It’s a almost a month after the Trump inauguration and every day I feel I recognize this country I’m living in–my country– less and less. Lately I’ve been thinking about my earlier life, remembering how nearly 40 years ago while I was in graduate school in electrical engineering at a pretty good public university in California I was very optimistic about my future. My world had been rapidly changing. It was the late 70’s–feminism had had a huge impact on my life. Women were entering the workforce and there had been huge changes in attitudes towards women like me, pursuing a career that had pretty much been the stronghold of men.
I was born in the 50’s to immigrant parents. They had both arrived in the US from Finland around 1948 with nothing. They had no money, no education, no property and no English. They met and married in Michigan, my father selling door to door for the Fuller Brush Co. to make ends meet. My first language was Finnish, learning English outside the house, on the streets. From this beginning, my father moved his family to California, got a job driving heavy equipment, working the build the roads, freeways and parking lots of a fast growing California infrastructure. He was able to buy a house soon after arriving in California and continued to provide a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and four children until a fatal work injury killed him. My mother was left as a single mother with four children. She went to work as a clerk-typist, working for the federal government and receiving social security benefits that helped support her children. We stayed on the house they had bought, but my mother, working in her clerical job was able to support a family of five on only her salary and the dependents’ benefits from social security. I won’t say we lived lavishly, but it was a solid middle-class existence for us.
Eventually I went on to college. It was not a huge financial deal as it would be today. I applied, got accepted and submitted my financial aid application. I was accepted and given grants and scholarships that, along with my social security dependents’ benefits paid my tuition and fees and left enough for me to live on. I never had to take out loans. The cost of attending the University of California was a little over $600 per year at the time. For that, I got free access to the student health center and a free transit pass on the local bus system. After college I got a job in the defense industry as an engineer. I got married and had two kids. I bought a house and did all the things a hopeful young person did in those days. Until that point, life had just sort of moved in an upward trajectory. Why wouldn’t it continue?
There is a parable about a frog in hot water. It says that if you put a frog in very hot water he will quickly jump out, but if you put him in cold water and turn up the heat he will sit happily in the water until he’s cooked to death. In my story, someone turned up the heat about the time I graduated. Something happened. Things never got better.
I didn’t notice how things were changing until they had gotten much worse. I juggled the needs of a growing family with a career on my own without complaining. I was just too busy to notice. Along the way my health care was slowly eroding. In the 1980’s when I was in my 20s having children my health insurance was very comprehensive and free. My employer paid for it in full. Slowly, over time, I was required to pay more and more and while getting poorer and poorer coverage. When I first started working, my employer provided a defined benefit retirement plan. Somewhere along the way, i became responsible for retirement saving and my defined benefit plan disappeared. Around 2000 my children went off to college where the tuition bill instead of being hundreds of dollars and year was costing thousands per year and the banks were less than transparent about the terms of loans. I kept on living, got divorced, remarried, moved, sold and bought houses until I came to live in the house I live in now. I don’t know how it happened, perhaps I was too trusting but somehow I got involved with a mortgage that wasn’t what the initial paperwork said it would be. A man had come out to the house and pushed us through the documentation so fast I couldn’t take time to read it carefully. I’m not sure it matters. But I find myself holding a mortgage that feels less than honest. The payments are higher than expected and the interest rate is also higher.
So here I am, my healthcare is uncertain, my retirement is uncertain, my housing is uncertain and it seems that the younger generation will never find themselves free of college debt. As I look around it seems that it’s just not me who has had bad luck; Americans are angry about the changes. If the world wonders how we elected Donald Trump it’s not hard to see if you live here. I worry about the future. I try to extrapolate the trend line and I can’t imagine where it’s going. I haven’t, however, seen anything yet that might reverse the trend.
Why am I moving to that dark, cold, miserable corner of the world? Because it feels safe.