My father was a Portuguese dairy milker in Southern California. My mother always worried when he was late coming home from work. She could not speak a word of English. I think her greatest fear was that of losing him to an accident on the farm (cows are not always passive animals). Then she would be left destitute with her only child, me. This happened to my father and his mother, when his father died of an industrial related lung disease in Boston. My father and his mother were forced to go back to Azores, by themselves, for lack of money.
My father worked all the time. Seven days a week. Sometimes two shifts in one day. Endless cycles of work and sleep. His situation sounded not much better than what people must have experienced during the height of the industrial revolution. Except, that my mother never had to go to work. One dairy farm laborer's income could support the family. That was the 50's and early 60's.
My father earned a modest salary, yet saved enough money to buy a house with a 50% down payment. He even arranged to pay off the house early with a couple of large lump sum payments, just so he would not have debt. He bought the family car with cash. He did not believe in credit or interest based tax write-offs. Eventually he bought some land in the locality of his youth in the Azores Islands.
Come the 80's. I have my own children. One job cannot support a family. Two jobs might get you a nice place to rent, but you are not likely to afford a house big enough to contain the children in a safe neighborhood. In '87, I work with a firm specializing in selling real estate limited partnerships. Part of the sales pitch is that rents and land values outpace income growth in the Bay Area. I asked myself, "How long can this last?"
More work, more work. By 1989, one young salesman I knew complained that it would take, "Two working wives along with his income to support a house!" Well, I suppose the wife could have used two working husbands. The housing costs outstripped incomes. In 1990 one of the conservative writers in Barrons said that real estate in California was already so far off the ground that prices would have to drop 50% before we came back to real value. Those people in my life with over mortgaged property did not want to hear this -- they had already bought into the speculation.
Clearly, there is a declining real standard of living as measured by disposable time. And, when there was no more present time to dispose of, we moved to disposing of future time: debt and credit. And, hardly anyone that I knew had any idea how to get off the wheel without falling in to bankruptcy and repossession.
Just before this recession hit, we could hear the cries of people realizing that they had no time for anything but work. A banker friend of mine pointed out that status in the San Francisco Financial District was to have a calendar so packed that one had no time.
To save Earth's ecology, we need to do more with less. Or, should I say, be happy with less stuff. We need to realize that we can have, do already have, a good standard of living without opening ourselves up to overwork, and endless production. Yet, endless production has been our obsession. For the common human lot is the consumer's hell: a world of constantly new desires that always outpace what we have.
It's like my single male Italian friend who had four cars. "Well," he said, "I've done my part to keep the economy going. I just don't need any more cars."