Unclassified Info: Waking up to the new American dream

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street movement with real appreciation for those rising up to protest. I’ve also been hearing critics say the movement lacks focus and a clear message.

Personally, I think not having one unifying voice is a good thing.

There will come a time when this uprising will need a more honed agenda, but right now should be the time to gather in enormous numbers and throw every issue against the wall and see what sticks and what doesn’t.

With that in mind, I’ve got some things to put on the table. I believe my concerns are shared by a number of people like me — employed, not financially secure and feeling as though the dream of getting ahead is just that — a dream.

I live in a nice neighborhood. I have medical insurance. I have food in my refrigerator. You’d think I should just shut up and be grateful for what I have.

But then truth is, I work 50-plus hours a week and I am unable to save anything significant. I do not own the home I live in and as things stand, saving up enough money to buy one is completely out of the question.

My medical insurance is OK, but what it does and doesn’t cover feels more like a Las Vegas game of chance than a security blanket. That is not the fault of the current administration.

My job only facilitates an existence where I shovel money out at the exact same pace by which it comes in. Virtually every dollar earned is spent living.

Sure, occasionally I can go out to dinner and a show. And I even managed to take a six-day vacation last year. But do I have any real hope of saving anything significant when utility bills, gasoline and groceries cost so much? Absolutely not.

Then again, I stopped hoping for that years ago when I realized treading water was the new American Dream.

I often wonder who those retirement savings ads are talking to on the TV. They sure aren’t talking to me, and they aren’t talking to most of my peers. We’re in survival mode.

I know a lot of out-of-work people will be inclined to say, “Man, you should be grateful just to have a job!” And I can empathize with that. But should I be happy the majority of my waking hours are spent in a high-stress environment just so my bills can get paid?

I’m not averse to hard work, but I am disheartened that my effort only provides a false sense of security. Employers realize those of us with jobs can be squeezed harder and harder to do more work than one person ever did before. And they are taking complete advantage of it.

I recently helped conduct a man-hours audit at my office. I discovered that, by industry standards, our group of 15 people is doing the work of 23. For this I should be grateful? And in case you missed it, the audit identified a need for eight jobs, which should be created, but won’t any time soon.

I was also asked to take a pay cut recently. The reason for the pay cut? So the company could expand into other markets of financial opportunity.

While the unemployed do have it tough, workers are getting pushed around because employers know there are an abundance of people out there willing to do anything. But that doesn’t make it right to leverage the opportunity. Nor does it demand gratitude for the chance to work harder for less so that those at the top can thrive.

Like many, I’ve lived paycheck to paycheck for years, knowing full well that I was one glitch away from financial trouble. Well, guess what happened this summer? I had some medical issues and other financial setbacks, which obliterated what little I did save and left me thousands of dollars in debt.

So now, like many other people with and without jobs, I’m financially underwater.

So as I Occupy My Street, I want to know: is this the new American Dream? To be satisfied with little fulfillment and even less financial security?

I hope not. It should not be enough to simply have a job, pay our bills and kid ourselves about it satisfying one’s pursuit of happiness.

The Dream used to include real possibilities. I earn more now than my father did when he was my age. Then again, as he approached 50, the middle class actually existed. He had a five-bedroom home, a stay-at-home wife, the ability to vacation and a retirement plan.

It wasn’t that long ago.

Never mind striking it rich. Just getting into what used to be the middle class is beginning to look like an unattainable quest for a majority of Americans. If these protests fail and we continue to allow the gap between the über-rich and the rest of us to grow wider, there probably won’t be a middle class to dream about.

If that happens, the only dream left will be to win the lottery. And those odds aren’t promising.

GARY HUERTA is a Glendale resident and author. He is currently working on his second novel and the second half of his life. Gary may be reached at gh@garyhuerta.com.

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