Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and the Blue Collar Baby Boomer

I’m a pretty pragmatic guy. I also tend to gravitate toward a “live and let live” philosophy. So it’s enigmatic to me how much venom has been spewed regarding the Occupy Wall Street protests. After all, it’s our first amendment right to peaceably assemble and “address the government for a redress of grievances." There have been a few skirmishes, but by and large, these have indeed been peaceful protests. If you dispute that, take a look at what London went through earlier this year and get back to me.

Still, we’ve seen a rash of angry reactions -- mainly from conservatives -- to these protests both on social media and major media outlets. Lots of calls to “get a job” and “stop asking for handouts”. Plenty of name calling, too. Politicians have even gotten in on the act. (Call me crazy, but it seems rather foolish for any politician to tell anyone to “get a job” in the current economy.) The irony is that it seems this movement has gotten more attention through these rants than on its own merits.

Of course, the merits of OWS have been debated ad nauseam. The group does lack a specific and well-crafted message. But without major corporate funding it can be difficult to craft a superior PR campaign. The diversity of the people involved is broad, and perhaps that’s part of the problem as well. Detractors have zeroed in on the least desirable of those on board with the movement. I, however, have found myself drawn specifically to some of the stories that appear on the Tumblr site, “We Are the 99 Percent”. While there are stories on the site that are arguably closer to eye rolling than heart wrenching, there are some that struck a deep cord with me.

Before I go on, let me tell you a story. There was a fellow named Greg attending college in the early 1970s on an athletic scholarship. He wasn’t some big star, just a kid with some talent that was helping to put him through school. About 2 years into college, he was injured. He lost the scholarship because he could no longer compete. He weighed his options and, at the time, it seemed most prudent to go back home to help run his father’s small retail business rather than scrape up the money to stay in school.

By the early 80s, a mall had opened up in town. Business at the two retail stores dwindled. Greg’s father decided to retire and hand the business over to his two children. Greg and his sister smartly consolidated the two retails stores into one and re-branded. This kept the business going, but Greg was unable to make enough money running the store to support his young family. He took a second, blue-collar job during the day and would head to the store each night and on weekends to crunch the numbers and place orders.

With the 90s came big-box stores, further cutting into the store’s profits. It became evident the time he was putting into his store was no longer worthwhile, so Greg and his sister decided to sell. Greg focused his energy on his day job for a good many years thereafter. At one point, his employer went out of business and he was left unemployed. Undaunted, he worked for himself for a period until he was able to find another blue collar job in the same business. All the while, supporting his wife and two sons.

As the years went by, the physical labor took its toll on Greg. His physical health along with his ability to work declined. He works through the pain because he has to. His retirement fund took a massive hit in the recession. Various medical issues have taken him out of work for extended periods of time. But he presses on because he needs his health insurance. Now, he must go in for yet another surgery. His small business employer has no short-term disability insurance so he will have to pay his insurance premium out of pocket while he’s out of work recovering from the surgery, further cutting into his already dwindled cash reserves. 

It’s not hard to guess that Greg is my dad. He’s a good man with a very strong work ethic. He’s worked hard his entire life, so much so that it’s left him crippled. His work allowed my mom to stay home and raise me and my brother. Both of us struggled with dyslexia and attention deficit disorder growing up, so the environment my parents created together gave us a fighting chance that many kids with learning disabilities would never have. Ultimately, my dad gave up his physical health to support his family and so his sons could have opportunities he did not. 

So when I think about what the people involved in Occupy Wall Street are angry about, I think about a man who worked hard his entire life who really should retire but can’t afford to because of his need for health care and because his retirement investments were burned up by a market crash he had no control over. Knowing that there are millions like him, I can look past the trust-fund hipsters waving “Capitalism is evil!” signs. Every movement has its kooks. Just as you can’t assert every stock trader and bank executive is greedy and undeserving, you can’t assume every (or even most) OWS protester and supporter is lazy and wants a handout. What most of them want is what most people in this country want: to work and to be productive and to know that if they do things right they won’t end up getting screwed by the system they were part of.

My parents and others in similar situations are by no means perfect. Honestly, financial mistakes are easy to make, especially when you have less to fall back on. But no one who worked their entire life and made far more good choices than bad should be in the position my father is now in. And I’ll fully admit that this is a broad-based problem and that, like the protestors, I do not know how to fix it. But that’s why we elect public officials. We hire them to address broad-based issues that affect large swaths of the population. That’s what government is! And we have a right to address them for a redress of grievances. (Hmm, that sounds familiar.)

While overall there is disagreement about who is to blame, the bottom line is that there is real anger in this country that the system is working extremely well for a few while not at all for many, many others. This was never more apparent to me than when my life-long Republican dad, a man who often bemoaned his tax dollars being used to support welfare, said to me that he believes the Occupy Wall Street movement is on to something. In spite of its shortcomings, any movement that stirs up so much attention is likely rooted in something worth examining. We may need to sort through the clutter to find it, but I’m certain it’s there. I need look no further than my own father to find it.


  1. Really terrific, well-written article. Maybe you should consider politics.

  2. Thank you! Although I fear actually working in politics would merely drive me to insanity.

  3. A very thoughtful article that speaks from the heart AND the head.

  4. Stephen, I find that a balance of the two often yields some of the best insights. So thank you!