Parables are a little too neat for real life.
A few days ago I found myself part of a living sign that somewhere in the engine room of the American economy something might be broken.
We took a drive in Los Angeles out past Pasadena and into Altadena for a hike and a barbecue with friends. The walk was curtailed by the tardiness of our arrival, but it was lovely to get up into the hills and gain perspective on the hazy expanse of the city. The barbecue was pleasant too, though my struggles with portion control, turning down a second helping, and stopping myself from eating cookies if cookies are there, all meant I went home too full in the belly.
But what happened was this: nine people were in attendance. There were three married couples, including me and my wife, all of whom were living rent-free with their parents or, in our case, close family. Only three of the nine people around the dinner table were employed: one of the three very recently got a job after sending in 53 job applications, and one was soon to be unemployed. The most gainfully and satisfactorily employed person was a New Zealander, working remotely in Los Angeles for his Auckland-based employer. Every person had completed a university education. Six people had a master's degree. Most had graduated relatively recently. This was not a table of slouches.
A few Failure to Launch jokes were made, but I object on principle to anything that compares my own situation with a bad Matthew McConaughey romantic-comedy. I posited to the crowd that maybe past a certain point, when you've left home for long enough and made your way in the world, and your parents are themselves dealing with empty nests, moving home is more of a joy for your parents than an anxiety-riddled imposition. I think my parents would be delighted to have me home... for a while, at least.
Following the global financial crisis, the phenomenon of the Boomerang Generation in the US has been extensively, some may even say excessively, documented. There was a widely quoted statistic that 85 per cent of university graduates were returning home to live, which has been debunked. A Pew Research survey estimates this figure to be no higher than 40 per cent, which is still high. The "Boomerang" narrative is one of the prevailing stories about young people in America: it's a source of human-interest coverage about parents and children coexisting, been posited as a handbrake on economic growth and been used as further evidence that Barack Obama has damned this country to doom and mediocrity.
The US unemployment rate sits at 8.2 per cent, well down from the 10 per cent peak of October 2009. The unemployment rate for people aged between 25 and 34 is exactly the same as the national average.
Our group of nine should supposedly be in better stead than the average. The American unemployment rate for someone with a bachelor's degree or higher is 4.1 per cent, but at 76 per cent there's a much higher labour force participation rate among those with this level of education. So while our group may have been atypical in that sense, educated grads face stiffer competition. For recent graduates reentering the job market and looking to put new skills to work, they're battling against a situation where the average length of unemployment has grown since 2005 in America to almost 40 weeks. And then when you factor in that many around the table the other night were hoping to work in slightly slumping industries (journalism, film, etc) this small sample of people seemed strangely in sync with the greater American situation.
It's an odd set of chemistries, this American economy, and it needs to be stated clearly that to be able to wait out a lull in employment in rent-free comfort makes everyone involved lucky to an extreme degree. Something feels off in this country, which is supposedly sailing toward safe waters but is beset with signs that seem to indicate otherwise: slumping house prices, paradigm shifts in consumer spending, jobless recoveries, and an average age of home ownership that has risen from 23 to 35 in the past half-century.
It kind of snaps my mind in half, trying to assess the human impact of the struggles facing the economy: everything you read seems panicked and stressed about irreversible decline but yet people still get up the next day and look to be smiling.
For this little bubble the other night, there was little immediate danger, but the feeling still of taking shelter and waiting for things to improve because what goes down, must come back up, we are told. I guess though, after a while I can't help but stop and ask, "Will it? You promise?"
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