There is a shiny, brittle skin to the economic recovery that conceals an unhealthy flesh underneath. It is tempting to call this condition a glass half empty. But seeking the healthy and the fit in nontraditional places has become a quest for more and more Americans who are leading us down a pathway that diverges, from the mainstream towards a new future. Out of earshot of the mainstream media and off of Main Street, there is a glass half full.
The official storyline of the economic recovery began in 2009 almost as soon as the stock market lost half its value, and masses of unemployed people listened to cheery reports that the recession was over, even as unemployment surged to 10%. With waning confidence in our institutions and leaders to guide us, people seemed genuinely at a loss to define a shared future of abundance and beauty. Since then, insidious corrosion has eaten away our traditional sources of optimism. In a sea change, the focus of many people is slowly shifting away from that glossy promotional veneer back towards person-to-person relationships and rebuilding moral capital one transaction at a time.
For many employees, a fulfilling career is a lost dream, traded instead for salary and benefits. In this phase of the curve it is still an employer’s market, and most employers manipulate the terror over loss of job to their advantage. Working hours are now pretty much 24/7 for many people, taking work home on weekends; answering business emails and phone calls at all hours of the day and night.
Today’s workers are jumpy and work far harder, for less than they had made in the before-times.
Many employers, starved for profit in recent years, finally took what little profit they had in 2013, sharing little or none with the hardworking employees who had helped them to regain their economic footing. Those workers at the top who sweated the worst of it divided meager earnings among themselves, leaving little for the rest of the workforce.
Mainstream America bravely soldiers on, making 2004 wages, but with 2014 expenses. We are presented with more stuff to buy, more media to consume, and more gadgets to worship. Experiences that were once fundamentally outside of the mainstream economy – one’s college years, for example – are now a big business. There seems to be no refuge from the insistent, shrill attempts to monetize everything. It is easy to feel pessimistic and just a little debased, and to begin feeling dissident urges. Under our noses, however, another America lurks.
This is an America which hasn’t bought into the “too big to fail” system, and it has at least two demographic bases. The first is the portion of the millennial generation that has seen the damage done to their elders, and is now waiting it out, sneering at “suits” and instead creating its own economy out of localized, small moves. It operates with a healthy disregard for the establishment system. This group is in its first historical phase of creating its own food and shelter, carefully selecting strains of sustenance from local sources and operating a kind of “starting over” effort at the basic need level of the Maslow hierarchy. Food and shelter first, they reason; rebuilding a new system will come later.
It's a generation that has suffered from what philosopher Henri Lefebvre called the reproduction of the space of production in their youth. This somewhat laborious phrase cites the space of production – the factory floor – as the model upon which all the rest of our space has been molded. School, said Lefebvre, is molded upon the factory floor, where students are taught to memorize and obediently regurgitate facts to their teacher/boss. Business leaders, anxious to produce workers, insist upon teaching to standardized tests, to reproduce the results they expect upon graduation. Education is replaced with being taught the business culture.
What Millennials reject is not so much the establishment itself, but rather the manager-worker relationship that has seeped into every corner of daily life, driven by the pressure for higher profits and faster throughput. What looks to boomers as sloth (because we are conditioned to respect this pace of production) is to them a form of dissent.
It's too soon to tell whether the millennial generation, like the boomers before it, will eventually succumb to the corporate world. Allied with them, however, are the new, immigrant Americans; people who have come to our shores to seek a new place to live and work. To the rest of the world, America is still the land of the free. People are escaping terrible conditions in cities like Cairo, Rio and Istanbul, and even more frustrating powerlessness in cities all around the world. To these new arrivals, many from non-OECD countries, America still represents opportunity.
New arrivals are treated with suspicion by a xenophobic, fear mongering media precisely because they are correctly viewed as not-yet properly conditioned. Those immigrants who buy into the promise of wealth may perpetuate a realm that is corporate-dominated, but many others may not. Our genius is our open borders, and as a nation of immigrants America has always renewed itself with their diversity.
A future of abundance and beauty must begin with small moves: a foundation upon which moral capital can be rebuilt. If integrity and trust can be found in simple transactions between individuals, then progress can indeed be made. It is here that a glass half full can be found, and it is here that the social space of America is being re-made. Dying strip malls are being replaced by farmer’s markets; vacant glass towers are being replaced by warehouse-based laboratory startups and home offices, just to name a few examples. This new generation, and these new immigrants, are proving that America is all right after all, and can rebuild itself without the worst trappings of the 20th century corporate world.
These are small, unglamorous trends. If they occur without “help” from Wall Street or without government regulation, are they dissent? Then so be it. Good people can bring to society a sense of uncorrupted – dare one say humanistic? – values. Our half-full glass should include a re-creation of space on a new model: space modeled not on production, but rather upon a shared and positive vision of the future.
Richard Reep is an architect and artist who has been designing award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects, domestically and internationally, for the last thirty years . He is Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, teaching urban design and sustainable development, and is president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. He resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.
Flickr photo by khersee: Warehouse — waiting to be repurposed?