When I heard about the 1987 stock market plunge, I knew what to expect. After all, I’d been reared by parents who were products of the Great Depression.
A 600-point drop? How scary. Pretty soon, the wind would start blowing and we’d be in another Dust Bowl and tramps would be stopping by our door to get some food and we’d be lining up for jobs that didn’t exist and our house would be foreclosed and we’d all be out on the street.
I knew all about it. Shellshocked by their own childhoods in Oklahoma, my parents always liked to prepare us for disaster. Don’t trust banks or the stock market. Don’t throw anything away. Eat leftovers. Don’t live beyond your means. Save aluminum foil. (What for? I never got that one.)
But 1987 rolled past without the dust storms and employment lines and Wall Street suicides. The stock market recovered and then some — and then a lot. Since then, people have made billions in the stock market and through IPOs. Have times changed? Is our economy better moderated, less prone to sudden plunges and disasters, as I’ve read?
Since then, I’ve buried one parent and am power of attorney for our surviving parent. After our father declined into dementia, I went from bank to bank in the small city where they lived, finding a few thousand dollars in CDs at almost every bank. To the end, my parents never really trusted banks. And who could blame them? When you’ve been brought up in the land and era of Grapes of Wrath, how could you ever forget it? (My parents referred to Grapes of Wrath as “that awful book,” since they felt it disparaged Oklahomans, calling them “Okies.” “It’s a terrible book,” my mother told me once. “Have you read it?” I asked. No, of course, she hadn’t. In our house, we relied on rumors and liked to hold grudges. Especially when it came to that terrible word, Okies.)
So now, I hear, we’re either in a recession or we’re not, and it’s going to be a terrible one, unless it isn’t, and it’s going to last a long time, unless it’s over quickly. At the same time, I look over my parents’ money, which was saved a little bit at a time by people who rarely dined out, never bought fancy foreign cars, and paid off their mortgage as soon as they could. Their suspicions of quick and easy money and their stories of helplessness and deprivation will always haunt me — and, probably, others of my age.
But they’re stories from another generation, not my own. My own generation’s economic experiences have been far easier. How could we fail to be more complacent, even when there’s talk of a recession, of looming deficits, of trade imbalances?
Here’s what this all reminds me of: About 15 years ago, I was watching TV with my kids when a news bulletin interrupted the show. I’ve forgotten what the bulletin was about, but just seeing the words cross over the screen made my stomach tighten. Too many times, in my cognizant years, those bulletins had told of national horrors — a presidential assassination, the killing of a civil rights leader, the murder of a man running for president, other assassination attempts.
I watched my kids, thinking how young they were, how untroubled their lives had been. They didn’t understand that disaster can flash across a TV screen, changing history, disrupting a nation and a world. They didn’t understand then and they didn’t understand for years. Until September 11, 2001.
Maybe, I think, you live an untroubled life for as long as you can. And maybe you should, within reason. Maybe all you can learn from the experiences of other generations is that you’re never truly ready for the upheavals that will mark you and upend your life.
So, save the aluminum foil and hoard the duct tape and don’t leave your money in one bank. It probably won’t save you, but it might make you feel better.
Please see a completely unrelated article I wrote: http://www.texasobserver.org/article.php?aid=2677
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)