Uncle Tom’s Basement, or Life Among the Lowly

by Mark A. Lause on January 24, 2017

This past year, the Pew Research Center published a fascinating report headed: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds.”  The study shows 32.1% of these young adults living in their parent’s house.  The Pew study itself minimizes the problem, because it’s not really clear how many of the additional 14% listed as living alone are renting over the garage or a sleeping room down the street while still boarding at home.  Too, a certain portion of the 31.6% living with partners of their own may also be sharing a life in similarly blurred realities.  And the 22% in “other living arrangements”  include people living with “such as a grandparent, in-law or sibling.”

The denizen of Uncle Tom’s basement remain more ignored than understood, but the evidence supports several additional generalizations beyond age.  The phenomena is characteristic of populations in the industrial world.  For various reasons, males are more likely to remain in this position than females, though Japanese culture particularly denigrates young women still living at home as “parasite singles.”)  It may be striking more pronounced in the larger and astronomically more expensive cities, celebrated for their alleged prosperity, but it has always been common in the more impoverished, rural or deindustrialized areas.   So, too, while the dilemma on this scale may be new to the “white” children of white collar workers, its appearance drops them into a position that plagued young people of color for years . . . decades.

Yet, this story about a major shift in American realities got remarkably little persistent attention.  NPR reported this development, emphasizing that things haven’t been this way since the 1890s.  (See “For First Time In 130 Years, More Young Adults Live With Parents Than With Partners.”)   The shorter attention span of commercial outlets such as CBS tended to soften that blow a bit, claiming that the proportions ran higher than they had since the Great Depression of the 1930s. (See “Young adults living with their parents hits a 75-year high.”)  Of course, the farther back we go, the less reliable the statistics might be.  More fundamentally, though, the deeper into the past, the likely young people living at home would have a vital membership in a household economy–on the farm or in a small shop of business–which have long withered to the margins.

As with much else in American civilization, understanding an issue is far less important than finding ways to be entertained by it.  All sorts of dislocations, including the soaring costs of education, contributed to the creation of “the Boomerang generation” of children returning to live with their parents.  As early as the 2006 movie, Failure to Launch, we have seen hapless millennials inhabiting the spare room of their parents or other relatives.  Lacking the discipline to hold down a decent job with benefits and, therefore, unable to acquire that discipline.  In the movie, all Matthew McConaughey needed was the love of good woman (Sarah Jessica Parker) to move out and buy a boat on which they could sail into the sunset.

Most of the advice offered everybody in these circumstances vary remarkably little from that unrealistic fairy tale.  “Organizational coaches can be employed to help the individual establish plans that would assist in accomplishing goals such as finding a part-time job and managing money,”suggested  psychiatrist Dr. Michael Ascher (See “Failure to Launch Syndrome: What You Need to Know to Help Your Dependent Adult Child,” in the Huffington Post.)

“Organizational coaches”?

The realities that came crashing down on everyone between 2006 and 2015 should have raised some alarms about the assumed link between this “syndrome” and an alleged immaturity or laziness among the young.  Of course, even the bare bones of the Pew study got lost in the media tsunami of 2015-16 associated with the presidential American Idol contest between Donald Trump’s twitter and Hillary Clinton’s emails.  After several years of keeping Trump’s rantings about President Obama’s birth certificate on the front burner, media continued to highlight what it thought would entertain readers/viewers, get the highest ratings, and bring in the most advertising revenues.  Well described by Jack Newfield’s phrase “stenographers with amnesia,” media dutifully put its time into whatever fairy tales officials and aspiring officials wanted to tell.

Supporters of both Trump and Clinton peddled mythologies. Republicans continue to pretend that the solution to everything is what they call “the free market economy,” that mythical state of blissful utopia where government exists only to lock up criminals and celebrate its own existence by bombing the hell out of anybody business designated as enemies of its freedom.  Most people choosing to vote Republican know better but it doesn’t keep them from repeating this nonsense to pollsters or their fellow citizens.

Democrats, on the other hand, have found this ideological snipe hunt as helpful among big corporate donors as the Republicans have, and Clinton campaigned on the promise to continue Obama’s “economic recovery.” John Weeks described the specifics of the Democratic victory in 2008: “The enthusiasm for Obama arose from fervent hope for specific changes: 1) a universal, affordable health system; 2) the end of two disastrous wars (Afghanistan and Iraq); 3) economic recovery from the worst collapse in 80 years; and 4) action against banks and bankers to prevent a recurrence of the collapse.” (“By the numbers: Barack Obama’s contribution to the decline of US democracy,” openDemocracy, November 26, 2016.)  Although none of this happened, Democratic strategy has essentially turned on pretending that it did.

In fact, the Democratic embrace of innovative Nixonian ethics, the insanity of Reaganomics, and the stridently sinister clandestine activities of the Bush pair assured their failure.  The government still made virtually endless resources available to Wall Street based on the trickle-down assumption that it would revive Main Street, create jobs, and tap the energies of all those young people.  As a result, over the last eight years, the Democrats made the greatest contribution to the record-breaking inequalities of wealth that have taken place in the U.S.–and its contribution to the greatest polarization in global history.  (See Gerry Mullany, “World’s 8 Richest Have as much Wealth as Bottom Half, Oxfam Says,” New York Times, January 16, 2017.)

True,  we have had statistics on job growth repeatedly blasted into our homes and workplaces 24/7 on hundreds of channels.  Recent studies–including by former government officials–clarify that almost all of these numbers reflect part-time, temporary and similarly marginal “jobs.”  Just as the Republicans got the country out of the “Reagan recession” of the early 1980s by refiddling the definition of “employment,” the Democrats in the Obama White House reconfigured how they would count them. Lawrence F. Katz and  Alan B. Krueger posted a serious study documenting The Rise and Nature of Alternative Work Arrangements in the United States, 1995-2015 (draft of September 2016.).  Krueger, who chaired Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors (2011-13) claimed to have been surprised himself by the numbers indicating that 94% of the jobs created were in such “alternative” kinds of work.  (See, for example, Ben Poppen, “Most Jobs Created Since 2005 Are Nontraditional,” NBC December 8, 2016.)

It can’t be too much of a surprise that people had a problem reconciling talk about how prosperous things are supposed with their experienced realities . . . that most of them tired of the media tsunami of “news” that isn’t substantiated or can’t be along with a faux outrage over “fake news” or pretended confusion at the successes of one of their own celebrities in getting coverage for every brain fart tweeted to the world.

This is really one of the biggest stories of 2016, but it was also probably one of the biggest stories of the preceding seven or eight years and will continue to be one of the biggest stories of the foreseeable future.

All the  “organizational coaches” in the world won’t advise young people as a group around the realities of that job market, that economy, and that political system.

Then, too, the bipartisan agreement to let the banks do whatever they wanted has created a portion of the work force that is already grossly indebted even before they find work.  71.5% of the class of 2016 left school owing an average of over $37,000, which is up almost 66% from a decade before–when the problem was already awful.  Overall, student debt has reached $1.25 trillion, an increase of roughly a trillion over a mere dozen years.   (See Matt Lundi, “The trillion-dollar rise in U.S. student debt, explained in six charts,” The Globe and Mail, August 31, 2016.)

This was generally a really sweet agreement for everybody who mattered.  The banks created a whole new way that vast numbers of people would owe their futures to them.  Government officials could do a great deal of backslapping over their facilitation of education funding.  Institutions of higher learning found the loans enabled students to pay outrageous tuition hikes–most of which had almost nothing to do with the costs of education.

And, of coursed, it provides parents, grandparents, and older relatives generally a wonderfully gratifying sense of smug superiority over the young.  In doing so, they can not only pass on the same sort of crap they used to get from their elders, but they have a real concrete situation to vindicate their prejudices.

The most effective feature of American capitalism has been its capacity to rest the greatest burden of its injustices on some sections of the work force.  When Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin, African slaves and their descendants carried the great weight of American prosperity.  To a great extent, they still do.

American capitalism has generations of experience benefiting from these hierarchies and managing to deflect responsibility for those arrangements.  Raise the fact that women perform the same work with less benefits and pay than men and watch how quickly someone will raise unisex bathrooms.  Talk about these structural changes in the society’s treatment of young people and you will quickly hear the ghost of Cotton Mather assign the responsibility to those who have the least control over the situation.   Conversely, if we talk directly to Republican or Democratic politicians about the need for jobs, it won’t take long before the dominant theme will become how to benefit corporate profits in the usually unstated faith that more of that will create more jobs.  Talk about student debt and the best you’ll get is some plan to refinance it.

* * *

To summarize, U.S. policies over the last 15 years have simultaneously drove our young into unprecedented debt and offered them no escape other than a job market worse in orders of magnitude worse than that their parents or grandparents faced.  No wonder, so many of them have volunteered to shoot whatever variety of demonized foreigners are most irritating the masters

Right off the bat, we need to start bringing student debt down to the levels they were ten, twenty, fifty years ago.  Tuition need to come down with them, as do, as do the CEO salary levels paid the managers of colleges and universities and the elimination of the CEO-type concerns that go with them.  And existing debt should be written off.

Free education for all through the university level.

Most importantly, we need jobs.  Decent jobs at a living wage with sane benefits.  Under capitalism, jobs define one’s present and one’s future possibilities.  Under this system, they are basic human right.

Jobs for all!

An injury to one is an injury to all!

If government can’t manage for the private sector to make such jobs–which could have been one of the conditions of the bipartisan bailouts and stimuli of 2008-09–then government needs to be the employer of last resort.  Although trade union seem to have entirely forgotten it, the time-honored solution of the labor movement has been to demand an adjustment in the length of the work week to permit full employment.   This also shares the benefit of increased productivity due to technological developments.  Let’s start at a 30 hour work week with no cut in pay.  That’d also help resolve the recently unprecedented increase in economic inequalities.

Reviving the old unemployed councils in one form or another would provide a good vehicle to fight for these goals, because they would permit us to raise these issues in our communities as well as statewide and nationally.

As is always the case, those with the most to gain and the greatest desire to be free must strike the first blow.  Nothing has been more gratifying than to see how readily young people have been taking to the streets.  Nobody needs to tell them that they have no saviors in politicians or big corporations.  Most of them already know it.

What they may not know–understandably, given the failures of their elders to pass it on–is that what they have been doing lately will always be their most effective response.  Stand up in vast numbers for what you want. Get into the streets.  Be noisy as hell.  And, if the authorities want to give you something to make you go away, dandy . . . but YOU do not need to get quiet or compromise in letting everyone know what you want.

Most importantly, we all need to fight for this together.  Solidarity is the solution, and it’s only just a word if we do not stand with those who are particularly oppressed.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

SocraticGadfly January 24, 2017 at 12:35 pm

Or, beyond this, we need a >>non-libertarian<< version of guaranteed basic income.


logansafi February 14, 2017 at 3:52 am

Lause says that solidarity is the solution…. He himself is not much for Solidarity though.


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