The Restless Project

Why the toxic combination of economic unease and always-on technology is driving Americans crazy.

Click to learn about The Restless Project

We need drugs to sleep at night.  Nearly half of us don’t have enough in a bank account to cover next month’s expenses, let alone any real head start towards retirement. We buy homes with mortgage payments our parents couldn’t fathom, or we make student loan payments almost that large. We are digitally tethered to work by gadgets that constantly let us down with bad directions or dead batteries. We almost never take vacations, but when we do, we read email every day anyway. We chug Starbucks and Red Bull to try to keep up, but we feel like we are letting everyone down all the time anyway.

America, land of the Restless.

 

But why?

I have a simple question I ask when I try persuade people that there’s something very wrong with the way we live in America today.

“Can you think of any friends with children who are secure they will be able to pay for their kids’ college?”

There’s always an uncomfortable chuckle, as if I’d just asked if they knew someone who could weave straw into gold. Then there’s usually a discussion about how everyone feels like they are working harder, and perhaps even making more money than they’d ever dreamed, but yet falling behind anyway. So they run on the rat-wheel faster and faster.

Restless.

Today I am announcing a new long-term effort, an on-going series, called The Restless Project.  I plan to unpack the root causes of this Restlessness. I believe they are paradoxically both more subtle and more obvious that most busy people realize. And I think it’s such an important discussion — I think it is the story of our time — that I am interrupting my career to shine a spotlight on it.  Along the way, together, I hope we can explore ways to jump off the Crazy Train.

Trina Foster-Draper. No one should have to undertake a Fourth Act.

Trina Foster-Draper. No one should have to undertake a Fourth Act.

I will talk about humble Americans like Trina Foster-Draper, a 56-year-old single mom of four who will be proudly writing her last check for her kids’ college this year.  She was recently laid off by CenturyLink in Logan, Utah, where she’d worked in customer service for nearly six years.  What will she do now? Go back to school for information technology and begin her fourth career transition.

“Everybody has to keep changing, keep reinventing themselves now,” she said to me, sitting in her apartment she shares with her father – a brand new building adjacent to a massive Walmart. “There’s no choice.”

Despite the occasional catcalls from folks who casually argue that today’s adults are just lazy and selfish, for the most part, there’s general agreement on the problem — the creeping sense that life is somehow spinning out of control.  It is.  Today, we all live under pressure from a diabolical combination of economic dis-ease and technology disruption that keep all of us, not just on our toes, but on the edge of a cliff.  Second Acts are fine, even romantic. Fourth Acts? That’s insanity.

The reasons for Restlessness that I will explore in this series are myriad:

1) It’s an economics story. Just 50 years ago, an American household with one decent job could afford a decent home.  That math is now horribly broken. Today, it takes two incomes, and even at that, a much higher percentage of household income to buy a home. That’s why you never feel like you have enough money.

2) It’s a work-life balance story.  Since you are insecure about having enough (what if one spouse loses a job?) you work too hard. Fear is an excellent, horrible motivator. People don’t take proper nights and weekends any longer, instead putting in hours over remote corporate networks, in large part because they feel like they have to. Forty hour work weeks took hundreds of years to evolve, which is an interesting history I will share soon. Smartphones took them away in five years.

3) It’s a technology story. Smartphones haven’t just wrecked our ability to disconnect from the office.  Pick your favorite restaurant: How many people are staring at phones while half-talking to each other?  Step back from the scene for a moment. We all look like rude idiots doing that, always more interested in people somewhere else than the ones we are with.  Sure, you could be better about phone etiquette. But billions of dollars have been spent figuring out how to make you addicted to these things. You didn’t stand much of a chance.

4) It’s a broken social contract story.  America’s social contract, always part-myth and part reality, has broken down entirely, in a way that doesn’t make sense. Today, people with regular jobs in regular cities can’t afford regular homes there.  That should be impossible. After all, the price of most homes should settle roughly into what most people can pay for them.  But not when the value of those homes is propped up impossibly by a credit system built like a pyramid scheme.  The math, you see, is against you.

5) It’s a disappearing middle class story. A quick thought experiment: What is a solid middle class job that would let someone comfortably own a modest home? Teacher? Cab driver? Bike mechanic?  Today, workers are driven towards high-income, lottery ticket-like professions such as information technology. Of course, a decent home in an IT-friendly neighborhood near Silicon Valley costs $1.2 million. Better work hard and get that big bonus. Meanwhile, not everyone can write computer code or be a physical therapist. What are the rest of American workers supposed to do?  This isn’t a minimum wage story. This is an average wage story.  By every measure, the economic “recovery” after the Great Recession has done nearly nothing to help the middle class. Sure, unemployment is shrinking, but that’s a misleading stat. Here’s the truth: Low-wage jobs represent nearly half of all jobs created as part of the recovery.

6) It’s a marketing story. What do you do when you feel scared of the future?  Well, you drink Red Bull, for one, so you can work all night and impress the boss. And maybe work yourself to death. Or maybe you pay $250 for a new pair of shoes, just so you can put aside for a moment those hopeless feelings that you’ll never, ever, pay off that student loan. Or maybe you’ll hand over your finances to that lovely man in the white shirt who tells you he can help you pay for your kids’ college, even though all he’ll do is suck out a percentage of your money in fees every year. But he does make you feel better.  The cycle of Fear and Consumption, as we all learned in the movie Bowling for Columbine, is powerful.

7) It’s a where-to-live story.  NYC dwellers have always been restless, always with one eye looking out for an emerging neighborhood where it might be possible to afford a dreamy 3-bedroom apartment in relative safety.  All of America lives like this now.  As I travel the country, everyone with a second or third kid on the way is trying to make impossible math work – where are the wages higher and the housing costs lower? North Dakota? North Carolina? Florida’s west coast? Oregon? So-called “second tier” cities are gaining steam and migrants as the recession’s recovery drags on, but these moves bring on other problems – like proximity to meth houses.

8) It’s a hacker story. Sure, computer criminals who might empty your bank account in ways that you didn’t even know possible is enough to keep you up at night. But that’s barely the beginning of the story.  Behaviorists have hacked you and now desperately try to deliver just the right ad at just the right moment so you can’t resist buying your product.  Huge firms with names you’ve never heard of collect data on you by the hard-drive-full – Axciom admits having 3,000 data points on nearly every American.  Heck, folks are hacking your genetic code.  What are your right to all this incredibly important, personal information? Basically, you have none.

We’re restless, and I want to explain why.  I’m certainly not alone.  Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter, recently explored the complex life of American woman in her excellent book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time. You’ll recognize some of the concepts about the relationships between two income homes and housing costs from Elizabeth Warren’s classic, The Two-Income Trap.

Since I’ve spent 20 years writing about ripoffs and the dark side technology, I think I have a unique perspective on the problem of restlessness. For the past year, since I left my job at NBC, I’ve been chipping away at stories in this area. Here’s a few examples:

 

I plan on covering the hell out of this topic.  (There’s already 27 stories in my special “Restless Project” section, which you can find here.) And don’t worry, I promise to write about hopeful trends, too, such as the explosive growth in yoga, or the technology tools that really do make our lives easier, or what folks in other countries do to stay sane in our digital world, or the members of the “Resistance” who are fighting for worker rights or simply promising to turn off the cell phones for the weekend. I hope you’ll follow along, you’ll criticize me, and you’ll make suggestions to help bring this story the attention it needs. The best way to make sure you don’t miss a post is to sign up for my email newsletter by clicking over to this form, or just fill out the box on the upper-right hand corner of this page.

The journey is personal. As I look around at my own career, I see the insanity of journalists trying to do an honest job and raise families in world where everyone is judged – not just by Neilson ratings – but by Facebook likes and ReTweets.  That’s a popularity contest which no one can win.  And I see my friends, who are increasingly incapable of having fun without having their faces in a phone or a video game, and I fear the lonely future that seems stretched out before me. I love a good chat.  I hope you will, too.

Sign up for Bob Sullivan’s free email newsletter here. 

 

 

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When the Cubs last won the World Series, the spoils paid for this theater. Realy.

When the Cubs last won the World Series, the spoils paid for this theater. Realy.

What do you do when you are a Midwestern town of about 12,000 people and your main employer pulls out, taking 10,000 jobs with it?

You circle the wagons, call home the kids, embrace change, and trade in 20th Century industries for 21st Century industries. And hope for good luck.

If you drive anywhere in America off the interstates that connect the large cities, you’ll find hundreds of small towns struggling with an uncertain future. At best, small factories are slowly converted into loft apartments; at worst, they stand as empty shells. The towns with a thriving college or government offices have some good jobs. Some survive on tourism. But nearly all of them live in fear that their one big employer could dry up and blow away.

Wilmington, Ohio faced this seemingly apocalyptic reality eight years ago, right as America was waking up to its new economic reality. About an hour outside Cincinnati, Wilmington became the poster child for a declining America and the ravages of the Great Recession — its main employer vaporized, nearly overnight.

The story of Wilmington is the story of small-town America today.

German-owned shipping company DHL had set up shop at a World War II era air strip in town, with a grand plan to compete with FedEx and UPS in the U.S. shipping market. The jobs were simple — often part-time package sorting — but paid well, and critically, offered European-level benefits. Some area farmers would work 20 hours per week at the airport, securing health benefits and work their land the rest of the time.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

But in November 2008, at the height of the recession, DHL gave up and pulled out. Folks wondered if Wilmington would survive. Its plight became a national story. TV personality Glenn Beck even hosted a TV show from there. Donations and good will poured in; but neither do much to get an economy going again.

For real help, Wilmington and the surrounding Cling County called on its youth. Two Peace Corps “veterans” led the charge – they were barely old enough to drink, but they were optimistic enough (naive enough?) to take over the town’s chamber of commerce and come up with a rescue plan.

A Green Evolution

Taylor Stuckert was 23 at the time, and was just back from Bolivia, after the Peace Corps had evacuated him from there due to the unrest in the region. Mark Rembert, 24, had accepted a Peace Corps post and was set to go to Ecuador. At the last minute, he decided to move home instead and applied his training to Wilmington. The dynamic duo set out to use their Peace Corp skills to help save the flicker of light that was their home town and formed a group called “Energize Clinton County.” Soon, Rembert ran the Chamber of Commerce, while Stuckert got involved in the county planning commission.

I first met them in 2012, four years after the bad news arrived and TV cameras left. Their challenge had sunk in. At the time, things had stabilized, but Wilmington’s charming downtown was all but vacant. A struggling coffee shop here, an antique store there. But the energy of the 20-somethings who had returned home to help Rembert and Stuckert was contagious, and I had a feeling good news would arrive. I promised myself I would return to see it.

I kept that promise this month, as part of my annual road trip across America. Over late night-beers and an early brunch at the General Denver Hotel on Main Street, I got my wish.

Here’s the all-too-short version of this story: The old DHL airport is now roaring to life again, but with a high-tech twist. In March, Amazon announced that it was flying planes in and out of the air park as part of its sort-of-secret package delivery “airline.” Right now it’s only creating a fraction of the traffic that DHL planes did, but there’s the potential for much more.

The journey from DHL takeoff to Amazon arrival was hardly without turbulence, however, and Amazon hardly solves all the region’s problems. Still, it represents a remarkable turnaround for a region that was all but left for dead by some.

“We are starting to see things moving in the right direction,” Rembert said, who only recently gave up his spot as Chamber of Commerce president to finish his Ph.D. He still works at Energize Clinton County. “But if you look at the number of jobs today compared to prior to the recession, we are still way down.”

A History Worth Saving

Like many small places in America, Wilmington has a huge personality that gives it an out-sized influence on the rest of the country, and a history that rivals a big east coast city. Its glorious old-time downtown Murphy Theatre was built with money made by native Charles Webb Murphy from a sale of the Chicago Cubs to the Wrigley Family, right after the last time the Cubs won the World Series. There’s a Wilmington-Washington D.C. pipeline, too — Sam Stratman, professor at Wilmington College, worked for Republican Congressman Henry Hyde during the Clinton era, which once made Stratman the “spokesman” for the Clinton impeachment hearings. Stratman, like many who grew up here, is now back to help set Wilmington aright again.

The General Denver hotel is the town’s Cheers, where folks meet to debate the future of the country, or the county, or how to pay for this year’s county budget shortfall. Over eggs and ribs, I met farmer Jon Branstrator. His farmland has been in family hands since 1823. Now, he grows berries, asparagus and pumpkins. When the peach crop was ruined by frost this year, he quickly planted cucumbers — a neat metaphor for Wilmington’s situation.

“This is a great little town, and it’s worth saving,” he said.

Saving it began with Rembert and Stuckert setting up an organization called “Energize Clinton County” and working to have the area declared a Green Enterprise Zone, to capitalize on momentum around environmentally-friendly industries. It also put the area in a position to compete for federal grant funds. Meanwhile, local officials started working to help smaller firms grow, so the area would never again be so dependent on one industry.

“A lot of them were doing well but were overshadowed because DHL was such a dominant presence,” Rembert said. “We were overlooking firms with 300 to 600 workers.”

Smaller manufacturers are doing much better now, he said — particularly pharmaceutical-makers, who have flocked to the area in part thanks to low labor costs and high quality of living.

“We are seeing work force participation come back,” he said. “There are positive signs across the board.”

Still, the DHL shadow hangs over the city.

“The story of DHL haunts us today,” he said. “Those were very unique jobs — part time, with full benefits. Low skill. They were jobs you could work and live in Wilmington and have a decent quality of life. Now we have employers who are saying we want you to work seven days a week, and the wages and benefits not the same, and the skill set is higher.”

Problems for Older Workers

Things are harder still for older, former DHL workers who didn’t pick up skills that translate into 21st Century jobs. That’s one reason Amazon is welcome in the region; it would provide some of those sorting-style jobs that former DHL workers can excel at. On the other hand, those jobs clearly have a limited shelf life, and will immediately be threatened by automation that pushes wages lower.

That makes the Seattle firm — like any large employer — a double-edged sword.

“Part of me says we have a workforce suited for one industry, so maybe we should say how do we bring that industry back? But having one dominant industry can be risky,” Rembert said. “I’m not sure we want to go back through that again.

That’s why Rembert is hard at work trying to prevent calamity from the next, inevitable, recession. His Ph.D. is designed around the problem of “regional resilience” during economic downturns.

Right now, in addition to encouraging more Green industries like solar energy, Rembert and crew are also focused on encouraging tech entrepreneurship. His recent pet project is working to open a “maker space” in Wilmington that will bring together manufacturing industry veterans, 3D printing experts and others to help investors quick-start prototype development.

Much work remains, however. Over late night beers, a group of Wilmington leaders concede that their biggest fear for the future is NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), augmented by the megaphone of social media. There are already complaints about air traffic noise, of course. But that’s just the beginning.

Here’s an example of their frustration: bike trail development is a popular way to attract young, affluent tourism dollars to a region, and planners are hard at work trying to complete a trail that would connect Wilmington to its big-city neighbor, Cincinnati. But each time a public hearing on the project is held, critics accuse government officials of “stealing” the land for the trail (it’s already public land), and rumors that spread on social media have to be beaten back.

One way or another, there’s no beating back the future. The question remains: Will small towns like Wilmington be able to make the adjustments, or will they become entirely dependent on their local college for good jobs and culture?

Every four years, clever political observers say, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” And here, I’m proud to say I’ve written a feature-length piece about a place in Ohio and not mentioned the presidential election until now. But forget politics. It’s worth paying attention to Wilmington’s plight because it’s certainly reasonable to think as Wilmington goes, so will small-town America.

I’ll be back again soon; hopefully in less than four years.

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HousingWire.com image. Click for site.

HousingWire.com image. Click for site.

If young families in New England can’t find a starter home to buy, she might be partly to blame. As a small-time real estate investor, she swoops in and buys would-be starter homes before families can and turns them into rentals. She says she feels badly about it … but she also feels she has to do it, for her own security, and because tax laws nudge her that way. As a single mother, she and her son live in a condo while she bets long on land, and being a landlord is the only path she sees to financial security.

“It is a dog-eat-dog world out there,” she told me.

At Credit.com, we’ve chronicled the disappearance of the inexpensive starter home, and the frustration that’s causing first-time homebuyers around the country. Smaller, cheaper, older single-family homes — and homes in foreclosure — are being snapped up by investors and turned into rentals around the country. According to RealtyTrac, about one-third of all three-bedroom homes purchased in the past year weren’t bought by people who live in them. They were mostly bought to be turned into rentals.

That’s made life harder for families just starting out, and some believe making America a land of renters instead of owners threatens the very fabric of what makes a community.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

So who’s doing the buying? Recently, I got some unexpected insight in the form of reader feedback.

Regarding your starter home article, I found it lacking,” the reader wrote. “Sure, there may be fewer starter homes available, but why? You seem to blame institutional investors gobbling them up. But why are they doing that?“

You probably guessed that in the next paragraph, she answered her own question.

“Small-time investors are gobbling them up one by one. I live in a condo with my son. But I own a three-bedroom starter home as a rental — I bought it because it was a good deal, in a good school system,” she said.

So I called the woman to hear her side of the story. She agreed to talk with me on condition of anonymity, lest that interfere with tenant relations.

Her main point: Sure, some landlords gobbling up small single-family homes are big corporations looking to squeeze out quarterly profits in this newly lucrative part of the housing market. But not all of them. Some are small-time, hustling homebuyers trying to make money and save for retirement the old-fashioned way: owning land.

“I’m just trying to take care of myself and my family,” said the landlord. “Employers don’t take care of people anymore. My father has three pensions, and my parents used to say to me in the ’80s, ‘Get a job with a pension.’ Well, there weren’t many then, and there aren’t any now.”

There aren’t many good answers to retirement savings, either. Savings accounts and CDs offer paltry interest rates. Stock market investments come with serious risks. But this New England landlord, who began buying properties about 15 years ago, found if she could suss out the right deal, rent payments could cover the loan payments she makes.

“I do feel bad, somewhat, that I usurped a starter home potentially from a young family,” she said. “There is some ambivalence … The one I feel bad about is my most recent one, which I had under contract three days after the sign went up and one day after it hit the MLS … It is in a cute neighborhood only two blocks [from] a terrific elementary school.”  

She has bought and sold 14 properties. She’s doing well but hardly rolling in cash. By the time repairs and other surprises pencil out, she insists on being in the black with every property – but not much in the black. When she closed on her first rental in 2002, she cleared about $100 in the black every month. Now, that property generates $700 per month. Her others range from $400 to $1,000 per month.

But she figures her future is fairly secure. As a very rough calculation, were all her mortgages paid off, she’d be generating about $16,500 in monthly income. And that figure is probably conservative.

“Cash flow tends to increase over the years — rents tend to increase faster than property taxes and other expenses,” she said.

An Edge on First-Time Home Buyers

Why do small investors like her have a leg up on first-time buyers? That’s easy. The woman described the transaction she completed just a couple of weeks ago to acquire a new single-family home.

As a “strong buyer” who could promise a quick, hassle-free closing, her offer easily beat out families looking to buy the same home. The bank knows her and her financial situation; she knows properties well enough that she feels comfortable waiving inspections if she needs. The implications of that aren’t lost on her.

“I said to the seller, I wouldn’t pick it apart in the inspection. I already had my financing in place. There’s no way a first-time home buyer would be comfortable, or advised, to do that,” she said. “I don’t know what to say. I guess it’s a bit dog eat dog.”

Why did she feel like she had to buy the property? The landlord says that federal and state tax laws encourage people who own property to buy more property. If she sold a property, she’d have to pay capital gains taxes … unless she used the proceeds to buy another property. Ironically, she can’t use profits from a property sale to pay off her debt, for example, without facing a big tax bill. So instead, she and her small-time investor friends are starting to hoard property.

”I really would have liked to sell an investment property — or two or three — and use the profit to pay off student loans, invest for my son’s college, pay off other debt, renovate my 30-year-old kitchen in which the cabinets are literally falling apart, or most of all, pay cash for a single-family house to live in. But I can’t, due to the tax laws,” she said. “Tax laws are designed to keep investors invested. If I do a 1031 exchange and reinvest, I don’t pay the taxes and just ‘park’ my money in another building, that generates some cash flow.”

The landlord began paying attention to the housing market in her late 20s after struggling to find a satisfying career. The germ of an idea for buying properties came from a bit of observation-driven jealousy.

“It occurred to me one day as I saw my landlord walking around my apartment … that he did not have to hold down a real job,” she said. “And then it occurred to me that I was, bit by it, buying that place for him.”

She didn’t act on the feeling until her late 30s, however.

“The real catalyst was when I became self-employed. I was single, 38, [with] no real retirement savings, and I realized I’ve got no backup other than my brains. Luckily, I like real estate and I like old houses.” She also had a law degree and could handle the details of real estate transactions on her own.

When a friend called to ask for legal help with a real estate transaction, she bought the property and rented it right away. She was hooked.

The Costs of Being a Landlord

“People think landlords are just rich and they provide housing for free,” she said. “Tenants have no idea how much things cost … things like taxes, repairs … They don’t realize when they say, ‘Hey, can you send someone over, the oven’s not working,’ I’m looking at a bill of $95 just for the guy to show up, and at least another $50 for time and materials on top of that. A broken screen, minimum $25; re-sanding floors, $2,000; changing locks, $150.”

For one of the “starter” homes she owns, she had to spend heavily before she got her first rent check.

“I put about $14,000 into renovations. Not the fun stuff like a new kitchen but the ugly stuff, like new wiring and fixing a roof and a wall, and fixing the porch and the windows,” she said. “I had budgeted about $6,000, but then the state electrical inspector — because it’s now a rental, and is subject to safety ordinances — required the house to be completely rewired — a shock to me and to the electrician who had inspected the house for me.”

And while repair costs eat into the monthly income her properties generate, she knows the real estate creates a far more secure future for herself and her son.

“A lot of people expect someone to take care of them. A company, a spouse,” she said. “Becoming a landlord got me out of the ‘work at a job and hope and pray that what the employers pay is enough to live on and save for retirement and maybe take a vacation,’” she said. “I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities I have had and the wealth I have built. I just wanted you to know a bit of what might really be going on … as I see the issue with my small-time real estate investor friends … they can’t stop buying or they will get taxed so much that it is unworkable.”

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Click the image to read my story at Grow.

Click the image to read my story at Grow.

Go on vacation. Your heart needs it. Really. In the long list of studies I’ve shared extolling the virtue of holidays and warning about overwork, this one is the most important: A massive study published last year showed that employees who put in more overtime had much higher likelihood of heart disease and stroke. Those who put in 55 hours or more per week had a 33% increased risk of stroke and 13% greater chance of developing heart disease than those who didn’t work overtime.

Once in a while, I try to take my own advice.

Sorry I’ve been writing a bit less than normal lately.  I was on “vacation.”  At least, that’s what I call driving across country. For the first time in years, I attempted to completely shut down, and the site was a little dormant.  Of course, I still “worked,” but if by working you mean chatting with people around the country over a coffee or beer, than I never stopped.

I was able to turn this quick piece for the good folks at Grow, the personal finance site attached to the investing-app Acorns. It’s about — the value of vacations.  And why taking a holiday is good for your career. Really.  Here’s a taste of the piece, but you can read the full item at Grow.

As summer winds down, “the back to school sale” signs go up, and the days start getting shorter, you are probably feeling a few pangs of regret.  Should have spent more time at the beach, or the cabin, or on the road. But if you are like most Americans, you shove those feelings aside thinking you are doing your career some good. 

More than half of Americans now leave paid vacation time on the table, quite literally donating an estimated $61 billion in free labor to their corporations, according to a new study by Project: Time Off, a group that studies Americans’ vacation habits. There’s no other word for this behavior: It’s crazy.

It’s also dangerous. A growing body of research shows that overwork is hazardous to your health. Really hazardous. A massive study published last year showed that employees who put in more overtime had much higher likelihood of heart disease and stroke.

A separate study found that workaholics had a higher likelihood of also suffering from an anxiety disorder, ADHD or obsessive compulsive behavior. (It’s a correlation, not a causation, but still…)

Maybe — just maybe — you’d take these risks in order to ensure you got ahead in your career and could better provide for your family. If that’s your logic, you should know that plenty of other research shows working more hours is negatively correlated with getting raises and bonuses. For example, according to Project: Time Off, people who take all of their vacation time have a 6.5% higher chance of getting a promotion or a raise than workers who leave more than two weeks’ vacation on the table. 

Continue reading this story at Grow

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This would be a great place to talk! (Boonville, Mo. - Bob Sullivan)

This would be a great place to talk! (Boonville, Mo. – Bob Sullivan)

SOMEWHERE BEAUTIFUL BETWEEN NEW YORK AND SEATTLE — America, we need to talk.  And not on Facebook. I mean, really talk.

I’ll have many thoughts to share from this summer’s cross-country road trip (#RoadTrip201^), but one is screaming at me so loud I have to spit it out immediately.  While seemingly everyone loves ranting about our presidential election online, nobody wants to talk about it in person. Nobody. It’s a dichotomy I’ve never seen before, and it’s bad for democracy. It’s also a little frightening.

I found this everywhere from Baker City, Oregon (near the Bundy Brothers standoff) to Wilmington, Ohio (poster child for recession-devastated small town America).   Twitter wars: yes. Facebook rants: There’s never enough. But ask a waiter why he likes Trump and he’ll race off to refill your water glass.  Ask a city official which way their swing state might turn, and he says he’d just be guessing. Nobody in his town says a peep, in person, about presidential politics.

It’s awful, really. It’s like we’ve started sleeping in different beds, and only communicate via email.

It strikes me that we need a national marriage counselor.

First, let me share this. It is such a privilege and an honor to drive across this beautiful country — just as it is a privilege and an honor to live here.  I am well aware that I have won life’s lottery that I have the ability to drive coast-to-coast repeatedly, a treat many people dream to do even once.  While Rusty (and Lucky) and I have plenty of fun, I take these trips very seriously. Many Americans believe, rightly, that journalists have a terrible habit of only caring about the coasts. They hide in New York, or Washington, or Los Angeles, and make their pronouncements about America as if they know her. They don’t.

Of particular irritation to me are the stories I read about crazy Trump supporters where journalists don’t bother to talk to a single Trump supporter.  But you could say that for every candidate.  Pundits (and even campaigns) keep expressing shock at the level of anger Americans feel out here between the coasts.  That just means they haven’t spent enough time here.

I make it my point to do that, so here’s what I know. Speaking from my area of expertise: Americans feel ripped off. Because they have been ripped off.  As I’ve chronicled in The Restless Project, the math is simple: Today, two people with decent jobs can’t really provide a secure future for their families in most cities. Sure, we have big TVs, but we have no idea how we’ll pay for the kids’ college or our own old age. We’re not even sure about the mortgage — and if we’re young, we’ve found there simply are no starter homes for us to buy and start a family. America doesn’t work right now. It’s having a bad decade. Or two.

People aren’t quite sure who to blame for this. Wall Street! The Bushes! The Clintons!  Welfare moms! Mexicans! Religion! Gays!

And so, winning elections, increasingly, comes down to assembling the best list of scapegoats.  Scapegoats have always been popular, but social media seems to be the killer app for scapegoating. Why?  The “conversation” is perfectly one way, a digital echo chamber like no other. You can hurl insults and nonsense and never have to face the people you accuse. Oh, sure, someone might call you out on a “fact,” but you can simply rant back.  A wise person said to me recently that he’d never seen a single opinion changed during a Facebook argument, and I had to agree.

See, the problem with all these oversimplifications is that they don’t stand up to human contact.  It’s easy to hate  gay people, or Russians, or people who like the band Nickelback. Until you meet one who is kind and nice and funny and smart. And then you start to question whether that person really has anything to do with your farm failing or your retirement funds dwindling.

I know plenty of folks who will happily blame welfare moms for their economic woes, but also give the shirt off their back to the single mother they know down the street.  Americans aren’t the bad, stupid, racist, sexist ass&&les we are made out to be.  Technology is just bringing out the worst in us, and giving a megaphone to the edge cases while everybody else says, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

And so, I’m begging you, fellow Americans.  Talk. Sit in cafes. Sit in bars.  Encounter people you don’t encounter on your Facebook feeds.  Say how you feel. Listen to how they feel. Ask someone why they like Trump.  Let someone explain why they like Clinton. Fight the urge to argue.  Hear.  Learn.

How important is discussion in cafes and bars?  In research I’ve been doing for my pet project on the history of Irish pubs and bars in general, I’ve learned that the rise of cafe culture contributed to the French Revolution, because it set the stage for discussion of ideas. In Ireland, pubs were also a “classless” place, meaning landowners and workers would mingle there, even if they never saw each other elsewhere. When people meet, and talk, ideas emerge. Big ideas, like freedom and democracy.

Mingling is good. Isolation is bad.  Please, step away from the keyboards and talk to your fellow man and woman. Across the country, we’re not doing that right now.  And that is the biggest threat to our future.

 

It's a beautiful country, Let's stop screwing it up. (Bob Sullivan)

It’s a beautiful country, Let’s stop screwing it up. (Bob Sullivan)

Let's find the road forward. (Somewhere - Bob Sullivan)

Let’s find the road forward. (Somewhere – Bob Sullivan)

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(Bob Sullivan photo)

(Bob Sullivan photo)

Americans are terrible at taking vacations, and that’s a shame, because they aren’t helping their companies or themselves. People are just less productive in summer, for a whole host of reasons. So you might as well hang out at the beach anyway.

Americans wasted a record-setting 658 million vacation days in 2015, left on the table by 55% of workers, according to Project: Time Off’s new report, The State of American Vacation. The group says Americans’ vacation habits are amid a decades-long decline in usage. A pile of other past studies make this same point. The average American gives $500 of free labor to their employers every year; the average millennial works during vacation, with 1-in-4 working every single vacation day.

(This story first appeared on Credit.com. Read it there.)

All this lack of sun isn’t really doing anyone any favors. Because the truth is summer slowdowns are real, and you probably aren’t getting much done anyway. Here are seven reasons why you, and everyone else, really is less productive in summer.

1. The Weather (Duh!)

As a writer, I loved living in Seattle. Yes, because it rained all the time. It’s pretty easy to commit yourself to sticking your face in a computer at a coffee shop when it’s gray and misty outside. When it’s beautiful and sunny? Well, it’s darn near impossible.

That’s not made up. One study of the Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey found that, on rainy days, men spent, on average, thirty more minutes at work than they did on similarly sunny days.

2. FOMO  

It should be obvious that distraction is the enemy of productivity. And nothing is more distracting than looking outside a window to see sun you aren’t enjoying. Well, there might be one thing more distracting: Seeing pictures of other people enjoying the sun online.

We know that social media sites like Facebook can lead to a lot of wasted time at the office. But in summer, it can do lead to something potentially more problematic.

When the New Yorker covered why summer makes us lazy, it highlighted a Harvard study that found looking at pictures of people sailing or eating outside made them focus less at work.

“Instead of focusing on their work, they focused on what they’d rather be doing,” the New Yorker proclaimed. “The mere thought of pleasant alternatives made people concentrate less.”

And these were random pictures of people the subjects didn’t’ know. Imagine how much stronger the effect is when your old college buddy is at Folly Beach in North Carolina and you are sitting in front of Microsoft Outlook. (Thanks a lot, Tim).

3. It’s HOT

Your brain slows down when it’s hot and humid. In fact, heat lowers skepticism, making people more pliable, according to one study. Who wants employees with lower levels of skepticism making decisions? Meanwhile, humidity makes people sleepy and lose concentration. Again, that’s a terrible time to work.

4. It’s COLD

Oh, the irony. People who are cold also lose concentration, and given the prevalence of thermostat wars in most buildings, this can be a real problem. A Cornell University study that took place in an insurance office found that when temperatures were low, employees committed 44% more typing errors than when the office was a warm 77 degrees. The report said that employers also experienced a 10% drop in productivity when workers are freezing thanks to hyperactive AC. When you are cold, you can’t think.

5. It’s the Beginning of the (Fiscal) Year

Many companies go through a mad rush to finish projects as June 30 approaches. Then, in July, new planning begins. That has traditionally made July a time where many workers relax a bit from the end-of-year crunch, and also wait for new marching orders. Of course, this only applies to firms with taxyears that span July 1 to June 30. But even if your firm interacts with a firm that uses a fiscal year, this can impact you. Which leads to the next point…

6. Everybody Else Is on Vacation

It’s really hard to get things done when nobody else is around. Try scheduling a meeting in Germany on a Friday afternoon — or for that matter on a summer Friday in New York City — and you’ll see what I mean. This shows the wisdom of August holidays that are adopted to a greater or lesser degree around Europe. When everyone agrees to take off at the same time, there’s a lot less frustration about the inability to get things done. And that leads to the final, contentious point about summer slowdowns …

7. The Summer Hours …?

A small number of companies in select industries — like New York publishing houses — close their offices on Friday afternoons in the summer. Born of tradition, workers tend to love these policies, as they can have a chance to beat the Friday afternoon rush hour traffic on their way to the beach. But they are not without controversy. Obviously, no-Friday-afternoons mean less productivity, right? That’s what the firm Captivate says it found when it surveyed summer hour workers. In fact, early Fridays make workers stressed out, the firm says – because they have to work that much harder earlier in the week. Some 23% of those who make up for fewer Friday hours by working more hours from Monday to Thursday report that their stress levels increase, according to Captivate.

“On the face of it, summer hours probably seem like a terrific idea and are welcome by all,” Mike DiFranza, president of Captivate Network, which manages office elevator displays, said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the impact is almost uniformly negative. Given the state of the economy and the unease felt by many workers, perhaps it’s time to reconsider these types of policies.”

Not everyone agrees.

Plenty of studies separate “hours worked” and productivity. The OECD found that workers in Greece clock 2,034 hours a year versus 1,397 in Germany, for example, but Germans’ productivity is 70% higher. So giving people a couple of free hours on a Friday just makes them that much more focused during the week, this line of thinking argues. Meanwhile, possible woe to the firm that is inflexible on summer Fridays. In a study that directly contradicts the Captivate one, a firm named Workplace Options found more than half of workers say there is no summer slowdown, but young employees look for perks like flexible summer schedules, that let them get away early when they have to.

So, theoretically, firms that don’t allow flex time – that is, beat the traffic to the beach time – could find their best workers heading out the door permanently. (If you are looking to change jobs, you may want to check your credit since some employers pull a version of your credit report as part of their application process. You can pull your credit reports for free each year at AnnualCreditReport.com andsee a free credit report summary each month on Credit.com. And you go here to learn how to dispute any errors you may find on your credit reports.)

In any event, it can be a good idea to take your vacation days in the summer. Enjoy the sun. The week after Labor Day is going to be frantic, whether you take vacation or not, so you might as well make the best of it.

If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’d like to support what I do. That’s easy. Sign up for my free email list, or click on an advertisement, or just share the story.





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Can’t find a starter home? Here’s 25 places you should look (a unique list)

July 21, 2016 The Restless Project

We’ve written a lot recently about the disappearing starter home. A combination of rising prices, aggressive investors, and flat incomes are turning America into a nation of renters … and making things very hard on young people just starting out. But there are still communities where plenty of starter homes are for sale — hundreds […]

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The workplace discrimination epidemic that no one is talking about

July 8, 2016 Age Discrimination

When I started researching age discrimination earlier this year, I thought I understood the problem fairly well. I had no idea. I had no idea how much the law favors corporations trying to dump older workers; and I had no idea how much casual age discrimination exists. I am proud that I was able to […]

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It’s not just millennials who aren’t buying homes; it’s (almost) everyone

June 29, 2016 The Restless Project

You may have heard some buzz recently about first-time home buyers, with millennials sitting on the sidelines instead of jumping into the housing market. Well, it’s not just them. Basically, Americans in every age group under 65 are showing historic reluctance to own homes, according to an email from Ellyn Terry, an economic policy analysis […]

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Restless: Under $200k homes disappearing from U.S. market; one-third of starter homes turned into rentals now

June 27, 2016 The Restless Project

There’s been a lot of talk lately about why first-time home buyers are sitting on the sidelines. Here’s some data that may help explain why: Low-cost starter homes are simply disappearing from the market, and the ones that still exist are being gobbled up by investors and turned into rentals at a stunning rate. The […]

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Here’s the hourly rate you need to afford a two-bedroom apartment in every state (Hint: it’s a lot more than $7.25/hr…or $15/hr)

June 22, 2016 The Restless Project

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that there isn’t a single state in the U.S. where a worker earning minimum wage can afford the rent for a two-bedroom apartment — or, for that matter, a one-bedroom apartment. You might be surprised to learn that there isn’t a state where renters earning average pay can afford […]

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