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Slip-Sliding Away

During all the long years of my fulltime corporate employment I had a skewed view of the world. Not because of boardroom policies or existential questions about who or what benefitted from my 50 or so hours of labor each week; not because of the empty futility of what seemed at the time to be urgent concerns about raises, promotions, or how far from the coveted glass-walled corner office I sat; not because of the hours of speculation about who screwed up to warrant the latest management memo changing some meaningless office procedure; not about the pecking order, every bit as rigid as the one in the chicken coop at my childhood home, where the smallest, weakest chicken lived at the sisyphusean mercy of the bigger, more aggressive chickens that pecked her head bloody; not about the self-important privileges like who got to park in the corporation’s basement parking spaces or who had the greatest freedom to write off so-called “working” lunches at the many fine Financial District restaurants that spread in every direction from the corporate high-rises like spokes in a wheel; not even about the money, per se, since we all fed at the corporate teat to a greater or lesser degree. 

This skewed view, which I couldn’t see because I lived in its embrace, was that I was safe, protected from the day-to-day problems that plagued the less fortunate profiled during the holidays in the San Francisco Chronicle, which we awaited anxiously every day at the paper’s blue metal box in front of the building to see if our company had been dissed overnight in its pages. Though basically nobody got fired back then, there were still mild consequences in our cloistered world if some bigwig on the executive floor was “misquoted,” criticized for cluelessness or, worse, for some sort of malfeasance, true or not.

We were educated, for the most part debt-free (U.C.’s tuition was under a hundred bucks a year), nearly all Baby Boomers (though the designation had yet to become the trendy designation it is today), overwhelmingly white, mostly male (I was hired in 1981, the first year that women were hired for non-clerical positions), and richly protected from everyday problems in the outside world. We had wall-to-wall healthcare, fully funded by the company (and welcomed by doctors and dentists everywhere); paid vacations and sick leave; a paternalistic environment that encouraged (paid) attendance at our kids’ soccer games; job security, and predictable raises and annual bonuses for our labors. We didn’t see it then, but this slice of time would be the last years of a real middle class in our country. 

Even back then, there were poor people, of course, though they were less visible than they are today, and I can imagine someone reading this thinking “typical entitled white bitch.” But that would be a knee-jerk reaction. The conditions that mattered most in those years benefitted everybody. Yes, there was racism, yes, there was sexism, but consider this:

College was affordable for everyone. I had friends who paid their way through school with part-time jobs like working in a shoe store or serving breakfast at a downtown cafe. When you graduated, you could pretty much get a job anywhere. I walked off the street into General Electric armed with my history of art degree from Berkeley and was hired on the spot in the accounting department (!). Since I became pregnant with my first child while I worked there, even though I had moved to the East Coast before my daughter’s birth, the company fully paid my hospital bill – all except a 7-dollar phone charge. By today’s standards rent in the Bay Area was incredibly cheap; nobody rented closets back then. And when I was hired in 1981 at the corporation briefly described here, every single person in my office owned his or her own home – every secretary, every clerk, everyone. 

Like the comprehensive benefits that came with these jobs, their erosion similarly affects everyone. The corporation I worked for dumped its defined pension plan and generous healthcare benefits as soon as the unions representing its employees became too weak, too cowed by the company’s threat of job loss, to fight back anymore (“You now have full control of your own retirement,” the HR employee brochure read, when pensions were dumped.) There’s still a 401k plan, but that’s federal, beyond the reach of the corporate scalpel. There is now a “menu” of levels of health insurance, none fully subsidized. You now have to think twice before missing any work for personal reasons: too many corporate strivers, sensing weakness and working in an environment that promotes ruthless internal competition, are waiting in the wings for a leg up on the corporate ladder if you fall. Can you even believe that back then one of my colleagues spent months at the bedside of a dying parent, fully paid, with nothing more than a beeper in the unlikely event somebody back at the office needed to reach her? 

But I digress: Back to the economic erosion that affects everyone, rich, poor, or in the tiny slice that is what’s left of the middle class. Unless you worked for the same corporation for over 30 years, even in those halcyon days your pension wasn’t enough to live on in the manner to which you had become accustomed. Now that pensions are gone, you’re thrown back on whatever you managed to save and, in the case of the pricey Bay Area, the value of your home if you’re a homeowner and willing to sell and move somewhere cheaper. So for us (now) older folk, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are more important than ever for keeping the wolf away from the door. 

And how is our government, tasked with ensuring our “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” responding to this greater need? In the New America, which more closely resembles an impoverished banana republic than a western democracy, our elected protectors – of both parties – have feathered their own nests and richly rewarded the already-rich rich with tax cuts, corporate welfare, and, despite election-time rhetoric, largely turned a collective blind eye to the needs of the poor and the poor-in-waiting. The rich may publicly reflect tearfully on the struggles of their impoverished immigrant ancestors, but make no mistake: being rich in America has come to represent a weird kind of moral superiority, while the poor are shamed for their poverty, perceived now as a character flaw. Like the beaten-down employees who voted away their benefits when their unions caved to management’s ominous threat of job elimination, as a nation “We the People” have adopted the same cowering fear. We’ve lost the hope, the will, to collectively demand our power back and, more importantly, lost the courage to do so.

A few years ago I did some part-time (minimum wage) office work for one of my neighbors, an audiologist. In the course of my duties I delivered something to a busy medical office nearby. Displayed prominently in the receptionist’s window was a sign that read: “We no longer accept Medicare.” Stunned, I asked the perky receptionist what they did with their patients when they turned 65. “We keep the patients we already have,” she replied, nonchalantly. “But we don’t accept any new ones.” This is a peek at our collective futures as our government whittles away, bit by bit, the benefits that have buttressed seniors and poor people against financial disaster since the middle of the last century, in retrospect a golden age unlikely to return in our lifetimes and guaranteed to relegate our children and grandchildren to impoverished serfs in the richest country on Earth. 

Many historians believe that the spark of revolution ignites during times of rising expectations. What will it take for our ever-poorer, demoralized, frightened people to scrape together the will and the courage to rise up together for better, more just lives for ourselves, our progeny, and our fellows?

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