth of opportunity and a lowered standard of living engendered an embittered, jaundiced workforce. That chief executives awarded themselves huge bonuses and lavish perks as their downsized employees suffered did not escape the notice of the average American worker. “They’re ruining lives and taking food out of babies’ mouths,” one such disgruntled worker complained to a financial reporter from the New York Globe. Another was even more frank; “The f---ing suits can’t be trusted.” Public cynicism was also engendered by government bailouts of large corporations on the brink of disaster, as well as bogus appeals to patriotism made by American industries threatened by foreign competition. A popular blogger calling himself Hermes astutely observed, “It’s always ‘free market this’ and ‘free market that’ until it’s their dick caught in the mousetrap.”
As early as the 1990s, some commentators observed that America was polarizing into a society of aristocrats and peasants. The last decade of the 20th Century saw the gap between affluent and struggling Americans widen considerably. As the new century dawned, the working class came to be increasingly referred to as the “working poor.”
This widening disparity had more to do with questionable leadership in the private sector than with any government policy. In the name of “efficiency,” upper management would load as much work onto as few individuals as possible. This unwisely assumed a best-case scenario that failed to allow for potential difficulties. In addition, leading corporate entities had seemingly abandoned any notion of civic responsibility. Where banks once helped consumers to save money, they now saddled them with credit card debt. Outrageous interest rates made it extremely difficult for consumers to pay off balances. The blogger Hermes remarked, “If this isn’t usury, then there’s no such thing.“ The number of consumers driven to bankruptcy skyrocketed. Approximately 300,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy in 1980. By 2000, that figure had soared to over 2 million per year. As a financial analyst quoted in the Globe article put it, “Give people credit and no money, and what would you expect to end up with?”
Economic developments such as downsizing, outsourcing, the “service economy,” et al, are particularly noteworthy from an historical perspective. Indeed, numerous latter day historians have been emphatic in citing them as key contributing factors to American society’s growing lack of cohesion. This lack of cohesion bore bitter repercussions during the many crises of the 21st Century. The first sign of trouble came with the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The sense of “national unity” that followed the attack was extremely short-lived. When the time came to rally `round the flag, the American spirit was found wanting. The US military performed admirably in various campaigns, but a jaded civilian population did not feel themselves fully engaged in the struggle against looming external threats. As the blogger Hermes duly noted, “You can’t turn your whole society into a brothel and expect people to give a s--t about it.”
Financial insecurity is also considered the chief factor in the “baby bust” of the 21st Century. Birthrates among Anglo-Americans fell to below replacement levels in many parts of the nation by mid-century. Throughout the Southwest, Anglos quickly became a minority.
Even as birthrates dropped, suicide rates rose alarmingly. By the year 2000, suicide was the eighth leading cause of death among men. By 2050, it had become the sixth leading cause. Often men would take their own lives in dramatic ways to capture the attention of the media. It also became commonplace for a man to declare his intention to let his bloodline die out. “I don’t have the guts to kill myself,” one such man told Newswatch, “This is the next best thing.” Increasingly marginalized, such men retreated into apathy in regard to the society in which they lived. Frustrated, they fought back the only way they could –by dropping out and turning their backs on the world.
The mid-21st Century saw the widespread social phenomenon of the “rogue male.” Rogue males were men relegated to extremely low-paying, low prestige jobs. Their mating prospects were not good. Emotionally hobbled by feelings of emasculation, they were given to bravado displays of self-destructive behavior. Public drunkenness and brawling were common methods of acting out. Participation in so-called “extreme” sports competitions and daredevil-type stunts left many broken and crippled.
In considering such developments as the rogue male and the alarming rise in suicide rates among men, it is important to remember that many members of the baby boom generation lived well into the 21st Century. Even though later generations grew up in a world where uncertain financial prospects were the norm, they heard tales of a lost golden age from the lips of the old-timers. Countless extant pictures and films depicted life in that era. “We used to be better than this” became a truism of the mid-21st Century.
As mentioned previously, disenfranchised Anglo-American males tended to punish themselves for circumstances over which they had little control. Hispanics were not so troubled; one could be poor and still be a good Mexican. But for many working class Americans of old native stock, terms like “loser,” “failure,” and “underachiever” were the source of considerable mental anguish. The American Dream was dead, but its ghost lingered to haunt the Anglo mind.