The Nouveau Poor


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What purpose in these deeds
Oh fox confessor, please
Who married me to these orphaned blues
"It's not for you to know, but for you to weep and wonder
When the death of your civilization precedes you,"- Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings The Flood

I've been reading Tyler Cowan's The Great Stagnation, which is what he calls the period we are in. I believe it. Maybe it's just the fact I graduated college in this period, but it does feel like stagnation is a very palpable part of my life. I sometimes imagine I am part of a new sort of people- the nouveau poor. We make much less money than our parents did at our ages and don't have many career advancement opportunities. We aren't impoverished, but some of us linger below the federal poverty line, as I did for the year or so after I graduated.

But we grew up in the middle or upper middle class and went to college, so we don't fit the "poor" stereotypes. We are used to a certain standard of living and maintain it somewhat, even if it means scrimping by to do it or approaching it in a novel way. We live in pretty nice areas, but share our tiny apartments with an inordinate amount of roommates. We eat good food, but save money on it through buying clubs, community gardens, and DIY processing. We shop in thrift stores and scavenge furniture from the trash. Time consuming things like canning or backyard chickens don't have a high opportunity cost for us because there isn't much work to go around. Most of us are "creatives," but almost all of us have college degrees that aren't easily convertible to work skills such as those in English or History. A lot of us pay the bills in unrelated fields as baristas or waiters. 

If we can afford to have families, many of us chose to spend more time with the children realizing it doesn't make sense to work 40 hours of a job that has nothing to do with what you like so you can give 80% of your income to paying someone else to raise your children and quite a bit of the rest to a government that seems like a dying dinosaur. In fact, there is a general return to homemaking and a greater value placed on quality of life. More time is spent on things like cooking and gardening. The paradox is while we might make less money than our parents did, we might be much healthier since many of us have more time for good food, family, and exercise. The idea that housekeeping might be banal has fallen in the face of the fact that most of us will never posses the fulfilling careers our college counselors promised. 

Other nouveau poors might be more stressed because they still have dreams about their creative career and are trying to balance it with bartending. But most of us have given up on that sort of thing. It's not that there is no innovation or ambition, we're just learning we shouldn't base our lives on our careers. 

The downsides are real of course. There is a worry that men aren't "manning up", but in reality many men and women seem stuck in adolescence because they cannot afford to start households. Another problem is that some people spend an exorbitant amount of money on education that may not have much of a payoff, such as graduate school in British Literature or expensive private colleges. As a result, many of us have large amounts of debt and no hope of ever paying it off.*

*I've been lucky in this respect since I went to a state school