Even Credentialed Young People Pessimistic About Their Futures

Although it probably comes as no surprise, the degree of rentierism around the world has apparently hit the point that young people even in what most would see as good positions, by virtue of being educated and working in white-collar jobs, are downbeat about their futures.

Admittedly, this Financial Times survey is hugely flawed from an analytical standpoint. It’s an Internet poll, so there’s no control over sampling and no assurance that the respondents were truthful about their own demographics. But the flip side is the participants would have no particular reason to lie either, and if anything, survey participants tend to exaggerate how well they are doing. So for 1700 Financial Times readers, meaningly literate, presumably well to very well educated, and in a professional position, to report so much concern about their futures, is if nothing else awfully striking, large-scale anecdotal evidence. Consider its headline, ‘We are drowning in insecurity’: young people and life after the pandemic, and this table:

Notice how on the various measures, the US comes out poorly, with only the Netherlands, Singapore, and South Africa tallying a bit worse.

No one is saying that these individuals are facing hardship…at least now. It’s that the inability of even those who did everything they were supposed to do in our pretend meritocratic system to attain a comfortable lifestyle and support a family is eating away at its last veneer of legitimacy. From the pink paper:

Many describe feeling as if there is nothing solid under their feet. “Most people my age are paddling so hard just to stay still,” says Tom, an architect. “It’s exhausting — nobody is asking for an easy ride, but all my friends have worked so hard all their lives, and many are losing faith in the system.”

For Killian Mangan, who graduated during the pandemic last year and struggled to find a job, it feels as if “we are drowning in insecurity with no help in sight”. A twenty-something who works for a central bank says: “I sometimes have this feeling that we are edging towards a precipice, or falling in it already.”

And they also wonder how they can afford a dignified old age. As one participant said, “My retirement plan is to die in the climate wars.”

And as we’ll see, this isn’t the whinge of pampered New Yorkers (pre Covid) that you can’t get by on $500,000 a year, between taxes, housing, private school and extras, summer rentals and nanny costs. These young people are falling sort of more modest financial goals, like being able to raise children in something other than cramped quarters. They are all finding that not being able to get meaningful monetary support from their parents puts them on a vastly different track than their peers that do.

It’s no mystery in the US that social mobility has eroded. A Brookings paper in 2015 on the US found, consistent with the experience of the sources for the Financial Times story, that interegenerational mobility had fallen among the richest and middle class groups, more so among men than women. A Cleveland Fed study in 2016 found that mobility was lowest among the top and bottom quintiles, with 70% staying where they started out. The Financial Times confirms these trends:

Most young people are quick to acknowledge the ways in which their lives are better than those of previous generations…

But housing and education have grown more expensive, jobs feel more competitive and insecure, pensions less adequate and the environment imperilled….wealth is becoming a more important determinant of their prospects than their own efforts.

The statistics suggest they have a point. In the UK, for example, a paper to be published on Monday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that as older generations amass more wealth, average inheritances compared to lifetime income for the 1980s-born will be almost double that of the 1960s-born.

This will damage social mobility. For those born in the 1980s to parents whose wealth levels are in the lowest fifth among their peers, inheritances will increase their lifetime incomes by 5 per cent according to IFS estimates, while those born to parents in the top fifth will enjoy a 29 per cent boost. For those born in the 1960s, the disparity was smaller (2 per cent and 17 per cent, respectively).

“At the moment, while the wealth is still held by older generations it shows up in the data as a difference between generations, but wealth doesn’t disappear, it’s going to flow down and [then] it moves on to being an issue about inequality within younger generations,” says David Sturrock, an IFS senior research economist. “It’s basically saying how much you stand to gain depends on who your parents are and the wealth they have.” Many developed countries share “a lot of the same dynamics”, he adds.

In the US, we do have the occasional leveler of a seemingly well-off older person depleting their assets due to living a very long time while needing costly hands-on care and/or dying expensively. But the general pattern will hold even with more exceptions.

But readers of the Financial Times around the world, who presumably are in finance or adjacent professions like banking, report that their prospects of securing what used to be considered basics, like buying a home suitable for bringing up a family, looks out of reach for those who aren’t getting parental support or are in line for an inheritance. In other words, even among the middle and upper middle class, the idea that they can, say, afford a house big enough for raising children in a district with a decent schools that isn’t a catastrophic commute from work looks unattainable. I know of one example in my immediate circle: an adult son who went to Yale and has a good but non-predatory job, with a working Ivy League graduate wife, again reputable employer, serious position. For them to be able to buy a house big enough for child-rearing would result in a >90 minute commute for both of them (they are both in fields where they can only intermittently work at home).

Those of you who are struggling or correctly hold the woes of the wannabe affluenza in contempt may consider this discussion to be of no interest. You have this dead wrong.

We’ve been writing since the very inception of this site about the rise of inequality and the various pathologies it produces, including a health cost even on the rich. Highly unequal societies are unhappy and insecure, with weak social ties. Even when you are high up on the food chain, any meaningful loss of income upends your personal life. You will no longer be able to socialize with your former supposed friends, or at least not as much. You’ll have to cut back on or even abandon your (say) country club/private club membership, charity funding, ski trips, Hamptons summer rental or second home, catered dinner parties….you get the picture. And that even assumes the fall in status doesn’t force the unlucky to sell his home and yank his kids out of private school or a fancy college.

The resulting desperation to hang on to their spot on the social ladder in turn makes it much easier to rationalize abusive business conduct. Steve Waldman explained in 2019:

It’s well and good to rail against health insurance companies and big pharma, and really, fuck ’em so hard they disappear into perpetual orgasm and we never have to encounter them again. But we know that healthcare in the US is exorbitantly expensive compared to anywhere else, and we also know, even if it is not shouted as loudly in political stump speeches, that a big part of this is that doctors are paid roughly twice as much in America as they are paid elsewhere in the developed world.

But what would it mean, really, to cut US doctors’ salaries in half? In theory, if you are the most imperceptive sort of economist, it means they could live as well as doctors do in Europe, which is not so bad. US doctors are paid twice as much in what is imaginatively described as “real terms”, so they should be able to purchase the same goods and services with their income as their European peers do. Where’s the problem?

But economists’ “real terms” do not measure the realest terms at all, the social relations in which the dance of our production and consumption is embedded. If you cut doctors’ salaries in half tomorrow, they would have to sell their mortgaged, absurdly expensive homes. At half their present salary, doctors would no longer be able to afford to live amongst “peer” professions like lawyers, management consultants, middling corporate executives, and the employees of surveillance monopolists. Doctors would fall precipitously from the social class, embedded in geography and consumption habits, to which many of them even now cling only precariously. More calamitously, they would lose the capacity to produce or reproduce membership in that social class for their children, often the most expensive amenity American professionals seek to purchase.

Doctors in France don’t have this problem because they live in a society less stratified than the one that we are unfortunate to inhabit. In societies in which the lives and prospects of the rich and less rich are not so divergent, people can afford to be a bit less rich. After all, even in the United States, the problem is not scarcity in a straightforward economic sense….

In a stratified, liberal capitalist society, the ability to command market power, to charge a margin sufficiently above the cost of inputs to cover the purchase of positional goods, becomes the definition of caste. When goods like health, comfort, safety, and ones children’s life prospects are effectively price-rationed, individuals will lever themselves to the hilt to purchase their place. The result is a strange precariot, objectively wealthy, educated and in a certain sense well-intended, who justify as a matter of defensive necessity participation in arrangements whose ugliness they cannot quite not see. In aggregate, they are predators, but individually they are also prey, and they feel embattled. So long as the intensity of stratification endures, they will feel like they have little choice but to participate in, even to collude to entrench, the institutions that secure their market power and their relatively decent place.

Reforming government contracting, controlling medical costs, breaking up big-tech, opening the professions to international competition, these sound technocratic, even “pro-market”. But under present levels of stratification, the consequences of these things would be a revolution, whole swathes of society accustomed to status and political enfranchisement would find themselves banished towards a “normal” they used to only read about, opiate crises and deaths of despair, towards loss of the “privilege” it has become some of their custom to magnanimously and ostentatiously “check”. Did I say they? I mean we, of course.

But of course, not doing these things means continuing to tolerate an increasingly predatory, dysfunctional, stagnant society. It means continuing deaths of despair, even as we hustle desperately to try to ensure that they are not our deaths, or our children’s. Even for its current beneficiaries, the present system is a game of musical chairs. As time goes on, with each round, yet more chairs are yanked from the game.

The only way out of this, the only escape, is to reduce the degree of stratification, the degree to which outcomes depend on our capacity to buy price-rationed positional goods. Only when the stakes are lower will be find ourselves able to tolerate, to risk, an economy that delivers increasing quantity and quality of goods and services at decreasing prices, rather than one that sustains markups upon which we, or some of us, with white knuckles must depend.

It’s only in a world like this, where the rich and near rich have insanely bid up the price of prime real estate in world cities, and leave their flats empty, turning London’s Sloane Square into an imitation of a neutron bomb blast site, the also-rans are squeezed even if they are by objective standards well off. They also further to fall if their status changes because the gradients at the high end have widened. It’s only in a world like this that this Financial Times example makes any sense:

A 30-something who works in private equity in the UK turns to collateralised debt obligations for a metaphor to describe the position of his generation. “The space I feel I occupy in the sociopolitical order is akin to being the first loss tranche in the debt stack,” he says. “Whenever anything bad happens I have no doubt that, because we lack political and economic clout, we will be left holding the bag.”

A young professional in private equity worries about his position….when anyone other than a total incompetent could expect to readily land another, albeit perhaps less lofty seat if their employer were to go poof. That’s an indicator that job and income security have gone out the window. And insecure people are much more willing to engage in desperate and crooked behavior than those who think they have less to lose. Our London-based banking and IT expert Clive explained how this worked in 2018:

I’ve spent almost 30 years working in the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) sector, my entire adult life. When I first started, it was viewed as a most suitable career choice for middle class not particularly aspirational sorts who wanted security, respectability and a recognisable position in the community. It was never supposed to be a passport to significant wealth or even much more than very modest wealth. It was certainly never supposed to be anything which oppressed or harmed anyone…

Increasingly, if you want to get and hang on to a middle class job, that job will involve dishonesty or exploitation of others in some way. Industries such as finance have seized and held onto larger and larger proportions of the economy.

The same disproportionate growth can be seen in financialised healthcare and finacialised education….

If we were to say that it is the “corporations” which are exploiting people, that would be wrong. “corporations” are not people. It is the people – you might be one of them too – who work in the corporations who are exploiting others.

From my experience, some who work in such exploitative enterprises do so willingly, with full knowledge of what they are doing. It is a regrettable human trait. Societies limit such harmful tendencies by placing justified restrictions on individuals and individual acts. It is relatively easy to identify an individual causing harm and deal with them appropriately. It is, unfortunately, much harder to identify and restrict the activities of groups of people when they can hide behind the veneer of innocence provided by a large, successful business.

For those of us who are increasingly appalled by the moral decay exhibited by some of our most powerful private sector operators which, naturally, lack any sort of democratic – public – accountability or oversight, we quickly learn that attempting to effect change from within is usually a futile gesture. Corporate Social Responsibility policies, regulatory compliance, consumer protection legislation and appeals to plain old fashioned decency are largely symbolic, quickly forgotten and ineffectual. They are minor impediments that the corporation has to work a little harder to step around and step over not significant hurdles to block unlawful, illegal or immoral actions. Whistle-blower protections are a quagmire in most jurisdictions and, at best, a gamble for the employee.

And of course, Big Finance and its related partners in crime Big Healthcare, Big Education, Big Energy, Big Agriculture and others do not sit idly by waiting to react to criticism and any attempt to reduce their influence and the cash benefits they obtains from such influence. They want to set societies’ agenda. They want to not only preserve the gains they have made at others’ expense. They want to increase them still further. To give a little context, one Too Big to Fail bank has a PR department employing over 200 people. The budget runs into millions. That is for just one bank. And that doesn’t count paid-for industry lobby groups, consultancies, advertising and think-tanks.

Yes, it is disheartening to face what has to change to claw our way back to a less brutal social order. But historically, big changes have taken place in relatively short time frames. The rich of the Gilded Era had their status cut back by trust busting and anti-monopoly measures. The conservative 1950s were followed by the social reforms of the 1960s. We’re now in the midst of a neoliberal counter-revolution that started in the 1970s and began to bear fruit for its backer in the 1980s and 1990s. Only if we understanding the nature and breadth of this challenge can we hope to turn things around.

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  1. dingus

    The chart actually implies that the US is among the most optimistic studied (it shows the percentage of adults who think things will be worse than it was for their parents), which perhaps makes the results even more striking given the context and examples provided. With Europe in general and specifically Italy and Hungary showing the least feelings of security, which perhaps makes sense given the political situation in those particular countries.

    As a highly educated (STEM) individual in the UK, a future of ‘falling in the climate wars’ does resonate with me more than gliding to the levels of wealth and property ownership that my parents managed during their semi-stable and not especially out of the ordinary seeming (but successful) careers. I’ve never seen a retirement of the kind they are embarking on now (early and bordering on unhealthily comfortable) as anything like a strong possibility for my generation. But then personally perhaps I have doubled down on the insecurity in attempting to start my own business rather than aiming for the more stable career path many of my peers have chosen, who on appearances do seem still to be just about be able to get through life’s milestones, albeit delayed from what their parents might have managed, and carrying a much higher risk if a great economic reset does come before they’ve lifted a significant portion of the mortgage burden.

  2. allan

    “Notice how on the various measures, the US comes out poorly, with only the Netherlands, Singapore, and South Africa tallying a bit worse. ”

    Yves, I think you’re reading the numbers backward. The chart shows that the FT-readership slice
    of the American credentiat is still in denial relative to most of those other countries.
    For example, only 36% think they will be worse off than their parents in having a secure job,
    as opposed to the 64% in France, etc.

    The American dream dies hard. At least for MBAs.

    My guess is that different slice of credentialed young people in the US, say STEM Ph.D.s,
    would be much more pessimistic and more in line with those in the other “advanced” economies.

    1. Sound of the Suburbs

      I expected the US to be bad (but it isn’t), when the Netherlands came up as being bad, I double checked.
      You are right.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Oops, you are correct. Will revise.

      I got stuck on the first few lines of the chart (the idea that classist UK was seen as much worse on income mobility relative to their parents didn’t seem conceivable given how much mobility has gotten worse in the US in the last 20ish years) but had I looked harder at the line on housing, I would have sorted it out.

    3. Equitable > Equal

      As I come to the end of my business education in the Netherlands, I have come to the conclusion that the primary purpose of it all was to set the correct backings for classes of arguments – Neoliberal economics 101 (as opposed to any certain critical thinking skills etc). Business is one area where the Netherlands really like to align themselves with the US, and I think it shows in this survey.

      Once you have a steady stream of graduates who have accepted the backings behind your claims, the treadmill effectively runs itself. I am as a result eternally grateful to the professor who taught me argumentation analysis, which allows for a much greater level of clarity when assessing what you’ve just been told

  3. vao

    The table indicates the “percentage of adults who think they are or will be worse than their parents” — so the results for the USA are actually amongst the least pessimistic.

    Two cases are interesting: South Africa — where it seems that credentialed people look forward to the future (probably in contrast with the vast majority of the population), and South Korea — where levels of pessimism are equivalent to the worst in European countries (how come?)

  4. PlutoniumKun

    I’ve a personal theory that the rise of the hipster phenomenon is related to the recognition by upper middle class parents that they can’t rely on pushing their kids into traditional professions anymore, unless the kids are in a very high percentile of skills and ruthlessness. Lending them a hundred grand to set them up in a coffee shop/restaurant/craft beer brewery/vegan takeaway or whatever makes more sense than putting that money towards getting them the Masters or PhD that would once have been the passport to a decent life.

    The Korean/British economist Ha Joon Chang has written about how rising job insecurity among the professional classes can be seen across countries by how parents steer their children. In insecure countries they are pushed into the ‘safe’ professions like medicine or law, rather than, say, engineering. He measured this phenomenon in South Korea as it transitioned its economy from capitalist/directed to a more ‘free market’ (i.e. neoliberal) direction. I think the push to set them up in business represents the same thing.

    1. JWP

      Im hesitant to agree with your theory mostly because a huge number of hipster type retain the business/ PMC job pathway with their hipster lifestyle. This is mostly because they realize they have to sacrifice some morals to survive and have a stable life.

      I have noticed among my peers some strong divides between parents and kids emerge, often doing extreme harm to their relationships, about what they “can” and can’t study/work because the parents feel the kids need a high paying job to achieve their level of financial stability, but the kid merely wants to be happy. This is especially common among those gifted in the arts and those with parents who own companies and/or are doctors.

    2. beatnikpicnic

      Do you have a link to where Chang wrote about this? Or book title? I’ve read one of his (23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism), but don’t recall mention of it there…

      Your hunch is very interesting. There’s an inkling of hope there– the craft brewery scene contains seeds of 2 changes that would be helpful more broadly:
      1) reverse of pareto-ification. There used to be 3-10 national breweries, now there’s one in every small town.
      2) genesis of local economy restarts. Where there’s a microbrewery, you can expect a small winery, maybe a t shirt shop, etc to follow.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        And it might well work the other way. The owner-operators of a microbrewery might want to use clean-genes cancer-juice-free shinola grain to make their beer with. That can help a non-toxic farmer go into business or stay in business in the teeth of background-suppression by bigger stronger petrochemical GMO-Cancer Juice shit-grain producing agri-biznismons.

    1. cnchal

      . . . and I said nothing, but was horrified by it.

      Then they came for the toolmakers, what economists euphemistically call low skill manufacturing workers, but what they really meant is stupid people that make stuff.

      The doctors, accountants and lawyers said nothing, even cheered that cheaply made stuff at even cheaper prices stretched their pay much further. Now their younguns are in the crosshairs of a completely corrupt, non repairable economic system.

      The next class to get bit in the ass by their venal cheering of the destruction of people in the service of a psychopathic elite, if there is an iota of justice anywhere would be economists. I would cheer that on. I call it payback.

      My attitude is the buck you don’t have to earn is worth way moar than the buck you do, so crap like new cars and big expensive houses are an anti status symbol. To spend $50,000 on a car you need to “earn” $100,000. I have better things to do than be a slave to a corrupt system. Big debt makes one a slave.

      1. wadge22

        If the toolmaker is “low skill,” us job shop setup-guys are probably technically referred to as “chopped liver.” I dread to think what they call the operators. Seriously, some of the guys I train have a hard time mastering “load part, push start.”
        What do economists teach each other that these guys’ daughters are supposed to get for Christmas?

        Yes, it’s hard not to cheer when the other classes get it good too. I know that it’s a vice, but Hey, schadenfreude is free. And sorry to break it to anyone, but the economist doesn’t seem all that pertinently different from the MBA, the STEM grad, or the educated media commentator. Not from down here. No more than those types know the difference between a toolmaker, a patternmaker, a machinist, or in many cases an auto mechanic.

        And I especially appreciate your last paragraph. Something close to that has been a mantra for me since (highschool) graduation.

      2. ArvidMartensen

        Calling the elites psychopaths is missing the point imho. If a person is totally unburdened by the qualities that allow society to function (eg love, kindness, empathy) then they are free to do whatever it takes to get money and power, rising to the top of that class through manipulation, coercion, theft. The sad truth is that there are psychopaths in every class.

        When you have a country with psychopaths at all levels, then it is going to be mean, exploitative and dog eat dog. And the other sad thing is that abusive households ( becoming more common now as countries sink into Dickensian levels of poverty) actually breeds psychopaths.

        When the only person in the world who has any worth is *Me*, then no matter what happens to your class brethren you could not care less.

        1. cnchal

          Reach for the top = kiss the right ass and stab the right back in the correct order. As good as any for a definition of psychopath.

          I refused to do it and detested being bossed around. I also detest bossing others around, therefore I am not leadership material.

          Reading the comments from young STEM strivers is telling. Most don’t yet realize that the point of their education and brilliance is harnessed by an elite that will abuse them for their own pleasure, which is moar and moar money, while they drown in debt to serve.

          When has a billionaire ever said, I have enough?

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        Perhaps colleges and universities could give equal respect to remote lectures from Economists in India as against Economists in Harvard. If enough students opt for the “from India” remote lectures, it might be possible to bust Harvard economist salaries down to Indian or even Bangladeshi professor levels.

  5. Halcyon

    I’m in my mid-20s. Got my first-class degree in a STEM subject from a prestigious University (ok it’s one of the two British ones you might be thinking of). Child of the PMC – and that’s my social circle. I am aware that I am in an unbelievably privileged and advantaged position compared to the vast majority of my generation – as are my social circle.

    And almost all of us are in insecure or uncertain employment or sucked into endless cycles of further education, with stable homes and any prospect of setting up a family seemingly miles away. Very few of us have any real hope for any level of stability, let alone prosperity, in our futures. The most successful went into FIRE and work insane hours in an extremely cut-throat environment. It’s hard to say that this is representative – or know how different it really is to our parents’ generation, although reflecting on the fact they were able to buy houses with 3-4x their salaries and for us the equivalent would be 10-20x, it seems that it’s objective and measurable.

    I’m not surprised that people are miserable. Even for the privileged few (which I count myself among) the security is not there any more.

    1. beatnikpicnic

      My sympathies with you. I’d previously suggest to you to check out middle america and the great lakes area. Due to a multiyear cultural lag behind more densely-populated areas, as well as relatively low population density and net outmigration to coastal areas, housing costs have remained relatively low.

      That was, until this year. Even the great lakes area is not totally immune to the US housing market frenzy, and I suspect it will worsen as climate trends push folks out of the currently-booming sunbelt toward the north.

      1. ambrit

        I suspect that those ‘Sunbirds’ will not be “pushed North” so much as forced to die in place.
        Even here in the North American Deep South, house prices are “insane.’ yet, we look around us and wonder at all the empty housing units mouldering towards “Urban Renewal.”
        The Neo-liberal system is now “eating it’s own children.”

        1. beatnikpicnic

          A tragic observation that many of the folks in those states probably will not be able to make the migration northward. And yet, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Florida are experiencing much migration from California, New York, and elsewhere. I don’t think those are sunbirds so much as folks who can’t afford the main coastal metros but also don’t want the cold of the north.

          You’re right that empty housing units is under-discussed. Sometime friend of NC, Wolfstreet discusses private equity and institutional acquisition of housing supply.

          ‘Eating own children’ is a vivid metaphor – you’re onto something mythological there. Who is the Zeus to neoliberalism’s Kronos?

    2. BridgetownBeast

      I feel you, friend.

      I’m a Millennial in my mid 30s, from a middle class engineering family, with two STEM degrees, Chemical engineering and computer science. The reason I got my second degree was because my engineering office was shuttered after a project and our parent company laid everyone off rather than “work-sharing” with other offices until another project could be won. Looking at the state of the industry I saw no future so I went back to school. I now approach every job as though the company is always on the verge of bankruptcy because I have never felt safe from being laid off, no matter my performance. I have my own experiences and those of my father and uncles to rely on, because they all spent substantial portions of their careers unemployed during better times.

      I spent years busting my butt, 60 to 80 hours or more each week, trying to stand out and advance myself; I now refuse to work hard anymore because I know that there’s no point. If I want a raise I change companies, because despite always receiving positive performance reviews my annual raises aren’t even COLA in the cities where I have lived.

      I put off buying a house because I never knew how my employment would hold up or if I’d be forced to uproot and move to another state, so I’ve pissed away hundreds of thousands on rent; not that I have any faith that I’d have made money on a house because the market seems to be constantly teetering on the brink of collapse.

      I won’t be having biological children because I have ZERO faith that their lives will be of quality.

  6. Astrid

    The results are not quite so dire since most do appear to think they will do better than their parents, but apparently even a successful career no longer equates to having enough money to live well or own a home.

    As for why South Korea does so poorly. I suspect you can find similar results by surveying Hong Kong or Mainland China. Life is endless competition where most people are losers at each round. To make it to the level of reading the Pink Paper, means nightly cram schools, a career of working well into nights and working Saturdays, housing costs that may equate to your lifetime income as a working professional. On the other hand, your friends and colleagues with wealthier parents may partially escape this horror by going to school abroad and get their housing paid for by parents.

  7. Tom Stone

    My daughter will be 20 in a month and will graduate from the honors college at USF next May,with honors, if she keeps it up.International Business and Chinese major.
    Her Fiancee’ will graduate a year later with an engineering degree from Cal Poly.
    They will both graduate without debt, he got a full ride academic scholarship, hers covered 2/3 of the costs.
    They plan to move either to Canada or the EU( Ireland?) within a year of his graduation.
    Rosetta has been patrticularly looking into which Nations fast track permanent residence and Citizenship to those who pursue an advanced degree in their countries.
    They don’t expect conditions in either place to be great, just significantly better than the USA when it comes to quality of life.
    Several of their more ambitious friends also are looking into emigrating after graduation and they are the cream of the crop.
    My family has been in the USA since a third son from Hesse decided to take a walk one evening with his musket , and I think they are making the right move.
    The USA is becoming more and more authoritarian and the Authorities are using the same playbook that General John C. Fremont did in 1861-’62.

    1. chuck roast

      After a mediocre HS career, my nephew wanted to go to an international college in Denmark. It was free to relatives of Danish citizens. This was 12 years ago. He went on from there to study business in grad school. We would ship him a few bucks every now and then, but he worked, biked, studied and graduated last year debt free. He did a series of internships for which he got paid peanuts. Last month he got a very competitive job at some sort of IT firm at a decent salary. He likes them and they like him. He now has a Danish passport. None of the family like to think about what would have become of him if he had stayed in the indispensable country. Now he can help to take care of his mom who is still here in the US and is not far from living under an overpass.

    2. Louis

      Several of their more ambitious friends also are looking into emigrating after graduation and they are the cream of the crop.

      Unfortunately, the real world isn’t Lake Wobegon where all the children are above average–emigrating is not a realistic option for people who aren’t “cream of the crop” or have family ties abroad, especially if the hope is to emigrate to Canada or similarly developed country with a quality of life that includes a reasonably functioning government and relatively low levels of corruption.

  8. David

    Back in the day, the distinction in Britain between the working class (no matter how prosperous) and the lowest fringes of the middle class was property ownership. For many millions of people born after the war, their ultimate financial and social situation was determined by whether their parents had managed or not to buy a little three-bedroom terraced house in a shabby district and then trade up with rising prices. Some inherited absolute fortunes, others nothing. This was really the solution to the question of why right-wing political parties were ever in power at all in democracies: that people saw a possibility, no matter how small, of moving up the social and economic ladder during their lives, and, especially, owning a house, or just owning a nicer home than their parents ever did.

    I don’t think we’ve really thought through the consequences of taking this hope away. It’s the difference between a small chance of winning the lottery, and the lottery being cancelled. There are a few writers (Franco Berardi, Mark Fisher who’ve started to think of what No Future means in cultural terms, but I don’t think anyone has really considered the political and electoral consequences in any detail. What happens when intelligent and well-educated couples in good jobs realise that they’ll never be able to buy even a little house like their parents’, which cost say £20,000 in 1980, and is going for half a million today? What happens when this isn’t just anecdotal, but almost universal? And what happens if, as now, property prices in major cities are bid up to stratospheric levels not by extra demand, but by foreign investors, buy to let and money-washing? It was, after all, the educated and frustrated middle classes who were at the forefront of the French and Russian Revolutions.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think you are right – historically, revolutions (and terrorism) has tended to be rooted in the frustrations of various levels of the middle classes. Often its not about an absolute drop in living standards, but a relative one. We tend to compare our lives to others, and its very hard not to notice that only those with propertied parents can look forward to the same standard of living as the past generation. Every member of my family has ‘on paper’ done better than my parents in terms of career, but not one of us could afford the house we grew up in.

  9. pck

    I’m in a STEM PhD program in the US right now, and I think there’s a broad feeling of hopelessness RE climate change in particular, and the ability of our political system to handle challenges in general. I’m not sure exactly how that intersects with the questions in figure 1, but for me, there’s a sense that those things are mostly unknowable due to the likelihood of the future being completely disrupted by climate change.

    My partner and I will likely both be able to get really good biotech jobs, which I’m incredibly grateful for. But at the same time, I have absolutely zero faith that I will be doing something that helps people. Hearing from other recent grads, all the biotech jobs are in super high COL places, so we will certainly be comfortable, and far more comfortable than most, but maybe not “buy a house” comfortable. I don’t know, I could sound super out of touch – even in my university, there are other PhD students struggling with homelessness, getting adequate healthcare, so me dreading the long-term effects of climate change is second-order at best.

    I found the Steve Waldman excerpt really interesting, but it also leads to a question – when do those social forces start to exert themselves to make one want to maintain an illusory class position at the cost of experiencing actual material precarity? The mortgage part of it makes sense – doctors/other young professionals want to have kids and they need a house and they need a mortgage to get a house. Another thing I can understand is the desire to “want what’s best for my kids”, which then leads to an expensive house to find good schools, and potentially expensive schooling. Most of the people I’m around – STEM PhD students, who will presumably go on to get some of those jobs in consulting or tech – have pretty inexpensive tastes now.

    1. Astrid

      Beyond job insecurity and housing costs, the cost of raising and “launching” kids is a real back breaker. I’ve worked in organizations with highly paid PMC staff for my entire working career. The difference between people who are doing well and those who are treading water (or worse, it’s amazing how many prosperous seeming people have massive home equity or credit card debts) usually comes down to size of their student loans and whether they have more than one child. Even when the kids are successfully launched, they still need financial help from parents well into their 20s and 30s to get by.

      1. Hepativore

        One problem with the biotech sector is that it has been increasingly taken over by gig and contract work since the 1980’s or so, and many companies I have worked for in this area also make heavy useage of poorly-paid and poorly-treated foreign guest workers to maintain downward pressure on wages and benefits much like you see with the IT sector. There is also a huge backlog of people that are after these gig positions due to how unstable jobs are in many areas of biotech. As a final insult, many companies in this sector consider people who are past their mid-30’s to be over-the-hill” because people in their 30’s tend to have children and families and would be less likely to accept such poor quality contractual jobs.

        I think now, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only around 12% of people with degrees in the Life Sciences end up working in their respective fields after graduation. In the face of all of the above, I would not be surprised

        1. pck

          This does not inspire confidence or hope for me. I’m fortunate that I have a pretty unique skill set (very different from the standard western blots and gene transfection biology toolbox), but still. I have an uncle who has been in biomedical research in hubs like cambridge and he’s said there’s a whole ecosystem of precarious academics with 4 degrees who are all great scientists but the demand for their skills just doesn’t exist.

          I’ve been really curious about the trajectory of biotech that you describe though. Do you have any insights into how work got outsourced? Were there any key moments or leaders in that process you can point to? Do you have any book recommendations or people to pay attention to?

          1. Hepativore

            A lot of what has happened in many STEM fields is basically the result of neoliberalism and financialization that has blighted many other eras of employment in the past few decades. The monumental changes that have taken place since the Reagan era of politics have created a situation where employers are basically trying to have a huge pool of disposable workers without agency or benefits who they can get rid of at any time with little or no cost to themselves because of how much they have increased the supply of labor.

            In the case of many STEM fields, business leaders and politicians have been echoing dire warnings of a “STEM shortage” for years. They use both as a means to encourage people to pursue degrees in these areas in college as well as a way of abusing the H-1B program which was started during the early 1990’s to help ameliorate the much decried “talent shortage” claimed by companies in these areas. As a result, many R&D and engineering companies have created a glut of workers desperate to take any work in their respective fields no matter how bad it is. Competition is fierce because of all of the recent grads looking for work, the people who have been laid off after positions ended, and the constant desire on the part of companies to selectively hire semi-captive foreign H1-B workers who they can skirt labor laws with. To top it all off, most STEM fields have never been unionized, so there was little in the way of recourse for employees to prevent employers from treating them as disposable.

            In my case, I was a histologist that worked in the tissues departments of WuXi Apptec, NAMSA, and Grifols. The companies would typically hire their laboratory technicians and researchers to work on a specific project and then terminate everyone associated with that project when it was finished rather than assign them to a different project. After doing this, they would hire another batch of laboratory personnel and get rid of them after their task was complete. A large motivation as to why these companies did this was because it is the FIRE people that ran the show at these places and they would rather recycle positions than have people in these areas working long enough to be entitled to full-time benefits such as the health plan or 401k. WuXi also employed the vitality curve or “rank-and-yank” practice like Microsoft used to and would make sure to get rid of somebody just as they were there long enough to qualify for the company’s automatic raise.

            1. Pck

              Thank you so much for the detailed response. Lots of threads to pick up – I’m particularly interested in the unionization aspect, but a lot of engineering types dont love unions. I need to learn more about the H1b program too..

      2. pck

        Yeah I didn’t even think about the cost of childcare or any of the other costs associated with having a kid – clear signs I’m not even close to ready for that – thanks for your comment. Easy to see how folks that aren’t super materialistic or conspicuous consumers can become precarious very quickly.

      3. drumlin woodchuckles

        One wonders what per cent of parents who “could” help their children survive and entrench their survival position, are too dumm to realize what today’s reality for those children really is and will be till civil war or insurgency or fascist movement creates some unknowable set of new conditions.

    1. Ultrapope

      Yes, I want to express my thanks as well Yves. Precariousness is pervasive in nearly all of the interactions I have with people my age (~30yr). The quote about paddling harder and harder just to stay still hit the nail right on the head. Just getting folks to recognize this has been a struggle…

  10. Ghost in the Machine

    South Korea is surprising to me too. Can anyone comment on that? And yes, it seems the way the chart is constructed, that the US is fairing better on these questions than most of the other countries queried in this matter and that is shocking to me. Maybe our rentiers are more secure.

    1. petal

      I was wondering if in the US the ones in this field (and who would’ve answered the survey) are generally from better-off, more financially secure backgrounds to begin with? It’s kind of what I’ve observed here at our local institution. Maybe I am wrong.

    2. Astrid

      Watch Parasite, the movie. I have seen comments suggesting the terrible apartment in the movie might be worth north of $200,000. Also witness the career prospects for even highly intelligent non-elite university graduates.

      I’m not familiar with South Korea, but observe something similar in SF and mainland China. The cost of buying housing is well beyond the means of even top 5 percentile wage earners.
      The only people who can buy in are those who win the IPO lottery or came with very rich parents or bought in 20 years ago.

    3. PlutoniumKun

      Despite its huge economic success, South Korea is paying the price for exporting a middle stratum of jobs. There are still lots of good, secure jobs in the traditional big companies, but below that there are just menial jobs, and minimum wage/social protection is weak. So you have a big chunk of the under 30’s who were brought up in a hothouse education environment with expectations of the sort of rising income their parents had, but suddenly find they are shut out of this and find themselves in poorly paid jobs that they are overqualified for.

      Add to this a huge housing bubble that is pricing out all but the very rich, and a serious gender imbalance (a suspiciously high proportion of males to females were born in the 1980s/90’s, leading to some seriously frustrated young men), and you have a surprisingly bad situation for young people in a country which otherwise seems to be doing outstandingly well.

      Recent opinion polls indicate that oldsters in South Korea (over 50’s) vote right wing and authoritarian, while the 30-50 group are liberal and left-ish. But wierdly (and related to the above), the under 30’s, especially the males, are very right wing.

      1. Acacia

        …and perhaps the K-Pop phenom somehow figures into this dynamic of inter-generational conflict.

    4. Yves Smith Post author

      I think the US looking better reflects survey sample bias.

      In the US and UK, the Financial Times is a well read paper among Wall Street and Wall Street adjacent types. Samples would be large.

      Many of the other countries are not main operations for Wall Street firms and the more senior ranks would be a mix of home country expats and native country execs. They aren’t quite as intensely financialized and working for the English language firms ought to pay well but may also be seen as not secure.

  11. Bob

    We’re on the cry babies bus. !!!

    Don’t expect much from your employer they are not really interested in you personally.
    The climbers are most certainly office ass kissers.

    Rely on yourself, plan ahead, and save for the future

    1. The Rev Kev

      Horatio Alger, is that you? Your advice would have worked – maybe – until about a generation ago. The young people of today would try harder but unfortunately the generation ahead of them pulled up all the ladders leaving them stuck at the bottom. Didn’t even leave them so much as a pair of bootstraps.
      Signed, from one of the generation ahead of them.

        1. Nce

          I shouldn’t reply, but I will. I attended college as an older person to obtain vocational certs, but for various reasons ended up with a masters instead. I was amazed at how young people could hold down full time jobs, be single parents, and still manage college courses (my bachelor’s was in geology, a STEM field.) The young people I met were by no means whiners or lazy.
          What you are suggesting is that employers are practically slave owners and employees should be happy with the minimum means of survival. Maybe that reflects your experience of employee/employer relationships (and describes most of mine) but I’m cheered that young people seem to believe that they deserve better. They do. I deserved better, too. Didn’t you?

        2. Lambert Strether

          > Let’s go back to our dorm room, curl up in bed, and cry.

          I don’t think it’s just whinging. I did a stint as an adjunct, and hung out with plenty of young persons in my college town, and I am convinced they have it much worse than I did. In particular, I was allowed to flounder around for about a decade until I found my footing, and I went on to have several careers, some at a high level in my chosen trade. I think that would be much, much harder today.

          1. Bob

            Hmm. Yes I graduated in a stem field from a somewhat well regarded institution and then took a different path.

            Lost everything in a Reno casino. Hitch hiked out of town. ( BTW Reno is a good town to get a hitch from)
            Flipped burgers, operated heavy equipment, drove truck, picked fruit, and drifted.
            Darned socks to get a few more months of wear. A good deal since wool socks were $2.50 per.
            Picked up welding. Got welding clothes from Army surplus store rather than buying Carhart’s to save money
            Learned the sheet metal trade.
            Then a few machine shop tricks.
            Canned fruit, made beer, dehydrated food for long distance hikes. Drifted the far mountains.
            Biked every where to save $s.
            Learned machine design.
            Learned engineering.
            Managed $35-$50 million projects.
            Got by on scavenged fruits and vegs. And burned used pallets for heat.
            Learned to use “radar ” and “bullshit detector” in dealing with folks.

            So I’m not enamored of folks who will sit and cry rather than changing. Are things worse ? Who knows ? Wallowing in self pity won’t help.

            If a person doesn’t work at it things won’t change for the better.

            And after working for more than 75 outfits,IMO the only thing that a person can take away from a job is their personal satisfaction.

            1. Basil Pesto

              “I turned out okay, and therefore everyone else could and should, and stop complaining”

              Do you have an actual reason to take this line of thought with even a modicum of seriousness, rather than treating it as self-parody?

              Your biography is undeniably impressive, but maybe one day instead of canning fruit, perhaps you could’ve taken the time to broaden your understanding of what it means and what it takes to be a person living in the world, and that the ability to live and adapt as you describe is contingent on more than the mere physical ability to do so.

            2. Astrid

              I do believe this is the *most* ableist manifesto I’ve ever read. Also, did you do this while graduating university after 2008? I see a vast difference, at least in the US, between people who graduated before and after 2008. When you graduate with $150,000 in 8% student loans (ballooning while in IBR or deferment) and subletting a room can cost $1,000 per month and all the work you can find are zero hour contacts capped at 30 hours per week, it’s much harder to follow your own drumbeat.

            3. wadge22

              You sound pretty capable. Did you ever work with any real dumb dummies in any of those 75+ outfits? People with a lot going on at home and it’s not all their fault? How about people lacking even a little drive or confidence? Anyone with communication problems, ailments, etc?
              What for them?
              Is it that if they apply themselves and stop crying, they can be like you?

              So far it comes across as if you’re fine with them taking their personal satisfaction back to the underpass and burning it in a barrel to stay warm.

            4. WobblyTelomeres

              “And after working for more than 75 outfits,IMO the only thing that a person can take away from a job is their personal satisfaction.”

              Now that’s just not true. I got a calculator, a dictionary, and a stapler.

            5. ambrit

              This sounds just like the old “I’m all right Jack – F— You” mindset.
              You’d better be happy that ‘things’ right now are still stuck in the “whingeing” mode. The next logical step will be Pitchforks and Guillotines.

            6. The Rev Kev

              Sounds an awful like old Joe Biden in his monologue saying about Millennials-
              ‘The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. I have no empathy for it. Give me a break.’

              But Joe is halfway to ga-ga land and so imagines that things are the same as they were in the 70s for him.

    2. Cat Burglar

      So we have a survey suggesting relatively advantaged young people find their economic and social status likely to decline in the future, followed by commenters’ accounts of their experiences of economic precarity. Employing a term of disparagement usually used by children against other children that have publicly broken down in tears in this case implies that you do not find the issues in the article or the accounts worthy of either intellectual consideration, or compassion.

      The attitude has a profound side that we could open into a policy. If accounts of social and economic distress are just whining, then they need to be ignored, while their principals must be compelled to suffer a test that everyone must be subjected to. Naturally, the feelings of the inexperienced and immature cannot be the basis of policy, so there must be no change in the operation of society or government. The complainers should be publicly quiet and politically passive in the face of pitiless institutions run on an experienced and mature basis.

      The description of working life does not agree with my own experience, either as a low-wage worker, or later as an employer. But your recommendation suggests work and employment is a power relationship, obscured by falsity, and exploited by the most cynical on their route to domination. So the cynics run us, most people should keep quiet if they suffer, and this is good.

      In a pitiless social world with cynics in power, reliance on yourself is perhaps the only route open to an individual. For those that wish to rise in the right world of power, the route of manipulating the powerful until you become one of them would seem to be open. When everyone is under the threat of ending up living under an underpass, then almost anything is justified to prevent that — which accounts for the cheating, gaming, fraud, CYA, crime, and the deception practiced as a matter of course by every powerful group. Success, almost by definition, means domination of the weak by the sharp.

      Planning ahead is tactically necessary to maintain a position of at least modest comfort, and maybe also to cover your tracks properly. Saving for the future is great, if you can do it after all the rents are extracted from you, without your complaint, and with nobody caring. But what is, is right — in this view

    3. Patrick

      I put on my work boots to do some home improvement/ carpentry work. I hadn’t worn them in a long time. They’d been sitting idle for a good 6 years. After tying the laces I stood up and began to walk towards my work project. On the third step the right sole completely detached from the boot. On the fifth step the left sole did the same. The urethane soles and the glue that attached them to the boots had decomposed. In the future I’ll opt for boots with replaceable soles. Most likely constructed with sturdy, reliable Goodyear welt. In case I need to pull myself up by the straps.

  12. Hayek's Heelbiter

    I’ve noticed a significant cultural difference between the US and the UK when it comes to the lottery, Although anecdotal, my observance might be a stand-in for America’s seeming optimism in the charts.
    In the US, people are amazed when they DON’T win the lottery. In the UK, people are amazed when they DO win the lottery.

  13. Phil in KC

    As George Carlin once observed, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

    More seriously, one doesn’t need a degree in economics to understand how being middle class has changed over the course of 50 years. Being middle class when I was a child meant safety and stability. Now it means a couple of paychecks away from being homeless. Exaggeration is for effect, but true for too many in this wealthy nation.

    The reason why so many people young people are interested in socialism and a New New Deal is because capitalism as practiced today produces not enough winners and too many losers. Contrast this with immediate postwar capitalism (1945-1970-ish) which produced many more winners than losers. I am 65 and can remember my older siblings debating the wisdom of attending college versus several blue collar jobs with on-the-job training, no experience required. A good job, and all that goes with it, was easy to find (assuming you were of a certain race or ethnicity). Such is not the case today.

    I understand the world has changed and the US is not the pre-eminent manufacturing powerhouse of yore. But I remember very well an explanation of the inequity of neo-liberalism: The world is filled with thousands of intelligent, conscientious, and well-trained English-speaking physicians, but only a select few will ever be allowed to practice in the US. In other words, American physicians do not have to worry about competion from abroad. Can the US steelworker say the same? The well-heeled have taken care of themselves and their interests, assisted by our government, but the rest of us are on our own. Free markets don’t care if an individual eats or not. Only people can care.

    1. Jason

      Free markets don’t care if an individual eats or not. Only people can care.

      Excellent. Spread far and wide.

  14. LaRuse

    When I was just getting started in 2002-2003, I wanted an apartment. I had been paying $400 a month to share a place with 4 roommates, but I wanted at least one year of just having my own space and all I made back then was $9/hour, which was pretty good for a college drop out just after the 2001-2002 recession. I found a 420 sq. ft. studio apartment for $410 a month that was not in a “nice” part of town. I managed to do okay – didn’t have cable or internet back then (used the internet at work or the library). Just a land line, local television, a paid of ’86 station wagon, and lots of books. Never missed my rent even if I didn’t have any spare change to walk around with – I was only 20/21 years old, single, got by with a futon bed/couch and a recliner, so I managed – it wasn’t fancy but that apartment was a jumping off point.
    This morning I looked to see what that same apartment was going for these days. Evidently they renovated that complex – stainless appliances, mini-washer and dryer in some apartments, etc. But the $410 a month is a thing of the past. Now, the studio the apartment that helped me get started is considered a “Luxury One-Bedroom” (it is all one big room except the bathroom!) rents for $950 – $1075 (extra for the washer/dryer).
    Seriously, my mortgage for my 1500 sq. ft. home, purchased in 2004 for $119K, has never been more than $820 a month. How is ANYONE supposed to get started in the world if renting a 400 square foot apartment costs more than a mortgage? You cannot save for a down payment for a home if renting costs more than a mortgage.

    1. Louis

      How is ANYONE supposed to get started in the world if renting a 400 square foot apartment costs more than a mortgage? You cannot save for a down payment for a home if renting costs more than a mortgage

      If a down payment on a mortgage alone is comparable to or or exceeds your annual salary and you don’t have help from family or some other source of income (e.g. investments), it’s a Hobsons Choice: i.e. renting is going to be it.

      Discussions about renting versus buying are meaningless if you can’t even scrape together a down payment quickly enough to keep up with housing prices, which is the case for a lot of people in certain cities.

      1. MichaelSF

        LaRuse @ April 28, 2021 at 11:01 am

        We (DINK) bought our small late 1940s house here in San Francisco in 1985 when we were in our early 30s. With two GS11/12 salaries we barely qualified for a $157K house. If we’d had to wait another 6 months we would have been permanently priced out, as prices went up 30-50% in that time.

        We bought with the intention of it being “our house”, and not to get on the “upgrade/investment” ladder. We just wanted our own home and to not be paying rent forever.

        Now houses like ours are $1-1.5M, or nearly a 10X increase over 35 years. Our salaries as Feds certainly wouldn’t have kept up at the same rate.

        It’s a mad mad mad mad world we live in.

        1. Louis

          Even a GS-15, which is a pretty good salary in most parts of the country, wouldn’t go that far in the Bay Area these days.

          While the Bay Area housing market has been ridiculous for years, the contagion of unaffordable housing has spread to a lot of other cities, including ones outside the coasts that were relatively affordable not too long ago, and doesn’t show any signs of improving.

  15. vegeholic

    This is a very important topic, and the young people in the survey are absolutely correct to be worried about their futures. But without the proper context, the anecdotes and the proposed remedies provide little in the way of illumination. The context, of course, is that the human species is FAR into overshoot with respect to our resource base. The declining level of prosperity which everyone now feels is real, inevitable, and going to get worse. See Tim Morgan, Tim Watkins, Richard Heinberg, Gail Tverberg, etc., etc. With that context you cannot talk about “solutions” but you can talk about ways to mitigate pain and suffering along the descent.

    Unfortunately no one among the governing elites will acknowledge anything resembling this framework. Apparently, in order to get elected, or achieve power in other ways, you have to promise growth, techno-paradise, and expanding prosperity. And we let them get away with these fatuous, lazy, and sadly misguided programs.

    A responsible leader would insist immediately on (1) drastic cuts in energy and material usage, (2) serious insistence on population reductions, (3) lessening of wealth disparities, (4) widespread adoption of local food production and walkable, bikeable communites, etc. Then again maybe this is hopelessly naive. Maybe we are like the yeast in the grape juice, where we just consume and reproduce until the food runs out. Shouldn’t we at least have a debate, grounded in unvarnished reality, before surrendering to wishful thinking and all that follows?

      1. wadge22

        Actually it’s not that hard to buy rapidly depleting resources in this age of neoliberalism: I filled up on the way home from work today.
        Still haven’t found much unvarnished reality anywhere, tho.

    1. eg

      They will hire half the underclass to kill the other half of the underclass before they ever consider even one of the steps you have proposed. Mind you, they may go Jay Gould’s boast one better and shift the ratio such that the number of dead is much, much higher …

  16. JWP

    Being in college now, the outlook is resoundingly bad, beyond what any survey could capture. If i said “I think I want to live in Canada once I graduate” to most college students, they would agree for both social and most healthcare reasons. No one wants to deal with paying for healthcare and living in perpetual debt. It is an accepted state of life that unless you have generational wealth or strike it with a high paying (200k+) job, debt is life.

    The result is dismal mental health across the board, both a product of future outlook and the grueling work needed to even have a chance at stability. There is also pressure (mostly among middle-upper class kids to achieve like their parents did, something increasingly unattainable. Easily 85%+ of college kids are dealing with one or both of these and is largely a product of how our education and social system represses personal expression and refuses to openly educate young people on how their minds work and healthy ways to deal with harmful lines of thinking. Where the media goes wrong with this is talking about mental health as if life immediately improves once anxiety and depression subside, ignoring the financial and cultural hellscape that is the professional world. It screams neoliberalism and shoveling out insane amounts of money to mental health professionals that most people do not have.

    At my college, where people are overwhelmingly wealthier than the average university student, I am even seeing people change their careers from things they are passionate about to lawyers and bankers because they realize they simply can not make enough money doing anything else to live a life like the one they grew up in or even a remotely stable one.

    1. Jason

      Where the media goes wrong with this is talking about mental health as if life immediately improves once anxiety and depression subside

      The mental health industrial complex itself is largely to blame for this. It individualizes everything, taking virtually all environmental/social/economic factors out of the equation. It may give a passing nod to these issues, but it can’t do anything about them, so it doubles down on focusing on the individual. This just make things worse.

      In my personal experience, very few psychologists/psychiatrists/social workers are even aware of what’s going on in the wider world. Their therapeutic world is like a little safe space for them. The late David Smail wrote about these issues. Bruce Levine does a nice job as well.

  17. Gravity Falls

    Hey folks, middle mgmt PMC here. Went to non-elite schools for my bachelor/masters. Found an awesome job 12 years ago during the depths of the housing crisis, and stuck with it. Literally 1000 applicants for my job, and only four made it through the interview cut. I’m a slightly bigger fish in a small pond.
    My takeaway: for the young (<40) is to travel heavily for work before kids, don't stay still until you can obtain enough experience/credentials to land a "safe" position. Think about the services that are "must have" and trace the positions that are required.
    In my profession, these positions are going to be tough to obtain in the US, such as a manager or compliance person at a port district, railroad, municipal service (water, electricity or sewer) or utility. These positions will be "safe" as far as the coming years, simply to maintain the infrastructure and services. Don't get sucked into PE-driven industries or, heaven help you, tech dominated enterprises. Those are built on sand for their employees.

    1. Nce

      I wish that were true. I originally obtained certs for being a water treatment plant and distribution system operator, but that field in Cali (yep, the irony…) is very male dominated to the point that one of my instructors had the huevos to say, “I don’t hire women in the field, I put them in the lab.” Soooo, now I have a masters in Water Resources Mgmt, but age is a problem, too. F-it. I give up and could burn my degrees. I’d feel more secure working at an employee-owned small farm and remain dirt poor for whatever is left of my time here.

  18. Charger01

    “It’s basically saying how much you stand to gain depends on who your parents are and the wealth they have.”
    Bingo- income inequality in a nutshell. Pull up the ladder as soon as you’ve made it.

  19. Cojo

    One observation about doctors salaries that I almost never see mentioned is the exorbitant costs of medical school training in the US. Most European medical training is much cheaper, as it is highly subsidized by the state, as well as due to the lower costs in education in general.

    A quick internet search to get a sense of the numbers shows:

    According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), the average first-year medical student paid $37,556 for tuition, fees, and health insurance to attend a public medical school during the 2019-20 academic year. The average first-year student attending a private medical school paid even more, at $60,665.

    These figures apply to students with resident status at their respective schools. For non-residents, the totals increased to $61,858 and $62,230 respectively. The maximum per-year cost for tuition, fees, and health insurance was $99,622, paid by non-resident students attending public medical schools.

     Now multiply this by four years, and you are six figures in debt before you ever start earning a paycheck. Add to this the 2-7 years of further training in residency and fellowship, where you’re paid anywhere from $50-70K a year, and you can see the pressures to look for ever higher salaries at the end of the journey. To ever expect to pay off medical school loans/debts, most US graduates end up in the more lucrative specialties of medicine. I suspect this is one of the main reasons, most residency programs must fill generalist positions with foreign medical graduates, desperate to get a foothold in the US, and not nearly as burdened with medical school debts.

      1. Cojo

        In case anyone’s wondering what the going rates are…


        Los Angeles-Orange County, California: $49,804
        Connecticut: $170,389
        Miami-Dade, Florida: $190,829
        Cook-Madison-St. Clair, Illinois: $177,441
        New Jersey: $90,749
        Nassau-Suffolk, New York: $214,999
        Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: $119,466

        General Surgery

        Los Angeles-Orange County, California: $41,775
        Connecticut: $65,803
        Miami-Dade, Florida: $190,829
        Cook-Madison-St. Clair, Illinois: $118,909
        New Jersey: $60,810
        Nassau-Suffolk, New York: $134,923
        Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: $85,930

        Internal Medicine

        Los Angeles-Orange County, California: $8,274
        Connecticut: $34,700
        Miami-Dade, Florida: $47,707
        Cook-Madison-St. Clair, Illinois: $40,865
        New Jersey: $15,900
        Nassau-Suffolk, New York: $33,852
        Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: $24,433

        Main variables are specialty and state where one practices.

  20. Marie

    I’m a high income professional in a STEM field living in a HCOL city. I would gladly take a 50% pay cut if:

    1) I hadn’t graduated with a six figure student debt
    2) The housing market hadn’t gone completely bananas
    3) I knew that any potential kids I have would have access to affordable childcare and post graduate education
    I can divide my friends into two groups financially – the STEM and the non-STEM group. (I’m not saying that all STEM fields guarantee a high income, or that only people in STEM deserve a living wage. Just talking from personal experience).

    In both groups, the only people I know my age (30s) who own property do so because of help from their parents – either by paying for their professional education, or by gifting them a large downpayment, or both.

    None of my non-STEM friends want kids. They usually will say that it’s due to pessimism about the climate, but my STEM friends are equally educated on this issue and that doesn’t deter them from wanting kids. There are other factors in my friends’ decisions on this but I can’t help but suspect that money is a HUGE factor in this decision. Unless something changes drastically, I worry that my friends in this cohort will end up destitute in old age. Adding a child to the equation would make their situation even more financially ruinous. Several of them haven’t been able to leave their parent’s house yet despite being well into their 30s.

    This is in Canada by the way. I had the opportunity to go to professional school in the US and I am so glad I stayed here. I must also count my blessings that though my student loan debt was high, at least in Canada the interest rate was very low. I can’t imagine how much more stressed out I would be if I had gone for that Ivy League degree south of the border.

    1. vw

      I made a long comment previously, but I think the Internet ate it. Responding more briefly to your comment.

      I have one child, and hope to have another. None of my siblings or siblings by marriage feel the same. My little boy is possibly the last in the genetic line of all four of his grandparents. We are currently living with family, and my own middle-class job just laid me off – with no prospects of similar salary in the same field – in an aggressively downward-heading local economy. We can afford a good quality of life on just my husband’s salary… but not his salary + health insurance. We had a huge “discussion” last night on whether or not we should just go without – currently, his mother is offering to pay for it, so that might be the solution of today. But the solution of tomorrow, I already know, will be to go without. We’ve been the bravest out of our family members several times already by now – this is just one more round of the same. And more, so much more, will be required.

      My little son cannot possibly carry the retirement costs, or care, or anything, of all six adults who could end up relying on him as their closest living relative. (None of the spouses of my brother/brothers-in-law are likely to have nieces or nephews, either.) They’ve all bet the farm, so to speak, on careers in science and academia… we’ll see how that does for them. I sadly predict an incredibly difficult, penniless, and lonely old age for them all.

      With two children – provided we can raise them to be healthy, well-adjusted, hard-working adults who actually like us – my husband and I have a better chance for a “retirement” of any comfort whatsoever than anyone relying on “the market”, or presuming that academia or science is going to be around in anything like its current form in 30 years. But that requires cutting our lifestyle to the bone today, for the slim hope of tomorrow. I understand, even if I don’t agree, why our siblings have made their choices. But I will hold them to the consequences of those choices… and teach my son to do the same. (Also – unlike them, we actually like children! Our son is a joy and a treasure, and we make sure he always knows how much we love him… while still making sure he gets to bed on time every night.)

      I think the only path forward for your friends (and, should there be a few more shifts in the economy, for you as well…) will be to create mutual aid societies and a powerful bond of community, and to share whatever they have with each other. Whether or not that will involve kids is of course up to them. But I wouldn’t assume that things like… pensions… or 401ks… or hordes of immigrant labor willing to do eldercare for less than minimum wage… will necessarily still exist. You’ve all got a better chance than most, being Canadian. But it is definitely the time to lay the groundwork for Plan B, C, D, etc. I wish you all luck.

      1. Astrid

        What an unkind way to think about your siblings, for making what you admit to be rational choices! Having children with any expectation that they will care for you in old age is pretty problematic. Even if they grow up to be kind, loving people ( with a grudge against their aunts and uncles!) they may be unable to help. And there are plenty of elderly in assisted living and nursing home facilities who have family that they were on good terms with.

        1. vw

          I put “retirement” in quotes for a reason. We will work for the rest of our lives, hopefully with a stint of providing free childcare for the grandchildren. It will not be easy, it will not always be fun, but fingers crossed, we will all be together.

          My siblings have not just pursued careers, but moved far away; and also don’t bother to check in about my son, or even seem to like him very much. They don’t even bother to call my parents, who are always trying to get in contact with them. I wish them well but if this is their view of family now when things are still going relatively good, they will need to accept the consequences later. I intend to teach my children that it is wiser to spend one’s time helping those who help one right back. Perhaps as my children get older, the attitude of my siblings will change. If so, perhaps there will be some way (or reason) for them to get their help.

          If I see that I have become an unavoidable burden on my children in my old age, preventing them from supporting their family or themselves in a dystopian age, I will not go to an elder care home (and I doubt there will still be such things anyway) – I will drink the hemlock (or whatever the future equivalent may be) and head on my way. I am prepared for this. But I am not sure my siblings are (and no, I won’t ask). If so, if they don’t disgrace themselves or burden my children by demanding things they haven’t earned… I have no complaints.

          “Problematic” is a word used by people who think they’re too enlightened to use the word “immoral”. But, am I really? And is your chosen “virtue” going to keep you comfortable when there is literally no one left alive in the world who has any reason to care about you? Presuming you accused me because my comment touched a personal nerve, of course. Having literally been flung out of the middle class this very week, probably for good, I have less patience than usual for weasel words like the above.

          In a few more years, when the process outlined in the article has advanced much further, perhaps the NC commentariat will find more personal understanding of these principles.

          1. Astrid

            I just meant problematic as in unsound assumptions, because I find as often as not, the children won’t be around for the parents and may not live the life that their parents wish them to live, as is the case for your siblings. Or parental wishes may prevent them from having their best life. They may also lack the ability to help, especially in a worsening social and economic climate.

            I intended the words I used. I called you unkind for your thoughts against your siblings, who appear to mainly have sinned by not having the relationship you want them to have with your family and parents. This seems quite harsh for close relatives.

            I assume you’re feeling touchy because your assume I was implicitly criticizing your choice to have children. I’ve made my choice to be childless, but I am in no position to judge how others decide for themselves. It’s none of my business. I wish you well.

  21. Carolinian

    If you cut doctors’ salaries in half tomorrow, they would have to sell their mortgaged, absurdly expensive homes.

    We have some doctors in my neighborhood. Some live in large mansions and one who has a more average house has, like, four cars. Call it middle class plus.

    I’d say affluenza is definitely a thing even if increasing numbers don’t get to enjoy it. Ours is a country whose value system is out of whack which must be why we denounce everyone else.

  22. Gulag

    Is it now the harsh reality that for anyone who remains inside our globalized and commericalized world, the fight for survival automatically means using the same means and same (amoral) tools as everyone else?

    Is our criticism of the banks or the super-rich futile and naive because they will not change their behavior since to do so would mean a risk of losing their wealth. Naive because as we all know the origin of the problem is systemic and not individual. A bank might become more ethical and careful but then it would lose the commercial race to a competitor.

    Is there any escape(for any of us) from being driven more and more by self-interest alone?

    Are ethical constraints no longer compatible with political/economic/financial and cultural survival?

  23. Glen

    The America I grew up in is gone. I recommend any that have dreams of college to go to a country with free college, and then after graduation, stay there and build a life. Any country with free colleges will also have a better middle class life.

      1. Glen

        If I thought significant change was possible – I would recommend the young people stay, but I don’t think it is possible. Significant change has been frustrated in America for a long time now. Obama was voted in to do it – instead he supported those that had wrecked America.

        America will not have revolution – it can and will continue to destroy the middle class and enrich the rich. But it will have no more Silicon Valleys, no more flash points of opportunity. STEM is not a means to enhance our technical prowess, it is a means to crush the STEM jobs and turn them all into Amazon warehouse jobs, to further crush the middle class.

        Anyone with dreams and desiring an education to fulfill those dreams should consider moving to countries that empower people to achieve those dreams.

  24. Kurtismayfield

    I just looked at the stats from Massachusetts (PMC heaven).

    Median household income: 78k

    Median house price: 490k

    We are way past 2.5-3 times annual income here. Like was said in the article, and many of the posters, generational wealth is the only way this is sustainable.

  25. bulfinch

    This article is akin to reading a weather report in a gale…

    Anecdotal fodder: I enjoy an honest/dull living as a senior level engineer. I’ve worked for the same outfit for 7 (seven) years now and have received one raise in that time, and no — I’m not exactly timid on the matter. I spend far too much of my time at work or work-adjacent, I sleep about five hours a night, and have found the concept of relaxation something like an exotic chord shape.

    In my racket, professional development is paramount, as the technology and the protocols are constantly changing — sometimes seasonally; but it’s a ceaseless battle between the task masters in charge of training and the hand-wringing bean counters who scrutinize our weekly utilization with a jeweler’s loupe. I am paid ok, at least for a slob who doesn’t care about stuffing his closets with big game consumer coups, but it melts away a little quicker each year. I see it in my energy bills, my insurance premiums, and in particular, my food bills (I dine out about 5 times a year and I don’t drink). The analog of paddling ever harder as the canoe circles the drain seems quite apt.

    Buying property has totally lost it’s appeal for me, since homes have turned into chess pieces. Plus, I’ve owned, and I cannot quite express the relief I felt on the day when I didn’t own anymore (and I dug my house). I blueprint designs in my spare time and I find playing the shade-tree architect actually fulfills 80% the urge toward domain; it’s a bit like making a fantasy grocery list on a desert island.

    I’m at a point in my life where I’m stroking my prematurely gray beard and weighing up the whethers: whether I should try to have a child or maybe just adopt a dog; whether I should sell it all and live in a hippy bus; whether I should sally forward until I eventually dodder off into an anonymous, medicated twilight or just surrender to a few good years of devout wayward hedonism. This probably reads a bit glib, but these are honestly my serial quandaries in my quieter moments.

    Welcome to the snoring twenties…

    1. Astrid

      This is really lovely.

      I hope that you find an unexpectedly pleasant and interesting way through life.

  26. R

    I don’t know if this will get much notice down here at the end of the comments but an article that illustrates the issues if living between the pincers of financial is action and generational downward mobility is here:


    The article is anodyne but the comments are gold dust. In a nutshell, equity partner male vets in the UK are selling out to PE roll-up vehicles for $mm and retiring and the next generation of vets are young mothers on $12/h gig work, after a longer degree with harder entry requirements than human medicine (famously, UK vets have / had the right to treat to humans in certain capacities but doctors were not allowed to touch animals). Ou sont les postes d’antan?

  27. UnhingedBecauseLucid

    And they also wonder how they can afford a dignified old age. As one participant said, “My retirement plan is to die in the climate wars.”

    Ahhh … such lucidity almost redeems my lost faith in humanity … OK … not quite but the candid pragmatism is so refreshing …

  28. Jt

    On a drive in rural Elk Grove outside Sacramento recently I noticed many older, larger, non-irrigated trees were brown-green and sparsely leaved in spring. I suspect receding water table. Irrigated trees closer to homes lush green. Mandatory water cutbacks are coming. But most the folks out there are on wells and will cheat. Soon the older non-irrigated trees will die. Then the wells will have to be drilled deeper to keep the irrigated trees lush. How long will that work for? The desertification of Northern CA is going to be fast and brutal.
    My oldest nephew turned 23 this past weekend. I advised as non-lecturely as I could at 17 to minimize student loan debt and go to JC for first two years. After growing up with a single Mom working intermittently for $9/hr and a distant father who mailed checks but never visited, the kid wanted his 4 year college experience with peers. Dropped out his sophomore year. Can’t or won’t hold down a job. Depressed and idling at 23. What do I do? He got a raw deal growing up but many had worse. Seems like throwing good money after bad if he doesn’t start helping himself.
    Younger nephew was on same track. Told my brother years ago if he didn’t go in military then it would be car, apartment, gf, kid, game over. Ironic thing is that is exactly what happened but having the responsibility of a young life is actually turning him around and keeping him relatively sober and out of trouble. For now.
    Enjoyed the higher brow comments tonight from those who actually have a shot but don’t really. Weird living on the back-end of the oil age.

  29. Palaverve

    The young generation is faced with a crisis of leadership. Whether it’s the Peter principle or Dilbert principle, few organizations are being led by their best members. This is manifested in a declining faith in institutions.

    For this, we might shift our faith in credentials to a faith in consensus. A soldier in the field is better at recognizing a good general over a politician in a senate. My work experience is whatever positives society has produced, be it efficiency, education, capital, they often prolong poor leadership and social structures. Some people accurately point out that a crisis is the only opportunity to we will have to let bad institutions and businesses fail. We had been enabling them for so long not recognizing that they are completely without social capital and often a drain on the communities they exploit.

    More on the subject of social capital, Robert Putnam identified this malaise afflicting American social and economic life in his books, “Bowling Alone” and “Our Kids”. Without social capital and unbreakable social bonds, people have been to reduced to numbers, papers, and other inanimate objects. That’s the heart of it. The insecurity stems from feeling like an object in a vast impersonal, dispassionate and hierarchical system. It takes quite a strong individual or family to withstand this system and more people are finding their lives precarious without it.

    In goods times these networks can seem strong, but for me in tough times it can suddenly collapse. Others whom you have thought of relying upon may come to rely upon you instead. I always found that even among relatives and friends, the poorest ones are the most generous. The belief that material wealth can replace social wealth, that institutional papers can counterfeit genuine social trust, is the natural cause of our insecurity and unhappiness.

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