By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Susan M. Sipprelle
At a recent Set for Life screening, an audience member asked: What did the unemployed people you interviewed say about downsizing? The question prompts deeper considerations: What does the American Dream mean today?
When Sam Newman, filmmaker, and I were in the midst of conducting video interviews with 100 Americans over the age of 50 who had lost their jobs due to the Great Recession for our Over 50 and Out of Work online multimedia project, we used a spreadsheet to track the numerous issues related to unemployment raised by our interviewees that we later considered for inclusion in the film.
As we edited Set for Life, our documentary that evolved out of those 100 interviews, we had to leave many important topics on the cutting room floor. The film's three main characters discuss their vision of the American Dream, but downsizing was one of the issues we could not directly address in our documentary, although it arose in many of our interviews.
Up to a certain point, our interviewees accepted the inevitability of living smaller pragmatically, even philosophically.
In Wisconsin, most of the people we interviewed were laid-off paper mill workers, but we also talked with Bill Fleming of Little Chute, who lost his job as floor installer when the local economy collapsed after the paper mills along the Fox River closed. Although he had become certified as a truck driver, he could not find employment in the hard-hit area.
"I just want to work and make a living and pay my bills, that's all I want to do. Had all the junk and toys and crap, that's all it was, was stuff," Fleming said.
Regis Thompson-Lawrence started working in the entertainment industry for a record producer. She transitioned into real estate sales when she was raising her son and later, began working in social services on Long Island. She lost her job in 2006 when a grant ended, but could not find a new full-time position once the Great Recession dried up funding in 2007. She moved into an apartment. She also raised cash by gradually selling her personal jewelry and the collection of classic records she had accumulated during her early working years.
"We think all of these material things we collect long the way mean so much; it really doesn't," said Thompson-Lawrence about selling her possessions.
Some of our interviewees discovered virtue and happiness in the simpler lifestyle joblessness forced upon them.
"The family doing simple things all of a sudden becomes a real pleasure," said Rich Fuka, a Rhode Island lobsterman and boat builder.
Although unemployment created the circumstances that required Fuka and his family to rely more on each other for entertainment and relaxation and he appreciated his family's growing closeness, he would not have chosen the deeper worries about his sons' college education or retirement that joblessness caused him.
The three main characters in Set for Life defined the American Dream itself simply when they embarked on their adult lives. They wanted secure jobs that would enable them to provide for their families and own homes in good communities. Mostly, they seem to have taken for granted that some combination of their own work ethic, their union (if relevant) and the U.S. government would insulate them from great economic shocks. Unemployment, especially the prolonged unemployment that millions of older workers have experienced, disrupted not only their belief in the Dream, but also their confidence in the future for themselves, their children and the United States.
Journalists have written many stories about the intergenerational conflict that the Great Recession has spawned: Older workers believe that employers practice age discrimination and favor hiring younger job candidates. Younger workers face a discouraging job market and wish that older workers would retire to open up employment opportunities.
In Set for Life, however, it is abundantly clear that many families pulled together to get through the Great Recession and its aftermath. Unemployed breadwinners found themselves relying on their employed spouses' income and health insurance for the first time. Adult offspring contributed to their out-of-work parents' household funds or moved back in with their parents when they found themselves jobless. Unemployed parents sacrificed health insurance as well as other necessities to keep their children in college or to stay current with bills. Children renounced plans to attend college and started working as soon as they could land jobs.
In his book, The American Dream: A Short History of an Idea That Shaped a Nation, Jim Cullen traces the evolution of the concept that has been so crucial to our country from the Puritans' dream of a good life to the dream charter (the Declaration of Independence) to the dream of upward mobility and the dream of equality to the dream of home ownership.
Our interviewees, in general, did not aspire to upward mobility beyond the financial stability their own parents had been able to achieve. They did not want to own mansions, but comfortable homes they could afford and maintain as a nest egg to build equity for their eventual retirement. The disruption in their expectations has been profound and created a sense of unease and confusion about the future that is captured in national polls, too. A December 2102 USA Today/Gallup poll portrays Americans as "weary and wary" and half state that the country's best years are behind us.
Sam and I rode Amtrak from New York to Washington, D.C. and back last month because we had two screenings of Set for Life in the capitol city. The crowded train rumbled along this portion of the nation's heavily populated Northeast Corridor at a middling pace, not a rapid, smooth roll. The WiFi reception onboard this time was respectable, thank goodness. It is never lightning fast, but sometimes it is nonexistent.
Along the route, we passed hundreds of abandoned buildings – former homes and businesses – crumbling, decaying, surrounded by heaps of trash and filth. The passengers concentrated on their laptops or conversations and ignored the depressing view that could be seen through the train's windows. They seemed to have acclimated themselves to the gloomy vista of struggling cities within the context of a weak national economy.
When I first moved to the New York metropolitan region in 1980, the city was a miserable bankrupt mess. Gradually, Mayors Koch, Guliani and Bloomberg restored energy and vitality over the ensuing decades. Thirty years ago, along Manhattan's West Side Highway, men wielding dirty cloths to wipe windshields accosted motorists at stoplights next to a dark, decrepit docks toppling into the Hudson River.
Today, the grassy, 11-mile Hudson River Greenway, filled with inviting pocket parks and sculpture, winds along the river from Battery Park to the George Washington Bridge, attracting walkers, runners, skaters and bicyclists of all ages. Cornell University is building a high technology center on Roosevelt Island, in the middle of the East River. These changes convey a sense of hopefulness about the future of the city and the people in it.
New York City, despite its many continuing challenges and troubles, feels aspirational.
After audiences watch Set for Life, Sam and I are asked what can be done to help people get back to work. Most of the long-term unemployed older workers have updated their resumes, improved their interviewing techniques and leaned on their networks to find jobs. They have tried the easy fixes, and they are still out of work. The economy is not growing fast enough to provide jobs for all who need them.
What if we wiped out a percentage of every student loan across the United States, suddenly lightening the debt burden on students of all ages, allowing them to enter or return to the workforce more well educated, more highly skilled and more confident in their future ability to earn and save?
What if we enacted a nationwide version of the homesteading act in our troubled cities and encouraged people to move back into vacant buildings for a nominal cost if they agree to renovate and restore the properties and live there for five years.
What if we created the conditions to help Americans build their own Dream again?