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A Sign of the Times

posted: 8.14.14 by Jack Solomon

One wouldn’t ordinarily consider an opinion piece by Robert J. Samuelson—The Washington Post‘s top economics columnist—as a candidate for semiotic analysis.  But a recent column of Samuelson’s reveals so much about the current state of American consciousness that it is quite useful for illuminating an important part of the background needed for the construction of any system being constructed for the purpose of cultural analysis.  So I will be looking at it here.

Samuelson’s brief essay is entitled “The (millennial) parent trap,” and in it he bemoans (this is not too strong a term for it) the precarious economic prospects not only for his own three “20-something” children, but also for all of the parents like him. The opening sentences of his op-ed piece pretty much sums it all up: “You could hear the tension in his voice. His 20-something daughter was living at home. She had a graduate degree from a good university that, in times past, would have led to a solid job. But she had no job and no prospect of one. He worried and wondered how long this would last.  He has plenty of company.”

What is most striking about Samuelson’s piece is not the raft of economic statistics that he brings to bear upon the well-known economic woes of millenials in the wake of the Great Recession, but the emotion that he displays over the matter.  Samuelson is usually a pretty low-key writer, an economist more at home with the logic of numerical analysis than with emotive expression.  But when such a man writes words like “The unwritten social contract of .  .  .  [our] .  .  .  era presumed that the economy would be strong enough so that when children reached a certain age, they could be ‘launched’ into the adult world and would not crash. It’s this contract that has now broken down,” you know that something is really happening.  A famous economist and journalist who presumably belongs to the upper-middle class, Samuelson would seem to be immune from such worries about his children.  The fact that he is demonstrably not immune shows just how deep the problem is.

And here is my semiotic point.  The impact of the Great Recession just may be the great game changer in American history, disrupting America’s fondest mythology, the one we call “the American dream.”  Signals of this disruption appear throughout popular culture (especially in the hit HBO series Girls), but as Samuelson’s lament indicates, it is not simply a matter for story lines.  The story line of America itself is being rewritten, and if we want to understand much of what is going on in the country today (especially its intractable divisiveness and ideological polarization), we need to take into consideration the fact that more and more Americans are seeing their country as a land of “betrayal,” not “opportunity.”

A final disclaimer: having no children of my own, and having survived the economic turmoil in perfectly good shape, my analysis is not a reflection of my own worries or emotions.  But when an unemotional fellow like Robert J. Samuelson lets his hair down in The Washington Post in this way, you can be pretty confident that the times they are a’ changin’.

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