Generation Squeezed

It is the dawn of the age of the squeezed. I am squeezed by too little time and too much world, by cost inflation and wage depression, by the elephants of my expenses and the peanuts of my pay, by the supply of millions like me and the demand of companies who know it. I can do it all from home, but so can everyone else. Empowered individuals are squeezed into competition with every other empowered individual.

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Generation Squeezed illustration by David Barringer. Click to see full-size graph. 

As an American creative worker, I confront a global workforce that has, with the opening of markets, expanded by three billion people from the other side of the world, 300 million of whom are English-speaking middle-class Indians, every other one of whom is writing a novel or crafting new design-template software but will soon, like me, be wondering how it is that anyone actually earns gas money around here.

As a guy who works from home, I am just another guy who works from home, working the internet like any 10-year old, sending PDFs of books and magazines via YouSendIt, and waiting for measly checks to arrive months late, sufficient only to pay the late fee on my credit card. And for some reason, these checks are made of paper, tucked inside envelopes, and I have to walk to my mailbox to get them. I get in my car. I pay for the gas it takes to drive to the local ATM. I slip the check into the ATM, which scans the paper, renders it into a digital image (now I get something digital? seriously?) and asks me if the amount is correct. No. No, it isn't. It can't even get me home.

I think the future of work will be like this for all of us, everywhere, we the empowered powerless, the squeezable multipurpose individuals, vessels of intellectual capital squirting our value-add onto the frozen patties of a flattened world. Squeezed by competition, we'll have to squeeze our dreams, scale them back to something less than we'd hoped.

Perhaps my generation will not continue the upwardly mobile American dream-making pursued by our forbears. America promises class mobility by the process of economic evolution, today's generation standing on the shoulders of yesterday's. My great-great-grandparents were farmers, my great-grandparents craftspeople and servants, my grandparents engineers and businesspeople and homemakers, and my parents professionals with advanced degrees. I've been privileged enough to get the advanced degree, ditch it with disdain, and live a creative life of the mind and mouse, dependent on my wife's professional income and pulling my weight by running the castle as knight, groundskeeper, cook and court jester. Either our lifestyle is a template for how to scrape by in the suburbs, or else our cumulative debt from school, home and equity line is a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to live out the wrong generation's economic destiny.

Members of Generation Squeezed will be forced to do more to feed, clothe, shelter and educate ourselves as we are paid less and less for our labor. I'll be working virtually with someone on the other side of the world, but I'll be doing it while wearing a Bluetooth headset and wrist-mounted iPhone so I can weed the herb garden, milk the goat and collect the eggs from the backyard henhouse. The squeezed life is going to be a lot of work. Family life itself will be for entrepreneurs. We'll need to possess a variety of high-tech survival skills that will cover computers, telecommuting, agriculture, accounting, plumbing, home repair, animal husbandry, pest control, sewing and the maintenance of wind turbines and fuel cells.

I will not be the only one seriously considering the economic benefits of polygamy and extended bi- and tri-family units (design an eco-friendly, energy-efficient “green” house for that family, will you?). My wife and I can't survive alone anymore. We could use a few more partners in the household. The relationships wouldn't even be sexual or romantic. We just need some chores done and a few more checks in the mailbox. Our ad would read: “Dual-working couple seeks hard-working individual(s) to pool resources, share overhead, construct geodesic dome, install solar roof tiles, plant vegetable garden and provide home-school instruction for college-age children.”

It's a paradox, the home expanding its functional independence as the world expands its functional interdependence. The more globalization enables temporary collaboration of individuals across the globe, the more individuals are forced to become permanently self-reliant. I work collaboratively, but I survive on my own. I am paid for the task and no more. No benefits, healthcare, insurance, overtime, investments. I'll be repaying my own school loans as I'm taking out new loans for my kids, and I'll be paying for my Boomer parents' aging lifestyles even as I can't afford to invest in my own retirement.

How far will globalization push the independence of the individual? The individual will be the new locus of a sustainable environment. Forget the home. We will all be encased in thin suits of iArmor, protected from the elements, connected to whatever supplants Google and YouTube, fed by organic nano-farms built into our bodies, exchanging creative uncopyrightable labor with doppelgangers in other time zones, expressing affection for others within our proxy neural networks of our species-wide global love-in. We'll all be safe and sound, of course—and perfectly at home in our squeezable minds.

About the Author: David Barringer is the author of There’s Nothing Funny About Design (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), as well as American Home Life and American Mutt Barks in the Yard. The recipient of the 2008 Winterhouse Writing Award for Design Writing & Criticism, Barringer is currently a visiting faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) and teaches design at Winthrop University.