Middle Class Life Further Away For Next Generation

Over the last three decades, the gap between the very rich and the very poor has grown exponentially. In the yawning middle is a group for whom it's getting harder and harder to stay in place economically. Host Audie Cornish speaks with two generations of a middle-class family that face drastically different financial futures.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

We posed a question to our listeners on Facebook recently: Are you a parent who is worried your adult children won't have the same chance at a middle-class life as you did? Or are you the child of middle-class parents, and find you're not able to match your parents' lifestyle?

We asked because after hearing recent reports of the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer, over the last three decades in the U.S., we wanted check in on those living in the middle, a group for whom it's getting harder and harder to stay in place economically.

One of the responses we received was from Eric Spoerner...

ERIC SPOERNER: I am 27 years old, and I'm a data analyst from San Diego, California.

CORNISH: ...and his father.

DAVID SPOERNER: David Spoerner. I'm a 65-year-old, retired UPS driver from Poway, California.

CORNISH: The two generations of Spoerners share the same ideas of what it means to be middle class in America.

DAVID SPOERNER: Being able to get an education, being able to keep food on the table and...

ERIC SPOERNER: Have a good, modest life, you know, a good family and...

DAVID SPOERNER: Being able to work hard and...

ERIC SPOERNER: Maybe a little bit extra to throw around and waste on stupid stuff. But more or less just, you know, a comfortable, good life.

CORNISH: But their real-life experiences, as they've made their way in the world, have been quite different for father and son.

ERIC SPOERNER: My parents, they made good money. My dad was a hardworking union man for UPS, and they made that good, middle-class life. And I was raised in, you know - under the understanding that if you just put your head down and go to a good school and then you get a good job and, you know - at the very least, doing that will get you the middle-class life. And it may guarantee you something more.

And what I see now is, I've done all that stuff. Now, here I am with a degree from at top 25 university and a mountain of debt, and a good job, you know, working on the electric Smart Grid. You know, serious, high-tech stuff, and I feel like I'm struggling to build the same life that he was able to as a truck driver.

CORNISH: Eric lives with his girlfriend in a small apartment, which he rents. Owning a home, he says, is nowhere on his radar right now. Eric graduated college with a philosophy degree five years ago. And since then, he's been focused on paying off $80,000 in student loans.

Is this how you imagine you'd be living, you know, at this stage of your life?

ERIC SPOERNER: Absolutely not.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ERIC SPOERNER: I mean, obviously, I didn't expect that the life of my dreams to just be thrown at me when I graduated college. But I

expected a little bit more - just a little bit more opportunity. I, you know, I didn't expect 10 percent unemployment, I'll put it that way.

CORNISH: Eric's father, David, says that when he was Eric's age, young people had a much better shot at making a comfortable life for themselves. David joined the Navy at age 20. He finished his service three years later.

DAVID SPOERNER: And it was kind of a different world then. I was able to go to a university without an extreme hardship. My student loans weren't so overbearing that it took a long time to pay off - even on a poor guy's salary.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: What do you think when you look at Eric, and look back at yourself at that age? How do you feel about the way he's able to, or not able to, kind of be on the same footing?

DAVID SPOERNER: The biggest difference, I think, is hope. There's not as much hope now. The middle class is disappearing. People who have can never have enough. It's almost like Monopoly where someday, one guy will own everything - and who's he going to sell stuff to?

CORNISH: Eric, how are you feeling? I mean, do you in any way think that your father's generation had it easier?

ERIC SPOERNER: Well, I mean I, you know, I didn't have to worry about getting drafted to go to Vietnam. I think the struggles now are different. It's - being poor is one thing. Being poor, and being afraid that the society you live in will not provide you the opportunities to climb out of that, is something else entirely.

CORNISH: That was Eric Spoerner with his father, David. They spoke with us from David's home in Poway, California.

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