Woke up this morning with this Phil Ochs song going through my head. Not sure why, other than the fact so much economic news recently has been so grim, both personally and in a more general national way. The S.O. and I are doing okay, but I worry about the Older Daughter, several blogpals are hurting, and a number of other friends and acquaintances are wondering if they're going to be standing in line at the food pantry or homeless shelter sometime in the not too distant future.
One of my younger cousins had been cruising along happily for a number of years, making good money as an engineer and feeling relatively immune to economic woes. . . not true anymore. He worked (insert ominous background music here) for the Cadillac division of General Motors. He did everything right: served in the military, then went to college using the education benefit (end result -- no crushing burden of student loan debt when he graduated), got a good job, worked hard, got promotions, and now where is he? Standing in the unemployment line with a pretty large cohort of fellow former GM employees. I can't think of much he might have done to avoid his present situation -- he's a smart guy, I'm sure he saw the handwriting on the wall well before the axe actually fell, but it's hard to change jobs in a shrinking labor market.
Other friends and acquaintances are either teetering on the brink of total financial disaster or have already slid into the abyss. And each time I hear the horror stories, the worrying about how to keep up the car payments, pay the winter heating bills, avoid foreclosure, manage to keep fresh fruit in the house so the kids don't grow up wondering what an apple is, etc., the temptation to give advice starts sneaking up on me. After all, I'm in the perfect position to tell other people how to run their lives -- I'm doing fine with mine, no current major financial worries, ergo, I'm an expert. I'll just share my secrets, whatever they may happen to be (always buying generics? figuring out that Great Clips does cheap haircuts before 10 a.m.?) while conveniently ignoring the biggest secret of all: sheer dumb luck.
The truth is you can do everything right -- live frugally, buy all your clothes at Goodwill, stash money in savings, drive a beater instead of making car payments -- and still have the ceiling cave in. Everyone of us is subject to forces we cannot control. The Atlanta paper has been full of stories lately about people who thought they had it made: from self-employed developers who went from being millionaires to worrying about ending up homeless over the course of the past two years to low level hourly employees who thought their jobs were secure and are now unemployed following company cutbacks. They're all victims of a struggling economy, the collateral damage caused by structural forces, and they all share one thing in common: they're all feeling individually guilty, like they did something personally to 'deserve' the raw deal they just got handed. After all, the Great American Myth is that anyone can succeed if they just try hard enough -- so if you're hurting financially, it's all your fault. Not the banks. Not the economy. Just you. Which is why everyone is sitting there eager to give you advice on What You Should Have Done Differently.
And admittedly there almost always is something You Should Have Done Differently. But no one really needs to hear it. When you're staring disaster in the face you're generally already engaging in self-flagellation. Everyone has a mental list of "should have" and "if only" scenarios, each of which has the ability to make you think It's All Your Fault. The last thing anyone needs when his or her world is crumbling around them is someone standing on the sidelines making them feel even worse. So I'll just keep my mouth shut, offer help if there's something useful I can do (help with the yard sale? volunteer our pick-up truck for moving stuff into storage or a smaller place? provide a reference?), and hope things work out in the long run.