By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Since the start of 2010, filmmaker Sam Newman and I have been creating Over 50 and Out of Work, a multimedia documentary project that focuses on unemployment among older Americans. But the problems responsible for record levels of joblessness and hardship for workers who are 50-plus are not confined to a single generation. The American economy has changed. People of all ages are struggling to find jobs. Our government, operating in a polarized political environment, has been unable to help the economy grow and create jobs for Millennials, Generation Xers or boomers.
Susan M. Sipprelle
The constant drumbeat of dismal economic news is depressing. The unemployment rate is stuck above 9 percent. Jobless claims are up. The economy is not adding enough new jobs. The number of weeks that people are unemployed continues to increase. (The average length of time that older Americans are out of work has been climbing since June of 2008 and has been stuck at over one year since last March.) Across the country, foreclosures of homes are up and more people are sliding into poverty.
The United States as a whole and individual American workers in particular are attempting to adjust to an open global economy as well as the rapid advances in technology that have made many jobs obsolete. The combined impact of these two forces on our economy has accelerated over the past two decades; the Great Recession has multiplied the woes they have caused, and yet we remain unprepared.
Our economic problems are interconnected and difficult to disentangle and solve. Members of Generation X are dissatisfied, according to a recent report, because boomers are hanging on to their jobs longer, and younger workers cannot climb the corporate ladder. Yet, if boomers retire early and live longer than prior generations, they will place additional strains on Social Security, Medicare and the U.S. budget. Even fewer younger workers will be supporting a bulging number of retirees. Also, if boomers claim Social Security as soon as they are eligible, rather than deferring payment, their monthly payments will be lower, making it less likely that they can maintain their standard of living and participate in the economy as robust consumers over the remainder of their lives.
In the same report, 74 percent of the Generation Xers surveyed say that their credit card debt dictates their career choices. Indebtedness is another huge problem for the United States, both at the personal and governmental levels. Over the past decade, households maintained their standard of living (when real incomes were either stagnating or declining) by borrowing. Household debt exceeded disposable income for the first time in 2002 and peaked at a ratio of 130 percent in 2007. From April to June of 2011, household debt was 114.6 percent of disposable income, a small reduction from 116 percent during the prior quarter.
Although households are gradually reducing their debt, which is still at historically high levels, government debt continues to increase. In 2010, the Federal debt was 93.25 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, up from 84.11 percent in 2009. This record level of government debt stalls dynamic economic growth.
“Above 90 percent, median growth rates fall by one percent and average growth falls considerably more,” Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff wrote about their research for “Growth in a Time of Debt.”
Meanwhile, our national infrastructure continues to deteriorate. In its most recent study, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the United States an overall grade of D in 15 categories, including aviation, bridges, roads, schools and transit. Rebuilding our infrastructure will provide jobs in the short run and latticework for growth in the long run. Moreover, our rutted roads, rusting bridges and outmoded airports are demoralizing. We are willing to support repressive, oil-rich regimes and pay whatever they demand and the market will bear for gas at our pumps, but we are not willing to invest in ourselves for the future.
This shortsightedness is not new.
“Time and experience have verified to a demonstration, the public utility of internal improvements,” Abraham Lincoln said in 1832 when he was seeking his first seat in the Illinois General Assembly. He lost that election.
Almost two centuries later, the world moves faster and we fall behind more quickly.
A 2011 update to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation’s 2009 report on America’s innovation-based competitiveness finds that the United States has made no progress since 1999. At the turn of the millennium in 2000, the United States was ranked first. Today, we rank fourth behind Singapore, Finland and Sweden.
The United States educational performance has also declined. Compared to other countries in the OECD, American students now rank 33rd in reading, 27th in math and 22nd in science performance.
It is unlikely that President Obama’s recently proposed American Jobs Act and his $3 trillion debt reduction plan based on raising taxes is sufficient to turn the economy around and restore our competitiveness even if enacted, which is unlikely given Republican resistance to raising taxes in any form.
Americans, when polled, seem more willing than their elected officials to accept a two-pronged approach that restrains spending and raises some taxes to reinvigorate economic growth and create jobs for workers of all ages, but we also need inspirational goals coupled with realistic policies to help Americans coalesce and regain our economic gusto. Change is not enough. We need change with a purpose.
Susan M. Sipprelle is a multimedia documentary maker, a journalist and a photographer. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 2008, and is the mother of five children.
OVER 50 AND OUT OF WORK is an ongoing multimedia project that documents the impact of the Great Recession on jobless Americans, 50 and older. Boomers, generally regarded as self-centered and indulgent, reveal unexpected depths of faith, perseverance and resilience through their life stories.