Aesop and the Recession

For more than a year now, I’ve been having a conversation with my two younger half-brothers and their families. It has the same general theme –– time to reign in the spending, cut the personal debt and stash away every extra dollar you can.

“I’ve seen it all before,” I say, with a certain amount of confidence that comes with being twenty-five years older than my siblings. “The economy is setting itself up, just like it was when I got out of college. I can tell you, what comes next is going to be really ugly.”

“Yeah, we know,” a sister-in-law says. “Look how high gas is now! It’s $4.89 per gallon!”

“They say the prices will be coming down soon,” chimes a brother. “Who wants to get pizza? Did I tell you that we’re thinking about getting a new SUV?”

“I wouldn’t count on gas prices coming down,” I say. “Gasoline was selling for under two dollars per barrel before the last big oil shock in 1973. I can remember paying 49 cents per gallon at the pump. Barrel prices haven’t fallen even close to two dollars per barrel since the year 2000.

“Maybe you should consider buying a small sedan,” I say.

“Oh, we couldn’t do that,” says the older sibling. “Where would be put the kids’ strollers and all of their stuff? Plus, I’ve got to be able to put my golf clubs somewhere. And don’t forget the bicycles.”

“Someone show Uncle John your new dresses,” interjects a wife, hoping to change the subject.

“That’s another thing,” I say. “You probably should cut down on the spending.”

“That isn’t a problem for me. I’m making really good money, now” says the younger brother.

“I wouldn’t count on that job,” I say. “Rising prices erode a family’s ability to spend on things they want, so they draw back. When they draw back, fewer items are sold. When fewer items are sold, manufacturers need fewer people. When they need fewer people, they let people go.”

“I’ll just get another job,” he says. “There are plenty of them out there.”

“NO!” I cry. “This isn’t happening to just you. It’s happening to everyone! When I was your age, my generation would laugh out loud if someone suggested that –– like now –– jobs would be advertised on street corners. We had Ph.D. holders working at McDonald’s, and happy to be working there. Jobs were like dinosaurs in those days. We were pretty sure they existed at one time, but no one had seen them in years.”

“Hey, look!” one of them says. “Jack Black is on Netflix, tonight. We should get that one.”

“Unemployment was nearly 11 percent,” I continued. “Think about it. For every 10 of your Facebook friends, more than one will be out of work.”

“What did you do for income,” they ask.

“We didn’t!” I say. “That’s the point. We had a telethon to save a car manufacturer. We had rock concerts to save small farmers. We bartered. We scrimped, and we repaired. We even wore “Whip Inflation Now!” buttons, stupidly thinking that, if we reminded ourselves how bad things are, it would cheer us up, somehow.”

Eyes glazed over. It was as if I was talking about some dystopian world in another galaxy. Or, that I was referring to the times I helped Abe Lincoln split rails for a new fence. “Listen,” I say. “It really wasn’t that long ago. In the meantime, the economy continued to contract, while prices continued to rise. That’s called ‘stagflation’,” I say.

After the laughter died, I explained, “‘Stag’ as in ‘stagnant’,” I say, “Not the animal.”

“So, how did you get by in those tough times,” one finally asks.

“Truthfully, some of us didn’t,” I say. “We made it like we always do. We did what we needed to do to survive. But surviving isn’t thriving. The ones that had it the easiest were the ones who started saving early, and had a nice pile of cash to hold them over.”

“It’s like Aesop’s ‘Ant and the Grasshopper’ fable,” I say. “Put back now, or it’s going to be a long, hard winter.”

“Did you see where they are opening a new IKEA near here,” one of them says.

It is really hard trying to explain just how tough times can be to a generation that, for half of their entire existence, has experienced the longest bull market in history (11 years), the longest unemployment streak under 3 percent (13 years), and the largest economic expansion in U.S. history (128 months).

It’s even harder being the ant when you are only Uncle John.

– John O. Marlowe is an award-winning columnist for Sagamore News Media