Over the weekend I awoke from a vivid nightmare that provided a fresh perspective on our national epidemic of middle class anxiety.
In my stupid dream, I engaged in a big-stakes game of rock-paper-scissors with some smug high-rollers and eventually lost everything --- wiping out every one of my bank accounts, erasing all my investments, destroying the totality of my retirement savings, and even giving up my home. I got up from the bed drenched in sweat, literally shivering with dread at the prospect of breaking the news to my wife. After 22 years of marriage, how could I tell my life’s partner that due to my inexplicable foolishness we had been completely ruined?
As nightmares go, this early-morning terror couldn’t count as particularly realistic. I’ve never taken a special interest in playing rock-paper-scissors-- though I had been fascinated by a recent news stories about a much-heralded “world championship” for the dumb but addictive hand game. I’ve also sworn off gambling for more than twenty years—ever since I lost a painful total of $800 playing an elaborately devised, “can’t miss” blackjack system during a trip to Vegas for a lecture.
But even if I didn’t need to fear the specific threat of squandering my family’s resources on a reckless game, the fearful, dreamy experience of sudden collapse, of instantaneous destruction, felt both real and relevant. In fact, the great majority of Americans worry on either a conscious or unconscious level about the possibility that some unforeseeable factor ruthlessly will obliterate the fruit of long years, even decades, of hard and dedicated work. Even people who have painstakingly saved their money, building up equity in their homes or establishing reassuring numbers in their investment portfolios, know that the sudden loss of a job, or a medical disaster, or a law suit or divorce, or a catastrophic investment –not to mention a hurricane, earthquake or flood – could shatter their carefully constructed personal security.
In this peerlessly prosperous country, it takes an annual income of more than $940,000 to qualify for the top 1% of all earners and it’s possible that folks who make that much, and who have many millions salted away, may feel relatively safe from unexpected reverses. For the other 99% of us, however, the sense of middle class vulnerability remains inescapable and acute.