There are a number of reports that indicate that we Baby Boomers are the last generation that will have an improved lifestyle than our parents. We had better incomes, lived healthier lives, basically had a better standard of living.
Back when we Baby Boomers were kids most of our dads left for work each morning and Mom was home. In elementary school I walked home for lunch and it was only when I was bussed into town for school and ate lunch there that my mom got a job. At that time my dad’s income was more than adequate; mom’s income provided some extras. They were able to help us pay for college and also were able to travel. My father worked for the same company his entire working life and had a benefits package that rarely exists today. For example, he had lifetime health insurance, and my mom also did, even after my dad died.
There have been a lot of changes in the American lifestyle since then. Many conservatives decry that women should return to the traditional role of staying at home. If we want to assume that marriage will be a lifetime commitment and that all women are happy in that role, great, but let’s examine a few realities that make that difficult.
INCOME I remember hearing in the early 1970s that the Cost of Living Index was initiated to help us understand changes over time. In 1978, several years out of college, I got a job working as a planner for an engineering/planning firm. I was paid $12,000 a year, had a car note of $97 a month for my Chevy Chevette (new price was $3600) and I also paid $350 a month for my 100% mortgage on a 2 bedroom-1.5 bath condo that had a sale price of $29,900. I managed to pay it all, my utilities, my insurance, my food. It was tight, but it was doable.
I quit my last 9-5 job when my boss refused to give me a raise to a fair salary. I had accepted a lower starting salary since the business was a start-up with the assurance that there would be bonuses and/or a raise when it was functioning well. Two years later, when it was making a steady profit he countered my request with 50 cents an hour. I was making $25,000. When you use the Cost of Living index, the $12,000 I earned in 1978 would require a comparable salary of $41,000 at the time I asked my boss for a raise in 2011.
EDUCATION When I entered 6th grade my mother took a job with Rutgers, New Jersey’s state university and part of her benefits package included free tuition for her children. I was able to attend college and paid for my room and board from summer jobs, part time jobs during the school year and by becoming a residence hall adviser. Their out of pocket contribution to my college expenses was my allowance which was the same as high school, $25 a month. My total college cost from 1972-1976 was about $4,000. I am very proud I paid for it.
My youngest son Sam is now attending the University of Vermont. His costs run about $50,000 a year. If the cost of living index was applied, that current 4-year school cost would be just under $17,000. Obviously, the cost of education has increased more than the cost of living. This makes it all but impossible to pay for without some assistance. Congress has raised the percentage on school loans and many people who graduated 5-10 years ago have calculated it will take over 30 years to pay off the accumulating debtload.
FOOD Some time in the mid 1990s advances in science permitted gene splicing in such a way that our foods changed. With the advent of genetic engineering, a gene from one kind of life form could be put into another to help it withstand some problem. This looked like an amazing answer to a concern people had about feeding the increasing population around the world.
Overseas, where farming with these new seeds permit and require the use of more and more herbicides, many farmers are becoming ill and dying. Here in the United States we have more people today with gastro-intestinal issues, diabetes, food sensitivities and allergies than ever before. Some people argue that diagnosis is better. Some people find that when they cut out preservatives, artificial colors and additives, and start eating whole foods instead of nuking frozen prepared dishes, the health issues improve.
HEALTH The availability of inexpensive food in the United States is tied directly to the subsidies that we, the American taxpayers, give to major producers of corn, soy, canola among others. This program permits the farmers to accept a price that might not truly cover production costs and gets passed on to consumers with lower prices for processed foods using those ingredients. Corn, for example, is in many foods as a direct ingredient or as corn syrup or corn starch.
Many consumers find it difficult to feed themselves and their families without taking advantage of these subsidized foods, so many American diets are high in these ingredients which do not provide healthy nutrition. Add a more sedentary lifestyle in front of computers or game playing, and you have a population that is overweight. The Center for Disease Control reports that over 69% of the American population is overweight or obese. The CDC says this is our largest challenge as the unhealthy lifestyle so many of us chose is going to be the cause of our deaths. The sad thing is that about 12% of our children are also obese. They are not going to live as long. Their health is going to be troubled at a much earlier age. Their health care costs are going to be high.
We have a broken system. Our children are in trouble.