Remember Being “Gainfully” Employed?

↑ Image from The Adventures of Unemployed Man.

Once upon a time, employed people made incremental gains that, over time, added up to something real. Crazy, right?!

An older acquaintance of mine recently said I should have no trouble buying a house if I’m “gainfully employed.” My first reaction was a kind of stunned silence. Then laughter. Exasperated laughter.

Ah, “gainfully employed.” Remember that? Good times!

I hadn’t heard the term “gainfully employed” in years, but the assumption in that old term was that, if you were employed at all, you were “gainfully” employed.

See, once upon a time, employed people made small, incremental gains every month. Over 20 or 30 years, those little gains added up to something real, like owning a house, providing for your family, and retiring with dignity. I know, crazy, right?!

This is the parallel universe that many baby boomers inherited from their parents, lived in, and took for granted. Unfortunately for anyone younger, the gains have been enclosed and secured by way of laws like California’s Proposition 13, union busting, and myriad new market rules (in the stock market, real estate market, labor market, and international trade) that have radically re-distributed the nation’s wealth away from the middle class and into the one-percent’s wealth enclosure pens.

The results are in. The middle class is no longer the majority class in America. About that (quoting Robert Reich):

Today, nearly one out of every five working Americans is in a part-time job. Many are consultants, freelancers, and independent contractors. Two-thirds are living paycheck to paycheck. And employment benefits have shriveled. The portion of workers with any pension connected to their job has fallen from just over half in 1979 to under 35 percent today. In MetLife’s 2014 survey of employees, 40 percent anticipated that their employers would reduce benefits even further.

Compounding that:

  • Public school defunding and ruination. I guess if your kid’s education is a priority, you can always send them to private school if you’re gainfully employed.
  • Massive student debts with interest rates that cannot be adjusted to market rates, and cannot be forgiven, even in bankruptcy. But you should be able to pay off 40K in no time if you’re gainfully employed, right?
  • Insane health care costs. Perhaps you should be able to afford $900/mo for your family if you’re gainfully employed?
  • Insane real estate prices. Anyone can save 200K for a 20% down payment on a $1,000,000 micro-apartment if they’re gainfully employed. If not, well, maybe you’re one of those people who “shouldn’t be buying houses.”

The incremental gains we used to make are now incremental losses as we fall further and further behind every day, week, month, year.

What would it take for us to be gainfully employed again with no ironic quotes around the word gainfully? Robert Reich again:

Ultimately, the trend toward widening inequality in America, as elsewhere, can be reversed only if the vast majority, whose incomes have stagnated and whose wealth has failed to increase, join together to demand fundamental change. The most important political competition over the next decades will not be between the right and left, or between Republicans and Democrats. It will be between a majority of Americans who have been losing ground, and an economic elite that refuses to recognize or respond to its growing distress.

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