We see it everywhere.
"For Sale" signs linger awkwardly on quaint, neighborly streets. Sometimes, in a move of desperation, the owner tries a one-day-only private auction. Nothing comes of it. The "For Sale" sign comes back out, looking more morose than ever. We drive by and notice the changes (and the lack of results) with a mixture of sympathy and schadenfreude.
Sales are down. Foreclosures are up, and they are going up further next year. If you live in the U.S., then it's happening not far from you, in multiple places around your town, behind drawn curtains: people are packing their possessions into moving boxes, forced to go it doesn't matter where, away, by whatever corporate entity owns their ARM or balloon payment mortgage now.
The boom is not only over; we're in the eerie silence after the echo fades. A recent article in Fortune magazine suggests that in the area where I live, the East Bay, housing prices could drop an additional 31% in the next five years.
That doesn't sound good.
It's not that my wife and I plan to move or sell our house, or even that we have an urgent need for a home equity loan at present. It's just that I used to lie in bed with the sense that while my children slept in their beds down the hall, the house was, very quietly, with the occasional creak, gaining in value around them. It was like a grown-up security blanket. And now it's gone.
Instead we have property tax payments, mortgage payments, insurance payments, utilities, fees for the alarm system, unexpected maintenance "events" (baby wipes, it turns out, do not engage on favorable terms with sewer lines). All for our home sweet home, yes -- but also all for an investment that is, at best, holding even.
Which brings me to my point:
If the crash comes, if we all lose most of our assets in the Great Depression of 2008, how will we react as parents?
If inflation meets illiquidity, meets a new oil crisis, meets increased governement debt and a weakening dollar, meets a decline in consumer confidence (meets its hard-nosed brother, a decline in consumer spending), meets a downturn, meets a recession, meets a full-blown depression, well (obviously) I'm no economist but I can imagine a very real impact on my children's future.
Right now my focus as a parent is to help them develop into wonderful human beings. That's about it.
But in the event of a crash in the U.S. economy, I imagine that my focus would shift pretty rapidly into helping them acquire marketable skills for purposes of survival.
That is of course the traditional role for a dad. We can easily imagine some dad in the 1930s or 40s or 50s, or even 60s, after his son's high school graduation, pounding his fist down, and saying, "Time to get a job, son! You're on your own now!" (Why does this scene begin to get hazy in the 70s? Marijuana smoke aside, it becomes more difficult to imagine without a coda of the long-haired kid rolling his eyes and saying, "Whatever, man. It's the journey not the destination.")
Times have changed considerably -- at least in well-off, blue-state America. We don't often think in terms of practical consequences -- it would be seen as old-fashioned and controlling and limiting to our children to think that way. We aim to give our children love and support, a sense of the value of practice, an independent will and a charitable heart. We don't aim to give them, say, carpentry skills, or a facility with computer programming -- although if they come to discover those activities themselves we would be thrilled!
The bottom line is that I would have to refocus my thinking in a major way. We all would. When do we start? How would we begin?
Here's what I've come up with:
The year is 2012.
A rickety table stands at the center of a kitchen. A few ragtag kids sit around it, their legs splayed in different directions from an odd assortment of chairs.
A world-weary father and a bone-tired mother stand leaning against a greasy wall, holding hands (I figured we needed some uplift here).
One of the children speaks, "Dad, I was fixing the heater today, and I made a new switch for it. It's red so you can see it better down there under the house!"
Ah-ha! A spark of interest. Here's where my new approach would kick in. I would emphasize (more than I would now) the need for pursuing that activity, that skill set (in this case, fixing electrical things), to the point of excellence, even mastery. We would discuss the directions it might go, even the opportunities for work that it may present in the future.
In having this talk, and more importantly, backing it up with daily efforts to support my child's access to that activity (send him back down to the basement?), I would try not to overemphasize its money-making potential. Even if conditions were desperate, and we needed bread on the table, I just don't think I could be that single-minded about it.
Maybe I'm naive, but in the long run I think it would be more valuable to try to teach my children to explore the challenges -- push through the challenges -- and the satisfaction of doing things that other people want. If my children gained skills that way, then I expect they would be that much better off providing for themselves during hard times.
It occurs to me that what I have just described has been what good parents have done for their children through most of history. The fact that this materialistic emphasis is so out-of-fashion among parents that I know, is shocking. That fact that it feels uneasy for me even to imagine myself as that kind of dad -- presuming to look past their college years, past the obvious benefits of a liberal education, to the workplace they will enter -- is revealing.
Due to the anomaly of the economic boom in the U.S., which carried us through the latter part of the 20th Century all the way to the present, many people have not had to worry about the specifics of their children's futures for some time. Sure, there's the general anxiety about what they will do when they grow up. But moms and dads have trusted that, with the right support, their children will... find their own way.
But that is definitely an anomaly.
We may be in for a change. History resists anomalies. Hold your nose, fasten your seatbelt...
[insert your own metaphor of descent here].