Readers: this blog is set in the future (sometime after the year 2020). Each entry assumes there has been a 5th revolution in the US — the Revenge Revolution. More about the Revenge Revolution, a list of earlier revolutions and the author, Entry #1.

Periodically I write a “sense check” to assess whether in the next few years, a revolution in the US is still possible or whether the entire exercise is based on a statistical aberration — i.e., a roughly 50-year cycle between major upheavals in the US.  Most recent sense check, Entry #365.  

Some of the entries are part of a series.  Several series are available as easy-to-read booklets for download:

Prelude: in a couple of preceding entries I tried to address the seemingly endless number of inconsistencies in information from the Trump administration about the spread of the coronavirus and/or actions to mitigate the spread. After some reflection, I decided that was futile.  Trump is a lunatic and the administration filled with lapdogs save a couple of people at CDC.  Instead of wasting time on Trump, I thought it more productive to begin discussing what happens in the US once the coronavirus is more under control.  At this point not sure how many entries.  The first one is a bit long.  

ENTRY #378 BEGINS: In the 1960s, there was a song by The Animals that included the lyrics, “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do.”   While not written as a protest against the Vietnam War, the song was often used as a protest against the US participation in Vietnam.

Even though the song is more than 50 years old, the title seems appropriate today. The place we have to get out of is the economic and social quagmire in this country. The economic and social quagmire has been gradually getting worse with each decade. And while the Trump Administration has not been the sole cause, decisions by Trump with the support of the Republican Party have made the quagmire far worse.

Another perspective on the same situation is the US is sitting on an economic and social time bomb with the timer clock getting close to zero hour and ready to explode. What’s creating the time bomb is pressure from multiple sectors:

  1. Decades of limited earnings growth for middle and lower-income workers. The result has been greater income inequality.
  2. More medical risk. Fewer employers are providing company-paid medical insurance, thus leaving families to fund their insurance.
  3. Less job certainty. The uncertainty has been growing for some time as more organizations hire workers as contractors. Organizations are also automating an ever increasing number of functions of blue-collar and white-collar workers.
  4. More societal polarization with focus on one’s political party rather than with focus on solving problems. The shift began with the Reagan administration, when Reagan repeatedly declared, “Government is the problem, not the solution.” Trump’s public animosity toward anyone who does not support his views, however controversial, convoluted and even unconstitutional, has taken party loyalty over policy to an unprecedented level.

The four forces squeezing the US population are like hands squeezing a balloon. The coronavirus has intensified the squeeze, leaving little time before the balloon bursts. Reactions to state governors’ actions to control the spread of the coronavirus generally have been positive although some on the far right have protested. Apparently far-right Republicans think they have immunity to the virus.

The stay-at-home directives, closing of businesses and social distancing seem to have allowed the nation to pause and begin rethinking previously held assumptions. For example, prior to the coronavirus, certain jobs were considered relatively unimportant and, therefore, not worthy of much compensation. Such jobs included non-degreed healthcare workers, grocery store staff, transit workers and workers at food-processing plants.

Interestingly, the coronavirus changed those assumptions. People began to realize how important these jobs were to a functioning society. During the coronavirus those working in healthcare, grocery store and food-processing, among others, were categorized as “essential.” At the same time, many college-degreed, higher-paid white-collar jobs, including many executives, were categorized as “non-essential” and mandated to work from home.

Further, many “non-essential” businesses were ordered to close. The result was a huge spike in unemployment. Over a four-week period ending mid-April 2020, more than 22,000,000 workers in the US filed for state unemployment benefits. Over the next few weeks, the total will likely increase significantly since many unemployment offices were overwhelmed and furloughed workers unable to file.

How many of those currently furloughed will be re-employed post-coronavirus is uncertain. At a minimum, there likely will be a major disruption to the pre-virus job-status hierarchy. Many lower-paid “essential” workers could receive a pay increase and many white-collar workers deemed “non-essential” could be reclassified to lower-paid positions or jobs eliminated.

The COVID-19-related shutdown of the US economy has brought to the forefront social and economic inequities. Prior to COVID-19 these inequities often were discussed in the abstract since most of the people discussing the inequities were not affected directly. COVID-19 has reframed the conversation. Most of the public now realizes how fragile their jobs are and how the safety net for furloughed workers has a huge hole, starting with unemployment benefits and medical coverage.

Now that this “hole” in the safety net has been discovered, what steps will elected officials take to make repairs? The task of repairing the hole may be more complicated than policymakers realize. While anyone losing a job or being furloughed without pay suffers economically, the impact of that loss may be markedly different for different age groups.

Historically, as workers aged their families had been able to accumulate financial resources that could help cushion economic downturns. Thus, older workers furloughed because of COVID-19 should be in a better position economically than younger workers. But are workers today, older and younger, able to weather an economic downturn?

How do economic resources of today’s workers compare to workers at the same age say 25 years ago? Do today’s workers age 45 have the same relative assets as workers who were age 45 in 1995? What about assets of workers say age 25 in 2020 compared to those age 25 in 1995? Are workers today, older and younger, at a disadvantage economically compared to previous age cohorts? The answer is, “yes.” And that disadvantage has grown with each generation.

Over the last 50-60 years, there has a fundamental deterioration in affordability of key factors that help a family accumulate assets. Since roughly the mid-1960’s each succeeding age cohort has been faced with:

  1. Housing prices (and rents) increasing faster than income
  2. Medical costs increasing faster than income
  3. College tuition increasing at a rate much faster than inflation and income
  4. Retirement savings burden transferred to employees as employer-funded defined-benefit retirement programs have been eliminated

The economic pressures caused by each one of these factors probably could be managed by most families. For example, since 1960, when adjusted for inflation, housing prices have increased about 125%, rent about 75% and income only 25%.  However, when the increases in all factors are combined – each one has a similar curve – the result in a significant erosion in disposable personal income.

A story that hit me like a 2×4 to the forehead was an interview with a family trying to survive under the crush of these economic pressures. The interview was during the recent PBS News Hour. The subject was an ER- vehicle technician in New York.

The technician was describing the mental and economic pressures associated with the coronavirus. The ER technician earned about $40,000. As anyone familiar with cost of living in any of the NY boroughs, $40k for a family is tight. He also had a second job. What really struck me was the ER technician’s employer, apparently a contractor to the City of New York, did not provide health insurance.

Here’s the guy taking you to the hospital to get treated for coronavirus (or some other emergency) but the ER technician does not have employer-paid health insurance. Even worse he can’t afford private health insurance because the Trump administration eliminated many features of Obamacare and eliminated insurance exchanges. So, Trump and Republicans, the guy taking you to the hospital to save your life is risking his life and risking financial ruin if he contracts the virus from you. Does that seem fair?

Longer term, the impact of the coronavirus on the United States will likely end up changing permanently a number of aspects of society. The post-coronavirus United States will likely be forced to address the medical and economic inequities that have been building for the past 50-60 years. In addition, the US might begin to address the need retrain workers as more technology is integrated into the workplace.

The likely result of the coming technology tsunami? Many blue-collar and white-collar workers of all ages are going to be faced with possibly accepting a lower standard of living. (See booklet titled Technology Tsunami for more discussion and possible solutions.)

Will workers of different age cohorts be affected differently? Workers currently age 50 and older, even though they should have more resources, may be hit harder by the technology tsunami since many are less familiar with advanced technology and they have fewer years before retirement to try and recoup lost earnings.

But the technology tsunami is only one tsunami facing current workers. Another tsunami headed toward US shores is the retirement tsunami. What we as a society don’t talk about and certainly what has not been addressed at the Federal level is how unprepared for retirement workers are.

The retirement tsunami has been caused by the elimination of employer-funded health and retirement programs. The potential impact of the tsunami has been made worse by erosion of personal income from the accelerating cost of housing, medical and college tuition. Workers have nothing left over to save for retirement.

In a recent poll by Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, 75%, or 3 out of 4 people age 50-62 had jobs that fell into a “non-traditional” category — meaning, those without employer-provided retirement plans and health insurance. According to the report, workers in non-traditional jobs can expect their retirement income to be as much as 26% lower than that of people who spent their 50’s and early 60’s in positions with full benefit packages, according to the center’s findings.  (Update: NYTimes article about older workers without adequate retirement savings moving in with children, 20 05 03 NYT Underfunded Retirement Parents Moving in with Children

What about the impact of higher costs and the technology tsunami on younger workers? Don’t they have 30-35 years to recoup lost earnings from a coronavirus economic slowdown and the technology tsunami? Unfortunately, a greater percentage of younger age cohorts are likely to be even less prepared for retirement than those currently age 50-62.

If costs for housing, medical, education and retirement continue to exceed gains in income, the cumulative effect will further erode disposal personal income. Unless there is a fundamental change in how health care costs, retirement programs and advanced education are funded, more and more people will be underfunded for retirement.

What will make a bad situation worse is a prolonged economic slump associated with the coronavirus shutdowns. The rate at which people have been furloughed is unprecedented – 22,000,000 in four weeks and likely another 10,000,000 in the next four weeks.

Few people in business, few economists and much of the general public does not expect the economy to bounce back once the restrictions associated with the coronavirus are lifted. Even if employment in the manufacturing increases over the next 24-30 months as companies begin bringing jobs back to the US, overall economic growth will be very slow.

Some portions of the service sector employment seem likely to experience a permanent loss of jobs. After “stay-at-home” restrictions are lifted, how many consumers will immediately return to restaurants, attend sporting events, go to shopping centers or travel by plane – and especially take cruises? Consumers are likely to remain cautious until an effective vaccine has become widely available – probably as long as 18-24 months. Even with the vaccine will the public’s behavior be changed permanently?

During the next 18-24 months and maybe forever, how much of structure of service sector will change? Many formerly employed in the service sector have no employer-funded health insurance and even fewer have an employer-funded retirement program. Where do these former employees turn for help? Their jobs are gone, or at least not coming back for some time. Finding another job will be extremely difficult since the economy is growing slowly at best.

Now you see why the theme of this entry is “We gotta get out of this place if it’s the last thing we ever do.” This place is a dead end. We’ve got to find something new. The pressure to “get out of this place” seems like the spark for the Revenge Revolution.

The hardships associated with coronavirus seems to be awakening the middle class to realize how long they have been screwed by Republican policies of tax cuts for the wealthy and denying affordable medical care for all. Workers over 50 are realizing the need to return to employer-funded retirement programs and/or increased Social Security retirement benefits. Such programs are widespread in other developed countries so there is no excuse for not implementing.

When will the Revenge Revolution start? I think we’ve started. The coronavirus seems like an event that could trigger a revolution. The pace and magnitude of the job losses are unprecedented. The Revenge Revolution could spread as quickly as the coronavirus.

As more and more people realize “we gotta get out of this place” the more pressure on Washington to address the social and economic inequities. People are not going to be satisfied with Trump blaming China, the WHO or someone else for the coronavirus. People want concrete steps to fix the hole in the safety net, help train people for the coming technology tsunami, make healthcare affordable for everyone and make sure people have adequate resources for retirement. (Next few entries will offer some solutions.