“The typical American worker lives a precarious and doleful existence.”
This is not the way things are supposed to be five years into an economic expansion, yet it’s the conclusion of yet another report probing chronic economic gloom. The new survey, by the Heldrich Center at Rutgers University, found 71% of Americans feel the recent recession changed the nation permanently and only 16% feel the next generation will end up better off. In 1999, 56% felt life would be better for future Americans.
It’s axiomatic that something is wrong with the U.S. economy — but gloom itself may be part of the problem. Americans are so dour, by some measures, they seem to be looking past opportunities as if programmed to see only pitfalls. Prosperity doesn’t come from the places many people seem to be seeking it, and if the middle class is, in fact, in decline, a large part of the reason may be a lost instinct for how to get ahead.
To be sure, there are well-known problems with the economy that aren't easily solved. Wages are stagnant for many workers, household wealth remains depressed and many families are falling behind. Adding to the gloom, policymakers in Washington seem incapable of finding solutions, and they even make some problems worse.
It’s also true, however, that the economy is growing at a decent pace, companies are hiring, and consumer spending, on the whole, is pretty good. In reality, we don’t have one U.S. economy, we have two: one that looks like the old one, in which people work hard and get ahead, and another filled with those glum, underemployed laborers living on the edge. There has always been an American underclass, but it seems to be growing, fed by a continual drip of downwardly mobile people departing the middle class.
We generally know what separates people in the good economy from those in the bad: education, workplace skills that are in high demand, and the resilience to bounce back when things don’t work out. But certain intangibles also help people get ahead, and it may be time we pay more attention to those. Here are four things Washington will never do to help bring the return of prosperity — but ordinary people can do for themselves:
Create your own opportunities. This is what entrepreneurs do, and entrepreneurs have been the ones responsible for creating the businesses that write most Americans’ paychecks. We need more entrepreneurship these days, especially since big companies show less and less loyalty to their workers and the modern economy rewards innovation above all. Yet entrepreneurship is in retreat, even as new tools such as cloud computing and mobile payment systems make it easier than ever to start a business or experiment with side-gigging.
Workers can be entrepreneurial without starting a business, by finding new ways to solve problems, boost revenue or enhance profitability for an existing employer. Companies value workers who do more than the norm or simply perform better. And there remain plenty of unmet needs throughout the economy, just waiting for somebody to come up with a fresh insight and find a way to execute it. Most people don’t — and the price to pay for mediocrity is rising.
Stop waiting for government solutions. There’s a vast amount of policy expertise in Washington, D.C., and every big national problem would probably get fixed if policymakers simply listened to the smartest thinkers across the political spectrum and incorporated their best ideas into compromise solutions. Think that’s going to happen? Right. Americans are disgusted with most big institutions, and they’re probably correct that those institutions are less effective than they used to be. But the idea that government, corporations or other big institutions should solve all problems is a relatively new phenomenon that's leading many people astray. When you expect institutional solutions, you put less effort into finding your own.
A century ago, self-reliance was considered a lot more important than stimulus plans or federal aid programs. That’s not an argument for eviscerating the social safety net, but for augmenting it with more moxie at the personal level. Plenty of Americans remain self-motivated and feisty — and you’ll find nearly all of them in the good economy, where they're getting ahead.
End the blame-fest. The national media and its upstart digital challengers have become narrowly focused on political conflict in Washington, creating the impression that the whole country is at war with itself. This leads way too many ordinary people to adopt the combative mindset of partisan squabblers: It’s all Obama’s fault, it’s all Bush’s fault, illegals are ruining the country, 1 percenters are stealing from everyone else. When you blame others for your problems, you absolve yourself of responsibility for fixing them. This leads too many people to give up. Instead, they should tune out the national blame-fest and focus on how they can contribute more to their own personal community and improve their lives locally.
Be optimistic. Granted — this is hard to do when many avenues for advancement seem closed. But optimism, even against steep odds, is an American hallmark, and realistic optimists tend to create their own momentum. This doesn’t mean you believe blindly that things will somehow work out. It means you keep building skills and knowledge because investing in yourself can only make you better.
None of this will magically end financial hardship or make success certain. What it will do is raise the odds of determined people finding opportunity. America was built by people who succeeded against tougher resistance than we face today, resistance that forced them to be creative, persistent and tireless. If they ever lived a doleful existence, they found a way to make it better.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.