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Downward Mobility

You thought you'd live better than your parents did. Wrong.

From the August 16, 1982 issue of New York Magazine.

Mark and Alison Kramer* used to spend their Sunday mornings at home, nestled up with a calculator, the New York Times real-estate section, and smoked salmon from one of the shops near Columbia University. They had sincere, if naïve, hopes of finding a co-op or condominium within their price range. As an associate professor with tenure, a plum job for anyone who earned a Ph.D. in the humanities in the sixties, Kramer has a modest but secure income. His wife, one of those smartly dressed M.B.A.'s several years out of school, is a middle-level manager at Morgan Guaranty. Although her salary probably won't increase too much—there are so many business-school graduates bunched up in middle management—it has now reached $35,000. Together, the Kramers' $70,000 income puts them squarely in the comfortable middle class, but it hardly conveys affluence. In fact, it doesn't allow them even to own their own home.

"The idea that I'm boxed into a four-room apartment because our income won't cover some hole on West End Avenue is ridiculous," says Kramer, losing, for the moment, his scholarly cool. "I wouldn't even want the kind of house we can't afford." What infuriates him is not merely the housing crisis but the fact that so many of the amenities that seemed almost a birthright when he was growing up now appear to be out of reach.

"My father sent us to private school and summer camp. We lived in a large seven- or eight-room apartment and had a cottage in the country. I had everything I wanted, and we were hardly rich. I don't see how we'll ever be able to do the same for our kids." Of course, Kramer's past wasn't that luxurious—except perhaps in retrospect—and his present is far from desperate. With his Honeywell Pentax camera, his video recorder, and his I.B.M. Selectric (Alison has her own), and with a legacy of sixties social consciousness, he's not about to cry pauper. "I'm not saying we're pressed or even badly off," he says. "It's just relative. My parents had an expansive mentality. I feel like I'm running up against limits, frozen out of things. It may not actually have been that way, but as a kid I felt we were totally financially secure, that there was a lot of money and that if you wanted something it could be had. I never once heard, 'Gee, I really can't afford to do this.' The first time I heard it was when I said it."

The economic realities of adult life have come as a rude surprise to Mark and Alison Kramer and many others whose childhoods coincided with the great boom time of the fifties. A house, a car, staples of middle-class life, now seem like luxuries. The mention of a large suburban backyard is likely to evoke the same nostalgia from people in Manhattan as madeleines did for Proust in Remembrance of Things Past.

Growing up in the fifties, the assumption for most people was that they would equal or do better than their parents. Upward mobility was an immutable fact of American life. Since 1890, every group of Americans had done better than the one before it, and at a faster rate. That's no longer so. "There's still upward mobility, but the rate appears to be leveling off," says Robert Hauser, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin. The plateauing is so strong, in fact, that the 1980 U.S. budget warned, "The baby boom generation may never achieve the relative economic success of the generations immediately preceding it or following it."

Yet, despite that gloomy prophecy, the "nouveau pauvre," as they have been called, are not at all poor. They live well—dining out often, cooking three-star meals, going to museums, and occupying well-appointed, if small, apartments. They attended college, but they did not have to work their way through. Compared with the blue-collar unemployed in sunset industries and the chronically poor of this country, the young members of the middle class clearly are not deprived. Still, given their incomes, they live less well than they might have expected, because in many ways those incomes are an illusion.

"If anyone would have told us we'd be earning $60,000 a year, I would've thought we'd be living like millionaires," says Susan Beltzer, whose husband is a Manhattan lawyer. "That's not true." Sustained inflation means that to have the same buying power today that one's parents enjoyed 30 years ago, one would have to make more than three times as much. And the tax bite on that inflated income, given its higher bracket, is much greater. Worse, the cost of housing has soared, and that, combined with high interest rates, has made it impossible for most in the baby-boom generation to afford the houses they grew up in.


  • Archive: “Features
  • From the Aug 16, 1982 issue of New York
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