When I started working on this series of short stories about the second half [2H] of the 21st Century [2K] I asked my friend Felix Salmon: "What kind of company would the 'Felix Salmon of 2050' work for, and what will he be doing?" This was well before Felix was "post-text" - well before there were even rumblings of him leaving Reuters (the only job I had ever know him in up until then). I asked Felix because I trying not to imagine dystopian 2050, but instead, I had set myself a more difficult goal: to imagine a "well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road." Since then I have tried to imagine a future in which there is a place for Felixes, lots of them. He is not the type of person I have had in mind as I've written these stories - he is EXACTLY the person I have had in mind. So I was not surprised when he advised young journalists yesterday: "if you’re more career-oriented, and want a good chance at a well-paid middle-class lifestyle down the road... if you enter the journalism profession today, have probably never been lower." The reason I wasn't surprised, is because it agreed with the answer Felix gave me to my question over a year ago; an answer that didn't discourage me, but pointed me in the direction I have taken with these stories.
Here's what Felix told me (or approximately what he told me; it's been a while): That the Felix-of-2050 isn't going to work for any-one-company, or do any-one-thing. He is going to be paid for 10 second bursts of video, to attend dinners and speak at events. ie Felix-2050 isn't going to have a job or a career as we understand them. It took me some time to come to grips with that. I have worked very hard to imagine that jobless and careerless trajectory, but not as something certain and known. After all, that day is already been and gone - as Felix says in his post, his "career path isn’t replicable."
Instead, I've tried to imagine the peculiar sort of upper-middle class life that Felix has now - one that is very particular to NYC - and imagine a future in which it is widespread - the new normal. The life that Felix, and a lot of other NYers enjoy, is quantitatively more material modest but qualitatively more robust (Felix has nice things, just not a ton of them) than upper-middle class people I know in other parts of the country. Like upper-middle class lifestyles everywhere, Felix enjoys a higher level of personal autonomy than most of us - a greater control over his work day and social life. But I would bet that Felix and his NYC peers enjoy an intellectually more exciting, and socially more rewarding than the mean of their class.
A secret that New Yorkers keep from the rest of the world, is that we live like college students; ALL of us. If you were to judge NYers by what is shown on TV and in movies, you might get the impression that we live relatively normal American lifestyles; that our bedrooms and kitchens are about the same as other Americans, that we have the same sort of possessions as other Americans, but in fact nothing could be further from the truth.
It has only been when I've entered the homes of extremely wealthy NYers, that this truth begins to breakdown, but even then, not always. The biggest, flashiest, homes I've been in have all been owned by men who would enjoy (secretly or otherwise) the title "Tycoon" "Magnate" or "Crown Prince" - these are the exceptions to the rule. I've been in far more homes belonging to extremely wealthy NYers (that, not by coincidence, I happen to like and admire a great deal more than the first set) who live in relatively modestly scaled apartments, surround by less, and less conventionally flashy, objects.
Don't get me wrong, they don't live in a hovels, and neither does Felix. He and his wife live in a stylish apartment, that is very roomy by NYC standards, but only by New York standards. The footprint of their apartment isn't at all why I chose them as my benchmark for the future in any case. I chose them because they have healthcare, are able to travel for work, pleasure, or to be with family when needed or desired. They both do work they find meaningful and enjoy. They are likewise surrounded by people who have and do the same.
As Felix says, his career path to this peculiar upper-middle class could not be duplicated, it has been one marked by luck and happenstance, and I'm sure, at times, real and frightening uncertainty, but he and his wife and their fellow New York City upper-middle class peers are not the precariat. They are the upper middle class as it does not yet imagine itself outside New York City - living more like an idealized versions of students or artists, than watered-down versions of tycoons, magnates, or princes.
Like Felix, I do not know what to tell a young person who want to choose a career path that gives them a good chance at this sort of upper-middle class life, but after having thought about it for over a year, I am willing to go further: there is NO career path that will deliver even a remote chance at a solidly middle-class lifestyle down the road. The only way I have been able to image a rewarding life for the future - to image a future that is pleasant for ANYONE to live in - is to imagine a future that is pleasant for EVERYONE to live in. That kind of future is not dependent on personal career choices, it requires we make a choice as a society.
If America can be said to have been shaped by any single ideology for the past 35 years, it has been the ideology of "Fuck you, I've got mine." That is the ideology that has shaped our regressive tax policies, malignant corporate governance rules, voting patterns, and our increasing unwillingness to do our civic duties. This ideology is marked by an unwillingness to repair bridges, or even educate and vaccinate the young. It is this bankrupt ideology that makes us believe that the right career choice is the key to a middle class - of any kind.
I have tried to imagine a future in which Americans have put that ideology behind them. Which is not to say I image Americans embracing the Swedish ethic of self restraint, or the Law of Jante. But it is not far fetched the the whole country could tilt, in some wholly indigenous fashion, away from the slide we are on - one in which they are working together to make a good life for everyone. Americans have done it before, and even now, there are places in America that do it better than other places. This is not to say I imagine a future in which absolutely everyone will have a good life - my goal is not to write a utopia either. This latest story is about someone struggling near the bottom of the heap.