Neither of my parents finished the tenth grade. Both of them grew up in rural North Georgia in the U.S. where back-breaking hard work was more valued than education. Both of their families viewed education as an impediment to valuable work that could be done instead, so my parents meandered through the school system barely making it until they could quit, and they did.
Today, such an action would be viewed as a tragedy, a failure of the system, but back then, it was regarded as de rigueur, especially in the South, which has always lagged behind other areas in the U.S. by most measures of socioeconomic success. Nevertheless, no one batted an eye when my mom stayed home to help her mother tend to her unreasonably large brood and my dad started a low-paying job that required no skills beyond youthful energy and strength. Neither of them thought much of the consequences that would await them in the future. Very few people around them thought long-term. When you’re struggling to make it day-by-day, the future is a fantasy best left to movies.
By the time I arrived on the scene, my dad had managed to land a decent job. It was still a hard-labor job on the assembly line at a Ford plant, but for someone with no discernible skills even in the 1970s U.S. economy, it was a godsend. My parents finally had some sense of stability, enough for them to consider having kids. For most people in that era, a steady, good-paying job with health benefits almost ensured that they’d join the middle class and enjoy all of the accouterments that come with that status, but as any economic student knows, the auto industry in the 1970s was anything but stable.
Long before I understood macroeconomics, disruption, or geopolitics, I experienced it first hand in the late 1970s. Of course, I was too young to understand it then. I only have the memories of how my parents endured the brunt of it, as is usually the case for those near the bottom rungs of the economic ladder, but those memories were traumatic enough to give me something akin to PTSD. You can imagine how the current economic upheaval has me circling the wagons in my brain.
In 1979, my dad was laid off as a result of the economic disruption caused by the oil embargo and the subsequent failure of the lumbering auto giants to adapt to the emergence of new, innovative players in the market. What followed for us was four years of absolute hell as dad bounced between unemployment and low-paying, menial jobs trying to sustain our family. With nothing to fall back on like savings or marketable skills, he was ill-prepared for such a challenge and primarily relied on luck or happenstance to make it, and his luck was almost always bad.
As a young kid, watching your parents crumble in the face of adversity is one of the hardest and most gut-wrenching things to ever see. I’m glad my brothers were too young to witness it. Today, they probably don’t understand why I am terminally pragmatic and detached, but that point in our lives seared the core of who I am today. Everything about me points back to that period in my life. Even as young as I was then, I swore to myself that I’d never let myself fall victim to circumstances like that, and in times of stress, I revisit that promise like a cornered, feral dog.
Fast forward to today where we are experiencing probably the greatest economic disruption in almost 100 years. Unlike my parents, my wife and I are more prepared, and both of us have valuable skills that are marketable should either or both of us find ourselves without a job, but the thought of going through such a disruption at my age puts me on edge. Say what you want about legal protections, but companies do not value middle-aged or older people. I wake up with risk scenarios running through my brain. I worry about the kids. I know they’re beyond the impressionable preteen years, but I don’t want to leave them with scars that they’ll carry around for the rest of their lives because I know what that’s like.