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Lost in America

October 15, 2009

“I was on the road to nowhere. You know the road? It’s a nowhere road, it goes nowhere. You’re on it. You don’t know it. It’s a nowhere road. It just goes around in a circle.” Albert Brooks as David Howard, Lost in America, 1985, The Geffen Company


In the October 19th edition of Business Week, Peter Coy writes, “While unemployment is ravaging just about every part of the global workforce, the most enduring harm is being done to young people who can’t grab onto the first rung of the career ladder….In the U.S., the unemployment rate for 16-to24-year-olds has climbed to more than 18% from 13% a year ago. For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of ‘lost generation.’”

            When you look at, the definitions of lost include “no longer to be found,” “having gone astray,” “bewildered,” “not used to good purpose,” “wasted,” “ending in defeat,” “preoccupied,” and “distraught; desperate; hopeless” as in “the lost look of a man trapped and afraid.”

            That’s what is ravaging so many people today and especially young people who feel lost, trapped and afraid. When I think of lost, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite movies, Lost in America, in which David Howard (Albert Brooks), a successful advertising executive from LA gets a job disappointment and convinces his wife, Linda, that they should quit their jobs, liquidate their assets, and emulate the movie Easy Rider, spending the rest of their lives traveling around America…in a Winnebago!

Unlike so many today who don’t get to choose their career paths, Howard’s idealized, unrealistic plans soon begin to go wrong, as their “sacred nest egg” is squandered in Las Vegas and David begins to look for any job he can find, including being a crossing guard in a small town. It’s just another American dream gone to waste, lost.

            For the youth of today, the American dream may already be a long lost wasted dream. “Are we condemning our children to downward mobility? Good question,” says economist Robert Samuelson (“Health Spending Condemns Youth to Future of Downward Mobility,” Robert J. Samuelson, IBD, October 14, 2009). “Considering how health spending could threaten future living standards, it ought to be center stage in the ‘reform’ debate. Instead,” he argues, “It’s ignored.”

            What does Samuelson mean? He argues that rising health spending will grow far in excess of per capita GDP and consume most dollars earned by 2030. “Expanding health spending would raise taxes (to pay for government insurance), lower take-home pay (to pay for employer-provided insurance) or increase out-of-pocket medical costs.” Other drains loom as well, including higher energy prices, higher taxes, underfunded  pensions, repairing aging infrastructure, and higher federal taxes to cover deficits and payments to retirees (much of it health spending). “The young’s future,” according to Samuelson, has been heavily mortgaged.”

            He says the health debate has deemphasized controlling runaway spending, “much of which is ineffective.” “The chance to reorder the medical-industrial complex to restrain costs and improve care have been mostly squandered,” Samuelson states. “Some call this ‘reform’; no one should call this progress.”

            “The road to downward mobility,” Robert Samuelson concludes, “is paved with good intentions.” We focus on insuring those who can’t get insured but forget what the impacts will be for our children and grandchildren, who may likely face a future of lost opportunities, as they swim in the darkness of huge costly burdens. It’s already bad for my generation to get a handle on the ever expanding health care, college, and insurance costs that are swallowing up almost everything we earn.

            What’s it going to be like for our kids?

            Luckily for Albert Brooks playing David Howard, he was able to come back to find another ad agency job that paid close to his magical $100,000 level. But the Reagan Mid-80s are long gone. Ad agencies are like the days from the TV show, Mad Men, a thing of the past, as are the days when one American generation lived better than the last. Now, you need to work on your computer and come up with new Google Ad Words and hope someone finds and pays for them on the Internet.

            Maybe the upward mobility of dream jobs will be true for the youth of China but in the United States of America, the dreams of financial stability and success for the young may be nothing more than pipedreams.


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