Why the Young Want to Leave, the Middle-Aged are Broke, and the Old are Giving Up
by umair haque
See the headlines above? What story do they tell you? Here’s the story they should tell you: inequality in America has grown to immense, grotesque proportions. Such immense proportions that American life is becoming unlivable. From the constant violence, to the fanaticism, to the greed, America is teaching the world what it means to be a society of people in despair, anger, and numbness.
Over the last few years, many, maybe most, young people I know are making plans — or at least have dreams — to leave the USA. To touch down on shores richer with possibility. Like all great trends, that one’s a sign. American life has become unlivable. Why? And how?
Think about it from the end of a life — not the beginning. There’s a new boom amongst retirees. Bankruptcy. Basic costs of life — healthcare, food, and the like — have eaten up so much of their income, many are simply declaring themselves broke. How terrible. The average American dies in debt — at least $62,000 of it. And yet if old people are going broke because they can’t afford to eat, sleep, and go to the doctor, basically — what about young people, whose future is becoming those old people? Would you want to grow old in a society where you’d have to declare bankruptcy at 70? What would you even do then? Doesn’t that frighten you a little?
So how did America get to this point? What happens in between the beginning and the end of a life — in the middle? People have to make ends meet. But in American, they can’t. Not anymore. Life itself has become a wretched, desperate affair. Do you think I exaggerate? How do you feel most days? Happy — or anxious, frightened, and worried? How did you get there?
Americans think of “hyperinflation” as a thing that affect banana republics — poorly governed countries, Venezuela, little African barely-states. But the truth is that hyperinflation has wrecked American life, devastated its middle class, destroyed the prospects of its young, and made life unlivable. How so?
Healthcare costs have risen by two thousand percent. The price of education has gone up by 1000%. Food, 300%. Rent and house prices, 400%. Childcare, 500%. You can add to that list as you see fit. I call it “eudaimonic hyperinflation” — TVs get cheaper, but the price of the basic stuff of a good life rockets upwards beyond the edges of the solar system, way beyond the point of sanity, let alone reason. See the trend? Eye-popping, jaw-dropping, insane increases — for the basic stuff of life.
It can’t be justified in any real economic sense. There’s no good reason that healthcare should cost 2000% more than just a decades ago. A multitude of plagues, requiring everyone to be bedridden half their lives, didn’t strike. There’s no inherent reason education should cost a thousand percent more. Universities have been around a millennium. So what happened?
At the same time, average incomes haven’t risen for decades. They’ve flatlined. Americans aren’t earning any more now than they were in the 70s. Those two things aren’t a coincidence. Americans aren’t making more, but they’re spending thousands of percent more on the basics of life, because that is what predatory capitalism does. It might be the best definition of predatory capitalism of all — I won’t pay you a penny more, but I’ll squeeze you for hundreds of thousands of dollars you don’t have. Predatory capitalism made American life unlivable.
So what happens when insane, thousand percent increases for the basics of life meet incomes which haven’t risen in decades?
A whole nation goes broke. The result is a nation in which 80% of people live paycheck to paycheck. Millions live in a new kind of poverty–precarity. Once the stuff of Marxist theory — now a grim reality. Life is a daily exercise of fending off bill collectors, paying off crushing debts, trying to desperately just eke out enough to live this month. The vast majority of Americans live right at the razor’s edge of ruin. They are perpetually one illness, emergency, or expense away from disaster — homelessness, bankruptcy, eviction, genuine ruin. And that is because eudaimonic hyperinflation, for the basics of life, wrecked their chances at a decent life, on an average income.
Now, it’s easy to take a Stoic stance. “So what! They should suck it up! Nobody needs to be a millionaire!” That’s exactly the point. Today, in America, if you want to live like a European, you need millions — thousands won’t cover much at all. Want good healthcare? Decent food? Good education? A nice place to live? All those things don’t just cost what average people can easily afford anymore — and save, invest, and retire. They cost hundreds of thousands — and together, more. Lest you think I exaggerate, just giving birth to a single child costs $20K. So what about a family? A home? Retirement? A pension? How would you begin to have these things? An average income won’t provide them. Even an above average income barely gets you there. Hence, millennials who can’t afford them, are simply going without them — homes, relationships, families, kids.
You need to win the economic lottery — become Jack or Elon or Bill. A decent life in America is completely out of reach not just for the “average person,” but for a full 80% of people. And that’s because eudaimonic hyperinflation — stomach-churning, panic-attack inducing, thousand percent increases for the basics of life — means a whole nation has effectively gone broke.
What’s a life like that like, emotionally, culturally, personally? Americans, I think, being Stoics, don’t discuss it enough. So consider the tremendous, immense, unbearable, crushing pressure of it all. You don’t know if, this month, next month, every month, you can afford it — just the basics. Not a vacation home, not a sports car, not idle luxury. Just healthcare, education for your kids, a pension, transportation. A smile on your kids’ faces. Just a decent life. Such a life is full of profound, existential anxiety, dread, fear. The deepest kinds. Of death, of ruin, of catastrophe. Sleepless nights, tossing and turning — how can I possibly pay for all this? But what happens to my family if I don’t? — turn into days of full-blown heart-stopping panic, probably followed by desperate, numbing escapism. Does that sound a little bit like American life now? Maybe even yours?
But those days never end. They just roll on and on — even in your old age. It never gets better. Such people, I’d guess, feel devalued, bruised and battered, genuinely traumatized. A loss of faith, in themselves, in their society, in their worlds, ensues. No — it’s not just you, if you think that. It’s 80% of Americans who must feel such a sense of terrible dread, lurching anxiety, pervasive fear. But do you think that such a society can hang together?
That deficit of a good life affects three groups most. The young — who, growing old in such a society, face decades of frustration and strife. Minorities, who are excluded from opportunities disproportionately to begin with. And the poor — who are simply abandoned, quite literally left to die on the streets.
So young people — especially those who find themselves within these three groups — are dreaming of leaving now. Planning to leave, if they have time, money, connections. Some have already gone to Europe, where college is free. Why would they stay? Who wants to grow old in a society where the basics of life — which you need more of, not less of, as you age — are already unaffordable when you’re young? So America finds itself in the place many collapsing nations have been. Life is unlivable — and so those who can leave, do.
A society shouldn’t be a place where a decent life is just for Jack or Elon or Bill. If it is, it grows infirm, feeble, unhealthy. People turn to authoritarians. Democacy destabilizes. Extremism rises. Superstition and conspiracy come to rule the day. People give up on their own society — because it has failed to nourish them. And the young flee for their lives. And while that’s an old story, I find it a tragic one, too.
Capitalism. Not the mom-and-pop kind, which keeps cities vibrant, and people buzzing. The predatory kind. Paralleling the trend in massive inflation, industry after industry has concentrated. Gigantic, titanic monopolies now rule the lives of Americans. But they are more interested in what mega-capitalism is designed to do: eke out higher profits, quarter after quarter — without ever raising wages or incomes. They’ve done so, with spectacular success — “capital’s share of income,” i.e. profits, have never been higher in history. Bang! A nation that’s now effectively so poor, the young are beginning to flee in despair.
Predatory capitalism preyed on people to the point that a nation went broke — instead of allowing them to live genuinely decent lives. Some turned to extremists, some to bellowing authoritarians, some to superstition, some to religion — and some turned, maybe wisest of all, simply to more fertile shores. And that’s how America became unlivable.
Umair – October 2021