In the last three years, I have spoken about how 2012 might well be one of the most change-filled, disruptive years in America in recent memory. It is a quadrennial election year. It is the year of the Mayan Prophecy. It figures to be a year of political conflict between those who want to hold onto the legacy structures and ways of thinking of the 20th century and those who realize that the 21st century is a time for new forms and ways of thought. I had, until recently, felt that, while disruptive, 2012 would be about transformation and new beginnings. The metaphor that comes to mind is birth: a process that is quite painful, but ultimately, produces a new, vibrant life.
In recent weeks, I sense that 2012 could well be a dangerous and strife-torn year in the United States. A year when the fabric of our society will, to some degree, be severely tested. Here are some recent facts that are disturbing:
– The wealth disparity in the U.S. is at a historic high. The last time the concentration of wealth in the upper one percent of the country was as high as it is now was 1929.
– The number of people living below the poverty level is the highest it has been in 52 years. 2.6 million people slipped into poverty in the last year alone.
– Median incomes fell last year to levels last seen in 1997, a span of 14 years. The last time this happened in the U.S. was the Great Depression.
– The unemployment rate is 9.1%. My forecast is that even with some kind of jobs bill being signed into law, the rate will be 8-8.5% on election day in November 2012.
– There is a national feeling that our political leaders are not leading and are not looking out for the best interests of the citizens. Respect for Congress is at a historic low. The president’s approval ratings are plummeting. People clearly feel that their political leaders don’t care about them or the country and are not showing the quality of leadership.
– 80% of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.
– An estimated 33% of home owners are “under water” in their mortgages, which leads to a lack of mobility and a sense of loss of economic well-being.
These facts and trends don’t paint a picture of a happy citizenry or a general sense of well-being and purpose. In fact, the opposite is being created: a sense of despair, frustration and at the growing lower levels of society, hopelessness. The middle class has, over the last two decades, and certainly since 2007, been eviscerated. History has clearly shown – and economists and historians have always pointed out – that the creation and growth of a middle class is one of the key factors in an economically stable democracy. That is why all of the above facts and statements are so troubling when one looks toward 2012. I think there will be demonstrations in the streets by the growing number of economically disenfranchised Americans who increasingly feel their options being diminished.
Being a baby boomer, the year 1968 comes to mind. As an American, it was arguably the most disruptive and significant year of my lifetime. It was not about the decline of the middle class, but there were significant other developments that threatened the country. There were two horrible assassinations that arguably altered the course of the country. A major clash of cultures was developing, creating the phrase “generation gap.” There were demonstrations in the streets of most American cities, as a rapidly growing percentage of citizens protested a war they perceived to be wrong. The sitting president of the United States was defeated in an early primary because of that war, and he decided to not run for a second term. There were riots – many people correctly called them police riots – going on outside the Democratic convention. There was a distinct and deep division in America as to the direction the country should take. Entire ways of life, social constructs and mores were being challenged and altered. It was a heady year, and a depressing year.
The country obviously survived 1968, but the trajectory of the nation changed. Certain ascendant hopeful views were dashed, and a gritty, grimmer reality replaced it. America stumbled forward, a bull market ended, and peopled turned inward. The Industrial Age began to cede to the Information Age, which ultimately brought about a resurgent country.
It is now a different century, and the Information Age has ceded to the Shift Age, the global stage of human evolution. The world is ever more electronically connected. There is no turning back from the global economy. What was – the way things used to be – is coming up against what is and what might be. Clearly, it is a significant moment and a transitional time in America.
The American Dream is a powerful vision. This aspirational vision is currently and in 2012 will be strongly tested.