Ditch American Optimism: We Need to Get Angry About the Economy

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This post is part of our forum on Don Peck's September story, "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?" Read Don's debate introduction here.

Tyler's point about being too resilient is intriguing.

The middle class had a very comfortable existence before the downturn. True, it was financed through the usury of the credit card industry and using credit lines on our homes like ATMs. While some people people are much worse off, most are "making do."

To me it is so striking that older people (35 and older) -- Generation X and the Boomers -- are still waiting for the economy to return to normal. Young people getting out out of college and trying to find work know that things are different. They know everything will take longer and that they will not get the McMansion with the granite countertops they dreamed of, but they are still believers in the American Dream. They're okay with that, they know that a McMansion doesn't make you happy. The central part of the American Dream they cling to is incredibly narrow: being comfortable and holding on to what you have, not losing ground.  I read some of the commencement speeches back in 2008 when the economy crashed, and most of the speakers called on this generation to be another greatest generation, not to whine or complain but to tackle the problems of the nation with determination.  When I talk to young people, I don't hear much whining, that's good, but I also see no anger. I wish I saw anger.  Instead, I see people retreating and regrouping and cutting their losses.

As a professor, and a parent, people like me are the ones to blame. Why are people so focused on finding their passion? Has the Great Recession made seeking your passion a silly luxury.  No one wants to kill a kid's dreams, but don't we need to respect this new reality. Is it cruel to tell young people they can do "anything they put their mind to?"  My students tell me they want a career where they will do something they love and where they will be happy to go to work everyday. What about pragmatic concerns? The brightest kids want to go into finance or maybe, be the next Mark Zuckerberg or be a sports agent or work in public relations. I rarely meet kids who want to be engineers who work to protect the shore against erosion or low-lying regions from flooding or even want to be teachers, never principals who make the tough decisions about how to serve kids.

They want to avoid uncertainty and be comfortable.

But trying to minimize risk doesn't get us closer to dealing with our problems in the United States. So Tyler is right, I think Americans have so much stuff that folks won't be starving, they will stay home and watch movies on their flat screens instead of going out. They will get smarter about managing debt.  But, with years of a jobless recovery ahead of us, I worry what happens to the country if more and more Americans can't get full-time jobs and can't save or afford to move out of their parents' homes or get married. It's very bad for America if our sole response for dealing with our problems is waiting for things to get better, taking care of our own. We need to get angry and demand more, not just lower our expectations, put our head down, and hope for the best. Americans will be done in by our optimism if we don't plug it into something.

Read why Maria Kefalas says we need to get angrier about the economy.

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Maria Kefalas is a sociology professor at Saint Joseph's University and co-author of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America

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