AKRON — The economy.
It’s what Ohioans most often say when asked what troubles them. But what they mean when they say “the economy” requires asking when they were born and how life’s been since they began working.
Ohioans, like most Americans, have fractured views of how to strengthen the fragile economic recovery of the past eight years, though many vaguely agree that more good-paying jobs might do it.
Much of that comes from perspective. Those who entered the work force in the last 15 years haven’t tasted the good times.
But for those who had jobs in the roaring 1990s, despair and anger are common.
In Ohio, median household income since 2000 plunged 16 percent, or more than $9,300, the second-worst in the nation. In major urban counties such as Montgomery (Dayton), Lucas (Toledo) and Cuyahoga (Cleveland), the median dropped more than 20 percent.
With the 2008 recession still affecting retirement and savings accounts, older earners are lingering longer in the workforce, keeping younger workers from moving up the economic ladder. Meanwhile, the rungs on that ladder have grown farther apart as the wealthy fared better than most.
Meanwhile, efficiencies designed to amp up productivity and profits — mainly by automating or outsourcing labor — erased many of Ohio’s higher-paying manufacturing jobs. The shift hollowed the middle class — especially white Baby Boomers — leaving them most susceptible to populist candidates who promise a return to better times.
Millennials — a generation larger than but not as politically active as baby boomers — suffered from the time they first turned 18 in the late 90s. They witnessed the dotcom bubble burst, the crippling economic impacts of 9/11, the crushing Great Recession, all while taking on college debt that was supposed to include a promise of high wages.
For the oldest generations, inflation threatens survival. Their life’s earnings don’t grow in bank accounts. But everything else, from food to health insurance and once again gas, does.
The young American
Cory Maidens grew up “firmly in the middle class.”
In 2000 he graduated high school and he headed off to Kent State to make his mark on the world as an aspiring screenwriter. “Basically I think the idea was that if you went to college you would get a good enough job to pay the rent and have at least the life you were already living,” said Maidens, now 34.
After four years and an English Literature degree, he scripted the first of six independent films.
None paid off, and so Maidens stocked and sold CDs, DVDs and video games (first at Best Buy then the Exchange) for the next 14 years. Twice laid off — like his father, a union carpenter, was before him — and currently seeking employment, the bearded millennial from Highland Square in Akron is fortunate to have no children to feed and a wife whose librarian’s salary helps his unemployment checks pay the bills.
He has every reason to feel slighted by an economy that promised good-paying jobs to college graduates but instead crunched the middle class by cheapening labor, even as productivity increased.
But he’s not mad. “Maybe because we’re younger we’re able to be influenced by a big picture,” said Maidens, who walks tall in his neighborhood. “I’ll be OK. I know I’ll survive. I’ll find work, something. But long term? It seems like we’re on a steep decline that doesn’t show any sign of turning around.”
As a bright-eyed millennial, he knows only of better economic times from the tales his parents and others tell.
At Best Buy, Maidens watched the need for his job — assisting customers with the products he stocked — disappear as media streamed online. A third-party employer, he said, brought in low-skilled workers to stock the shelves for him. No more talking to customers.
By the time he was laid off, the former manager was unloading trucks.
The age of jobs
Differences in age perspective are starkly evident in a poll for The Ohio Media Project by the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. The Lima News is participating in The Ohio Media Project.
The survey of 1,000 Ohioans in April and May showed that about 57 percent of millennials named poverty and economic inequality as the top concern. From crony-capitalism on Wall Street to K Street lobbyists on Capitol Hill, they’re as leery of the ultra-rich as Bernie Sanders, who won 22 states in the Democratic primary contest by casting the economy as rigged by billionaires.
But concern about poverty or inequality falls with age, dropping to 43 percent for Generation X (born between 1965 and 1984). For Boomers, however, it’s a tie at 35 percent between poverty/inequality and jobs.
In the middle
Tom Sykes remodels million-dollar homes at the same rates he charged 15 years ago. And, the Barberton-based contractor said, “we’re not making any more money now than we were then.”
The country needs to control trade and immigration, he said, if not to stem the loss of American jobs than to simply thwart terrorism. He thinks Donald Trump, a fellow businessman, is the better candidate for that job, even if Sykes considers the wall-building rhetoric whimsical.
A middle child, Sykes jumped head first into his father’s drywall business with his two brothers. His younger brother still runs the family business, which their father founded in the 1980s. Back then, high demand for construction rewarded workers with wage growth and small business owners with profits.
Sykes heeded much of his parents’ advice, except for the suggestion to buy property before home values took off in the late 1990s and mid-2000s. “I’d be retired by now,” he said.
Today, his business of flipping houses — not the remodeling gig with its five laborers— is driven by consumers who can afford no more than a $100,000 mortgage. “That’s something that pretty much everybody can afford. I’m not greedy,” Sykes said. “The way the economy is, my price range is right for low to middle incomes.”
Sykes sometimes helps out a friend to earn a little extra cash or exchange a favor. He charges $200 a day for his nearly 30 years of experience. That’s also how much some job applicants say he should pay them.
“Me and the other guys kind of look at each other and say, ‘we didn’t make that when we started,’” Sykes said.
With a daughter studying early childhood development at Kent State and a son taking up business at the University of Akron, Sykes plans for his children to open a cutting edge daycare center, a business as sure to be around as funeral homes and tax collectors. Until then, though, its college debt for the family.
The Great Recession lingers everywhere, Paula Kallio said.
“There’s no question about it. It impacted all walks of life. All income brackets,” said the retired CEO, whose company educated bankers and stock brokers at firms like Merrill Lynch and Bank of America to stay licensed to practice.
Retired for 12 years now, Kallio serves as chair of the Barberton Salvation Army advisory council and guides the organization’s services in Summit County. Her mix of friends include fellow retirees who own their homes but struggle to survive. A portion of their fixed incomes pays for Medicare. More is consumed by increasingly expensive supplemental health insurance. Gas prices are ticking upward, again. Food, a factor often omitted from inflation calculations, isn’t getting cheaper.
“That’s why you have so many retirees working at Walmart as greeters or bagging groceries at Giant Eagle,” Kallio, 70, said. “We need something to keep us going. We’re not talking luxury. We just need something to keep us going.”
Kallio had the foresight to dump her and her husband’s savings into a fixed income investment that shielded the couple’s nest egg from the most recent stock market crash.
“There were retirees that had 401Ks, annuities, things that fall under the brokerage that had built up over the years,” said Kallio, who grew up being told to save your money and, someday, it will save you. “And in 2008, half of it went away. Overnight it was gone. This is what put the fear into this country, especially retirees.”
Those with extreme wealth and time to bounce back from a bad investment can take on the risk needed to succeed in today’s market, Kallio said. But that doesn’t describe many of her fellow retirees.
Reach Doug Livingston of the Akron Beacon Journal at 330-996-3792, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ABJDoug.