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David Brooks: Pondering precarious futures

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From page A6 | February 13, 2014 | Leave Comment

When foreign visitors used to describe American culture, they generally settled on different versions of one trait: energy. Whether driven by crass motivations or spiritual ones, Americans, visitors agreed, worked more frantically, moved more and switched jobs more than just about anybody else on Earth.

That’s changing. In the past 60 years, for example, Americans have become steadily less mobile. In 1950, 20 percent of Americans moved in a given year. Now, it’s about 12 percent. In the 1950s and 1960s, people lived in the same house for an average of five years; now people live in the same house for an average of 8.6 years. When it comes to geographic mobility, we are now at historic lows, no more mobile than people in Denmark or Finland.

Why is this happening? A few theories offer partial explanations, but only partial ones.

It is true that we are an aging nation and older people tend to move less. But today’s young people are much less mobile than young people from earlier generations. Between the 1980s and the 2000s alone, mobility among young adults dropped by 41 percent.

It’s also true that many people are locked into homes with underwater values. But as Timothy Noah pointed out in Washington Monthly, mobility among renters is down just as sharply as mobility among homeowners.

It’s also true that labor markets are getting more homogeneous. It used to be that the jobs found in Pittsburgh were different from the ones found in Atlanta. But now they are more similar, so there is less reason to move from one city to another. But that also fails to explain the tremendous drops over decades.

No, a big factor here is a loss in self-confidence. It takes faith to move. You are putting yourself through temporary expense and hardship because you have faith that over the long run you will slingshot forward. Many highly educated people, who are still moving in high numbers, have that long-term faith. Less-educated people often do not.

One of the oddities of the mobility that does exist is that people are not moving to low-unemployment/high-income areas. Instead, they are moving to lower-income areas with cheap housing. That is to say, they are less likely to endure temporary housing hardship for the sake of future opportunity. They are more likely to move to places that offer immediate comfort even if the long-term income prospects are lower.

This loss of faith is evident in other areas of life. Fertility rates, a good marker of confidence, are down. Even accounting for cyclical changes, people are less likely to voluntarily vacate a job in search of a better one. Only 46 percent of white Americans believe they have a good chance of improving their standard of living, the lowest levels in the history of the General Social Survey.

Peter Beinart wrote a fascinating piece for National Journal, arguing that Americans used to have much more faith in capitalism, a classless society, America’s role in the world and organized religion than people from Europe. But now American attitudes resemble European attitudes, and when you just look at young people, American exceptionalism is basically gone.

Fifty percent of Americans over 65 believe America stands above all others as the greatest nation on Earth. Only 27 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 believe that. As late as 2003, Americans were more likely than Italians, Brits and Germans to say the “free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world.” By 2010, they were slightly less likely than those Europeans to embrace capitalism.

Thirty years ago, a vast majority of Americans identified as members of the middle class. But since 1988, the percentage of Americans who call themselves members of the “have-nots” has doubled. Today’s young people are more likely to believe success is a matter of luck, not effort, than earlier generations.

These pessimistic views bring to mind a concept that’s been floating around Europe: the Precariat. According to British academic Guy Standing, the Precariat is the growing class of people living with short-term and part-time work with precarious living standards and “without a narrative of occupational development.” They live with multiple forms of insecurity and are liable to join protest movements across the political spectrum.

The American Precariat seems more hunkered down, insecure, risk averse, relying on friends and family but without faith in American possibilities. This fatalism is historically uncharacteristic of America.

No one response is going to reverse the trend, but Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute believes government should offer moving vouchers to the long-term unemployed so they can chase opportunity. If we could induce more people to Go West! (or South, East or North) in search of opportunity, maybe the old future-oriented mind-set would return.

— The New York Times

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