The crash's hidden losers

  Will someone please tell me how this happened?

   I'm not talking about Jon and Kate and their troubled televised marriage. Or Arlen, Joe and their congressional cage match - two recent attention grabbers in the ignore-the-economy media swirl.

   I'm talking about something that's not all over the news, but all over the nation, and hitting particularly hard, in my opinion, at Generations X and Y.

   I'm talking about how middle-class life, and its promise of generational upward mobility, is unraveling before today's younger workers have had the chance to collect even a fraction of their due.

   I'm talking about you! You're invisible . . . to policymakers, to the media, to yourselves. And many of you seem more worried about Jon, Kate and the kids.

   Even if you've done all that your parents, teachers or college mentors told you to do back in the bullish '80s and '90s, even before you've hit your dreaded 40th birthday, you're scared that life won't be better than your parents', after all.

   Panicking, dare I say, in a way that the previous generation was not at your age.

   I hear you. I am you. But I have not been reading much about you or us, frankly. Consider this your shot, our shot, at trumping Jon and Kate.

   First, let's all agree that the damage from last fall's stock market crash - from pulverized retirement accounts to prodigious unemployment numbers - has affected a large cross-section of Americans, from Baby Boomers on down to high school graduates.

   And yes, there is acute strain on middle-class workers in their 50s, who are losing the good-paying jobs they had held for decades just as college tuition bills are rolling in for their children's educations.

   But a more pernicious trend less in the news is that of workers in their early 40s, 30s and 20s, many of whom have been forced out of jobs before they could fully capitalize on careers.

   They are being bounced mid-stream in their prime, before pocketing the wage hikes, promotions, pensions, perks, etc., that had characterized employment before the jobs scene became a game of musical chairs.

   And unlike those older than us, our generation is experiencing this with less of a safety net for what's ahead.

   The story line goes something like this: You've been laid off from a job where the only pension plan was either eliminated before you got there or whacked back a few years into your tenure. A 401(k)? Yes. A match? Dream on. A wage hike? When you hit your 30s, your time will come for that.

   You were laid off at age 28, 35, or, in the case of one old college pal last year, just before your 40th birthday. You find a new job at less pay, only to fear another layoff may be just around the corner. You've been there before. You can smell it. You're a veteran now.

   You buy a used minivan off eBay while cramming prerequisites at night for a new career, where you humbly hope to be a newbie at the bottom of the pay scale in a few years.

   What this means is a lot of lost wages in your prime. Savings you'll never save, cash you'll never get to spend.

   How's this for a kicker: By retirement, as some predict, Social Security will have gone completely dry from paying all the workers ahead of you.

   Yeah. Good stuff, as the kids say.

   So what do you do with all this? Who do you turn to for help?

   Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, who has written on the precarious condition of the middle class, told my colleague Jeff Gelles recently that government isn't paying attention to people like you.

   "There is no one in Washington - no agency - whose principal responsibility is the consumer, or watching out for the economic health of the American family. No one," Warren said in a June article.

   The way to cope, for now, must be a cross between Darwinian survival and playing the slots: Scrap and scrape. Cut your expenses, slash your expectations for life (fingers crossed) and hope it all works out so that someone, somewhere, is there to take care of you when you're old.

   If that's not enough, Jon and Kate invite you into their dysfunctional lives again this year. Join them, why don't you. All the kids are doing it.


Mike Armstrong is away. Contact Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or