Insecurity Goes Upscale

Article excerpt

Byline: Robert J. Samuelson

How The Recession Has Changed Us.

It has been the most egalitarian of all the 11 recessions since World War II. In various ways, it has touched every social class through job loss, pay cuts, depressed home values, shrunken stock portfolios, eroded retirement savings, grown children returning home--and anxiety about all of the above. The Great Recession (as it is widely called) has changed America psychologically, politically, economically, and socially. Just how will be examined and debated for years. Here comes a booming cottage industry of scholars, pollsters, and pundits.

A new study from the Pew Research Center, based on an opinion survey in May of nearly 3,000 Americans and an exhaustive evaluation of economic data, provides a preview. Not surprisingly, it confirms that Americans have become more frugal; 71 percent say they're buying less expensive brands, 57 percent say they've trimmed or eliminated vacations. Life plans have changed; 11 percent say they've postponed marriage or children, while 9 percent have moved in with parents.

One interesting finding is that the elderly have been relatively sheltered. According to the report, "[O]lder adults (ages 65 and older) are much less likely than younger age groups to have cut back on spending, loaned or borrowed money, had trouble paying for medical bills or housing, or had to increase their credit card debt." For example, 28 percent of Americans under 65 borrowed money from family or friends; only 5 percent of those 65 and older did. Confidence in retirement savings dropped sharply for younger Americans (including those 50 to 64), not those 65 and over.

But other refuges from the Great Recession have been scarce. Previous recessions have focused their hurt on the young and unskilled. This remains true. Almost one fifth of workers 16 to 24 were unemployed at the end of 2009, a near doubling since late 2007. Among those without a high-school diploma, joblessness was 50 percent higher than the average. Still, the economic and spiritual damage extends much further, for many reasons.

First, the huge job loss: by most measures (length of unemployment, permanent firings as opposed to temporary layoffs), joblessness is the worst since World War II. (Though the unemployment rate never reached the 10. …