Book Review - (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents
(Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents, by Nan Mooney, is all about the decline of the professional middle class. The title grabbed my attention right away and because we are firmly planted in the United States middle class I thought it would be an interesting read and I was right.
Nan Mooney interviewed hundreds of couples that struggle every day to stay afloat, yet earn a good middle class income. In this book, she explores why today it is so much harder than it was for our parents and grandparents. Why have our expectations of how our life should be lived changed so much in the past few decades? At what point did it become a given that every family should have two cars, vacations every year, name brand clothing, numerous meals out each month or even week, and a flat screen television?
Decades ago a family earning an average middle class income with just one adult working could afford everything they needed and a good bit of what they wanted, including a yearly vacation and a new car every few years. Typically the only debt they had was the mortgage.
Much of this book talks about the rising cost of education. Mooney states that much of the middle class is made up of service oriented jobs. For example, teachers, social workers, therapists, and what Mooney describes as the creative professions such as artist, musician, or writer. People who go into these professions spend a ton of money on schooling; sometimes even graduate degrees on top of a bachelors degrees. In most cases they take out student loans, assuming that they will get a good job out of school and be able to pay the loans off quickly. This is unfortunately not the case typically.
It is not uncommon for a person to exit college with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt and frequently credit card debt and/or a car loan on top of that. They then enter their profession and make a very low wage compared to what they just spent going to school. Many teachers, for instance, start out making an income in the $20,000 range. At a time when a person is supposed to be making their way into the world on their own, they often have to return home and live with their parents or live with multiple roommates to afford a place of their own. Even then they struggle every month to put food on the table and there is no money to pay back their student loans.
On page 15 Mooney talks about how "we have no models for how the financially strapped educated professional middle class can or should operate." Movies and television shows do not frequently talk about finances. They might be your typical middle class characters, but money is not mentioned. They have everything they want and need, and it looks easy. In real life too, it seems that no one else struggles with money. Money is the forbidden subject of conversation, especially a lack of it.
I believe, like Mooney mentions towards the end of the book, that much of the middle class's problems financially, stem from bad financial decisions earlier in life. Taking out massive student loans is a decision that most 18 year olds make without realizing the ramifications. They are offered credit cards their first day on campus. They need a car to get to their job and they don't stop to consider an older used car, but automatically go for the new one with the large payment. Maybe they get out of college and think that they've made it and overspend on nights out, new clothing, and eating out.
Then reality sets in and they have no way to dig out of the hole they have dug and the struggle begins at a very early point in adulthood. Middle class wages do not rise like those in the upper class. On page 31 Mooney states that "Between 1992 and 2005 CEO pay - including wages, bonuses, and stock options - rose a staggering 186%, while the average worker experienced an income gain of just 7%." To me that is shocking, but not unbelievable. Massive bonuses and billions of dollars in profits are in the headlines each week. Because of this, if a person is saddled with debt at an early age, they are going to have a very hard time digging out of it.
In a time when a college education seems more important than ever to secure a good job, spending the money on that education seems financially riskier than ever. Mooney says over and over that now, unlike just a few decades ago, an education is not a guarantee of a good middle class life.
Another problem affecting those struggling to stay in the middle class is the loss of loyalty. It does work both ways, but companies these days are not loyal to their employees, especially it seems, when an employee starts making a decent wage. Frequently an employer can hire someone younger for much cheaper. Yes it does cost money to train someone new, but it isn't as much as what the old employee was making. Lay offs are common place, with many people having been laid off 5 or more times in just a few years. Many times when they do accept a new job, they are forced to take a pay cut, making it more and more difficult to get ahead.
As Mooney talks about on page 145 debt may be an individual choice, but we are so bombarded with people, places, businesses and circumstances urging us to take on debt that it is hard to avoid. Buy now and pay later is a way of life for many people. Debt does not have the negative connotations attached to it that it did just a few decades ago. People do not think twice about going into debt. I think this is a big problem in today's society.
Mooney talks a lot about how people are forced into debt, but I think that typically that isn't the case. They may feel forced by society, but if they were to stop and think about the long term ramifications of taking on that debt, I like to think more people would opt not to. I think one of the problems is that kids these days are not educated in the ways of money and debt. They have grown up in a time when they get what they want when they want it and mom and dad pay the bill. If we take the time to teach young people money management I think they would make smarter decisions regarding debt, which will allow them to live a decent life on a middle class income.
For example, we are firmly planted in the middle class. I have been a stay at home mom since my oldest was one. For 9 years now we have lived on my husband's teacher income. During that time my husband went back to school and got his masters degree. We took out an $8500 student loan, but paid it back in two years. We also took out a car loan several years ago and paid it off in 3 years. Since that time we have saved up the cash to purchase the next car we need. We have 4 kids and our only debt is our mortgage.
We are proof that it can be done if you make good, well thought out decisions (we didn't make every decision right though) and work hard. I say this because Mooney makes it seem impossible. She even talks about how people are remaining childless or limiting the number of children they have because they can't afford more. I know first hand that children are expensive, but it is hard to believe that so many people out there are struggling so much to afford one child. The majority of the people she talked to had just one child. There was only a mention of one family that had 4 or more children.
I found her book to be interesting and eye opening, however I did not like that everything in it was so negative. Maybe it isn't her though, but the statistics that are negative. There are plenty of middle class people out there making it just fine. For us, we are making it, but we have to really watch our budget. We can't go to the movies each weekend, or even each month. We rarely eat out and we make do with what we have on hand frequently. I think many people aren't willing to make the sacrifices to get out of debt and get ahead.
Yes the cost of everything is rising, yes paying off your debt or staying out of debt is hard, but if you want to ever stop struggling and if you ever want to be out of debt, then the only way to do it is to sacrifice to make it happen. Give up the extras, slash your budget, work an extra job or overtime if you have to. I didn't see this mentioned in (Not) Keeping Up With Our Parents.
Mooney believes the government should make changes in order to get more money into the middle class person's wallet. This is great and all, but IF that ever happens it will be a very long time away. People have to take responsibility for their own livelihood and do what they have to do to fix their problems and get ahead. Move where you can get a higher paying job, get a second job, cut out cable TV, do not eat out under any circumstances, etc. Do what needs to be done now to improve your financial future.
While I enjoyed the book, Mooney devoted almost 200 pages to how hard it is for someone in the middle class to successfully live a debt free life. Compare that with the 20 pages that she talked about what could be done and while interesting, it isn't going to be very helpful to someone struggling. They will read about lots of other people like them struggling and her agreeing with how hard it is to pay for everything, but not a lot of help for fixing the situation. Maybe she will write her next book about how to improve your financial situation, since that is what people really need to know.