The Real State of Our Union

There are a lot of reasons to feel good about where we are as a country. We're in the midst of a prolonged economic expansion, with tremendous unemployment numbers, job numbers, and a booming stock market. While we certainly have challenges overseas, this isn't the mid-2000s. We don't have hundreds of thousands of troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, the U.S. continues to develop most of the technological advances that are changing the world. We lead the world in innovation, from everyday consumer products to medical breakthroughs that benefit all of humanity.

That's some of the good news, and there's undoubtedly much more to be proud of. Unfortunately, the big picture features significant challenges that impact everything from our economy to our culture. 

Looking at our economy, despite an economic expansion dating back to the Obama administration, we're a nation drowning in debt. From corporate America taking on a ton of it to rising consumer debt to a $1 trillion federal deficit and a public debt of over $22 trillion, the path we're on isn't sustainable, and it's only going to get worse. 

The baby boomer generation is reaching retirement age, which means massive increases in Medicare and Social Security costs, at a time when those programs already take up an outsized portion of our increasing deficits and debt. The continued rise in health care costs exacerbates the problem, along with the massive amounts of funding needed to pay the interest on the debt. 

Despite a robust economy and the continued economic expansion, growth isn't reaching levels that can offset those issues. The president promised sustained GDP growth of 3%, 4%, or possibly even 5%. We've been unable to reach 3% on an annual basis, and that's with a massive tax reform stimulus package, the effects of which are beginning to wear off. That kind of growth stagnation impacts our ability to fix our finances without making tough choices. And remember, any economic downturn only heightens the problem. 

While we like to paint the state of the economy with a broad brush, in reality, it's a nuanced issue. For some, life is better than ever. For others, they're struggling to keep up. 

Last year, bankruptcies led more companies to announce job cuts than at any time in more than a decade. Despite the unemployment rate at a near 50-year low, 2019 saw the third-highest number of total layoffs in the decade, a 10% increase over 2018. Even if other jobs are available for those laid off, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll receive similar compensation, not to mention how the entire ordeal causes disarray within their personal life. Gone are the days of whole careers spent at the same company that ends with a nice pension for retirement. 

Manufacturing gets an incredible amount of attention, but the retail sector, America's biggest employer, is getting decimated. Retailers announced 9,300 store closings in 2019, a 59% increase from 2018. Close to 30% of retail employees worked fewer than 35 hours a week last year, with part-timers making up 40% of Walmart's workforce. 

With e-commerce (think Amazon) and automation, there's a ton of disruption within the industry. In April of 2019, Walmart added 4,000 robots to mop floors, unload trucks and scan shelves, jobs previously held by people. That's one small example of a much larger trend. 

All of that, along with workers forced to do more for less, and entire sectors of the economy that are uncompetitive because of mergers and new age monopolies, and you find structural issues within our economy making it harder for middle and lower class workers to get ahead. 

The consequence of these economic disruptions, changes, and challenges is a shifting view of America by our younger generations. 

Fewer Americans are living better than their parents, and a growing number are worse off. A recent study out of Northwestern and the Census Bureau found socioeconomic mobility in America is at its worst since the 1850s. According to the survey, around 60% of people born in the 40s did better than their parents, compared to 40% of those born in the 80s. And just 15% of kids born in the 40s did worse than their parents, compared to 30% of people born in the 80s. A recent GAO report, highlighted in Axios, found that "economic mobility in the United States is limited," and as much as two-thirds of economic status is passed down from parents to children.

That stagnation has led to a change in how millennials and Gen Z view capitalism. Study after study has found they are more open to socialistic policies, with a feeling that the market-based economic system America has prospered under no longer works for the average citizen, and is skewed towards those at the top. 

Another recent report found that "adults in the top 1% highest income bracket have dramatically different life experiences than those with middle and lower incomes when it comes to financial issues, health care, and life satisfaction. Middle-class respondents reported unhappiness with everything from educational opportunities and costs to employment and housing. 

If the structural issues don't get addressed, the financial problems keeping worsening, and we don't get ahead of the continuing disruption in major economic sectors, support for radical change will continue to grow. 

Discontent with particular economic issues, along with significant technological and demographic changes, is also impacting other aspects of life in America. 

For such a great nation, we're increasingly angry and depressed. The U.S. has the highest suicide rate among wealthy countries. We also have incredibly high rates of mental illness, violence, and addiction. The suicide rate continues to increase among young people, so much so that states and school districts around the country are allowing students to take mental health days to deal with depression and anxiety. 

Social media has created new pressures for young people, from bullying to feelings of inadequacy. And while it allows us to connect with friends and family like never before, it also unleashed a toxic discourse that's both unique and disturbing. The old saying, "If you have nothing nice to say, don't say nothing at all" feels as outdated as a VCR. Today, it's more like, "If you have something awful to say, put it in writing, post it online, and display it for the world to see." 

There's a mob mentality that's pervasive online, looking to cancel anyone with whom they disagree. When the mob isn't busy trying to take someone down, it's digging through the history of whoever the next target may be, looking for anything, no matter how dated, to use as ammunition in the next attack. 

And then we get to our politics, which cannot address many of the problems listed above due to paralysis caused by tribalism. We no longer view those who belong to another political party as merely someone with a different position on the issues. We see them as the enemy. They've become an existential threat that has to be destroyed, no matter the cost. 

We're less and less able to understand opposing points of view because we're not exposed to them anymore. We have our go-to news sources, and we assemble online with people who share our opinions. The battles that take place in politics aren't even about the best solution to a particular problem, because we're not listening to the other side's argument. If they're for it, we're against it — end of story. 

Hypocrisy is rampant, and whataboutism is the preferred method of debate. The media favors hype and hysteria over in-depth reporting and fact-based analysis. News and politics have become less about problem-solving and more about entertainment. 

We've also seen the erosion of power within the legislative branch, which has led to increased authority within the executive and judicial branches, throwing our entire political system out of whack. Today, parties compete for power, not our branches of government. That's not the design the Founders had in mind when they created our republic. 

This pattern of behavior isn’t sustainable. You cannot address these monumental problems when trust is absent, compromise is a losing proposition, and our system of government doesn't function as intended. 

In the past, we've faced common enemies abroad, from fascism to communism to Islamic extremism. These days, our biggest enemy is us. As Benjamin Franklin once said: "It's a republic, if you can keep it."

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

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