Fishbowl5 With The Atlantic’s Don Peck

Donald Peck is deputy managing editor of The Atlantic, whose March 2010 cover story on the Great Recession led to his first book, Pinched: How the Great Recession Has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It.”  He will speak at Politics & Prose tonight. The current issue of The Atlantic, now on newsstands, features an essay adapted from his book. Read that here.

How does the recession affect you personally?

My wife and I bought a row house in 2007 (we’d waited for several years because we thought the market was overvalued, but we finally said to each other, ‘we can’t keep putting our lives on hold’).  So it’s been a little tough to see the value of that fall, along with the value of our savings.  But overall, we’ve been very lucky: we kept our jobs, and so did almost all of our friends; housing values have held up much better in DC than in most of the country; and of course the stock market has come back pretty strongly, the past week or so notwithstanding.

That’s one of the more noteworthy aspects of this recession, I think — it’s been very uneven geographically.  In the professional communities of DC and New York and San Francisco, the recession was lighter, and the recovery has been stronger, than in middle-class meccas like Tampa or Phoenix or Las Vegas.  And I fear that this makes it easy for established professionals and members of the media in these former cities to underestimate just how much pain this recession has caused — and continues to cause — in most of the country.

How worried do we need to be?

Very worried.  Unless economic growth and job growth accelerate dramatically, we’re still years away from a more normal, healthy jobs environment.  And the longer a society stews in periods like this one, the more its character changes.  Comparable periods — the 1890s, the 1930s, the 1970s — show us that politics grow steadily meaner as people lose the sense that they can get ahead in life; anti-immigrant sentiments swell, support for the poor diminishes, and bold action of any type becomes harder because the atmosphere becomes more poisonous.  And beyond politics, long periods of elevated unemployment leave bad scars on people, their families, and their communities; some never recover.

What is the gist of your book and what do you want readers to get out of it?

“Pinched” contains three main messages.  The first is that the social changes resulting from periods like this one are wider, more complex, and much longer lasting than they first appear; the Great Recession has already changed the places we live, the work we do, our family lives, and in some cases even who we are.  But all of those changes are likely to become much more pronounced in the coming years, and to endure long after recovery.  The greatest impact of the Great Recession is yet to come.

The second is that this recession has temporarily accelerated several deep economic trends that were already underway: the hollowing of the middle class, the downward mobility of men without a college degree, the dissolution of blue-collar families, and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a tiny elite.  In this sense, the recession has given us a preview of where American society is headed in the next couple of decades — and who it’s leaving behind.

The third — and most important — is that we can recover faster, and that we can mitigate the forces that are eroding the prospects of many middle-class Americans.  But it will take a wide array of public actions to do that — some time honored and some novel.  I describe those in detail in “Pinched.”

In the course of writing your book, what surprised you?

Surprises…When I started my reporting for this book (and the Atlantic article that preceded it), I thought young people would bear the lightest scars from the Great Recession — twenty-somethings have fewer responsibilities, and are in and out of the job market anyway, so I figured they’d be able to cope more easily with a bad job environment.  But in fact, both history and economic research show that today’s young adults are likely to bear some of the deepest and most enduring scars from this period.  The first few years on the job market are incredibly important to setting one’s career trajectory, and a lot of research shows that people who first come into the job market during a recession not only start out behind, they never catch up to where they would have been had they graduated into better times.  The Millennial Generation, on the eve of the recession, was as audacious a generation as this country has ever known.  But the character of the Millennials, as well as their financial futures, are changing in this period, in complicated ways.  Most of those changes are unfortunate, but some are positive — and all of these changes are likely to endure well beyond recovery.

In writing your book, who were a few of the most intriguing people you spoke with and why did they have such an impact on you?

I met a young lawyer, Alex, who finished law school in 2009 — he’d put himself through state college, graduating debt-free, but then took on debt (“I thought it was ‘good debt,’” he told me) to go to law school.  With the economy in free fall that year, the job offer he’d accepted during his third year was rescinded.  He took and passed the MA and NY bar, but couldn’t find work in either state.  He eventually moved to DC, took an $8 an hour job at Barnes & Noble, and kept looking.  His parents, a machinist and an administrative assistant, took out a home equity loan so that he could consolidate his credit card and bar-preparation-course debt.  After many months, Alex finally found a better job with the federal government, but it doesn’t make use of his law degree, and doesn’t pay anywhere near what lawyers usually make.  He’s in his late twenties, works a night job, and lives in an efficiency with a roommate.  He told me he recognizes that a lot of people have it much worse than him. But what nags at him constantly is the sense that all the basic privileges and responsibilities of a fully adult life just keep receding.  How can he buy a house, or even a car, he asked me?  How can he start a family?  He feels like his whole life is on hold, and as if the future he’d imagined is slowly becoming irretrievable.

I met a guy outside of Reading, PA — he’s an Italian American in his mid-40s and he’s worked with his hands his whole life, first as a factory worker and then as a construction worker, and eventually a foreman.  He’s a great guy, an optimistic and giving guy.  Before the recession, and before his wife and he split up, they’d adopted 8 kids.  And when he lost his job a couple of years ago, he didn’t know what to do.  There were retraining classes available to him, but he was so far removed from high school (and had such bad memories of it) that he didn’t feel like he could successfully retrain for an entirely new line of work.  An “interviewing coach” provided by a local church group told him that he’d never get a job outside construction if he didn’t change his style of self-presentation, which is very gruff.  For over a year, he ended up rooting through the trash of his neighbors, scavenging for appliances from which he could take and resell brass fittings or coated wire.  He learned the trash pick-up schedule for his town and surrounding towns, and would go out and drive around in his pick-up for hours every night and early morning — sometimes with his kids — just so he could find enough scrap to sell so that he could put food on the table.  And he’s like so many other guys right now — middle-aged guys without a college degree that just can’t see their way to new careers or lines of work, and who many employers are ignoring.  This recession has been a true crisis for blue collar men, and we need to take action — through immediate investment in the country’s physical infrastructure, for instance — to help these men get back to work, and help them stabilize their families, which are unraveling.