Sorry! The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock
I saw it in L.A. during a holiday vacation, just a fleeting verbal image: “Sorry! The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock.” I was hanging out with some members of the twentysomething artistic community out there, and thinking of them the phrase seemed to say it all. When I got home and googled the phrase I saw it was by Banksy, the British graffiti mogul, who has long been a favorite of mine. It made perfect sense.
That lifestyle, that elusive, promised chimera; it seems so gone for so many that even its promise is gone. Banksy's observation fits for twentysomethings, fiftysomethings, sixtysomethings—just about everybody. But I saw something else on my trip to California, too. Bustling restaurants in wine country, new mega-pickup trucks in ranch country, hard-to-get hotel reservations and fifteen-dollar movies in theaters busting at the seams.
Those that have shall get. That’s what I seemed to be reading. And what of those that don’t?
The Bread Line Has Gone Virtual
No more standing in those depressing lines that so characterized the grim reality of job-seeking during the Great Depression. Today we stand in line in the privacy of our own home, or apartment, or a family member’s home, or elsewhere, wherever passes for shelter. It’s a good thing that the public stigma has disappeared, but so has the public face of want. Where are the people who are hurting? We seem to have spawned an invisible nation of those who do not have.
Many of those who are hurting are working, often in dead-end jobs that won’t cover student loan bills, health care, or retirement. There are some things you can postpone, like having children, but you can’t postpone illness, aging or bankruptcy. I am astounded by how many younger people in big cities are paying thousand-dollar rents for one bedroom apartments. And they are doing so on incomes that mean, between rent and student loans, that two thirds of their income is spoken for. Put that together with the one luxury no one seems to be able to live without—the 4G cellphone plan—and these kids are tapped out before they hit the starting line.
The singer Paul Thorn says everybody looks good at the starting line, but financially, for many, it just ain’t so.
And of those twenty-five million who are out of work—thirteen million who are “official” and another twelve or so who just quit looking, that lifestyle is really, really, out of stock…and for how long? It gives the lie to traces of recovery and pockets of privilege. I am astounded that Mitt Romney has the stones to say that the question is whether we want European socialism or free enterprise. Free enterprise. Such a ring to it. European socialism -- Bad. Free enterprise -- Good. Damnit, why don’t those twenty-five million deadbeats just get off their asses and create their own jobs? We have “free enterprise.” What’s to stop them?
Never mind that equating Barack Obama with European socialism is like equating Mitt Romney with the Tea Party. No, that's not quite accurate; Romney is closer to the Tea Party than Obama is to European socialism. What brutalizes the sensible mind is that four years into this doom loop we still get nothing but facile rhetoric…and it still sells! Free enterprise. Job creators. The sound bites of the right mean less than nothing to those whose lifestyle is out of stock and isn’t due in anytime soon.
Banksy got it right. Lifestyle is the right word. During the pre-crash party we all had lifestyles, not just lives, didn’t we? When rent and utilities consume two-thirds of your paycheck, you don’t get to order the lifestyle. Oh, you still have a “lifestyle,” I suppose. Crappy, crimped and cramped.
But you know what? As I survey Gen Y at work—in the larger sense of the word—I find remarkable resilience, good humor, and a sense of sticking together. I think it has been evident in most of the Occupy events—at least those where police tactics did not get out of hand. I see it often. And I think the kids are alright. They just don’t have the opportunities they deserve, and that there parents had. As a general rule, you don’t set up a system that tells young people to load up on college debt when you can see that the job pool won’t sustain their numbers. This has been true for a while in a number of professions. I think the field of law would be a poster child for that observation. And yet, when times are tough, young people double down on education that may lead, well, nowhere. If you are underemployed in this economy and carrying sixty or eighty thousand in student loan debt, that lifestyle you ordered may never come in.
That’s a bit of a tragedy. It’s a Plan B moment. Heck, for many, it’s a Plan B life. When in doubt, improvise. It’s an American hallmark. Let’s hope that resilience is not out of stock because, for far too many, relief is not in sight. As pertains to Gen Y, I’m an optimist. Time is long, it may ultimately be on their side. For the vanguard of the Baby Boomers, not so much. For them, the clock is running out.