My father recently died after being very ill for several months. As one does, I’ve taken to thinking about his life. In many ways he had a very ordinary and stable life, but one that feels increasingly improbable for so many of us now.
I read Tom Condon’s article of October 12 in CT Mirror arguing for a “Better Deal” for Connecticut. As I reflect on my dad’s life and the social contract, or deal in Condon’s formulation, that my dad benefitted from by the chance of his birth, I recognize that young men and women growing up today in similar circumstances face a different deal. The old deal ended a while ago.
My father was born in 1946 and grew up in the United States of the 1950s. Dad was an immigrant to the U.S from Italy, but he had the good luck to be born immediately after World War II at the beginning of a long expansion in the U.S. economy. The U.S. was the only great economy that survived the war largely intact. He was fortunate also to have moved to Connecticut as a young boy, so he learned a new language without being left with an accent and thereby avoiding some of the bigotry and condescension his parents and aunts faced. He also had the luck of being born of an ethnicity and skin color that was judged “white” in America.
My dad grew up poor. He was raised in the same drafty three-family houses that still fill Waterbury’s neighborhoods. Again, fortune and timing were kind. He grew up in a Connecticut that was still dominated by manufacturers. The brass industry was fading in Waterbury by then, but the Naugatuck Valley’s industrial might was still powerful. (Connecticut’s place in industrial history is astonishing, and, I’m afraid, nearly completely forgotten by anyone younger than my parents.) With a public high school degree, he began work first at Scovill Manufacturing, one of the great legacy brass manufacturers.
Then right around the time of my birth, he began a long career with Uniroyal. Uniroyal began its existence as U.S. Rubber in nearby Naugatuck and was one of the original 12 companies that made up the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Dad stayed with Uniroyal, and its many corporate successors, until his retirement at the age of 53 – only four years older than I am now. Uniroyal guaranteed him a pension and health benefits until his death and the death of my mother.
In the end the company paid a pension and health benefits to my dad for nearly 21 years. They will continue to make these payments to my mother until her death. With good fortune that could be another 20 years. So, for a working life that spanned 29 years, Uniroyal will pay my father and his spouse in some form for 50 – 70 years.
Uniroyal also educated my dad. He began working there as a data processor when that meant running stacks of computer punch cards through a giant mainframe computer. His education grew alongside the explosion of computing power in industry, all paid for by the company. He retired as a highly skilled and well compensated information systems professional with a livelihood that enabled him to support three kids through college – all made possible through his hard work and the company’s investment in, and commitment to, him.
We grew up in a modest house purchased in 1971 for $21,000. By the age of 24, they managed to save enough to put down a $5,000 down payment. (more than the 20% down payment required at the time). Smaller homes were being built then to house the first wave of Baby Boomer families. The average new home was about 1,600 square feet. Now it is more than 2,600 square feet. Lot sizes were much, much smaller too. My yard was about a tenth of an acre. All this helped to keep costs down and make these “starter homes” more affordable to young families like mine.
I write all of us not to debate whether companies should provide the level of benefits my dad received, or to argue that the deal my dad got is part of the cause of U.S. industry decline, or any other side of these arguments. I write to acknowledge two realities and to make one request. 1) My family was very fortunate. Many of my neighbors didn’t benefit from the old deal by virtue of their skin color, place of birth, and/or gender. It was a game almost entirely for white men only. 2) The deal is very, very different for a kid graduating high school in Connecticut today. So, if you are prone to wonder how you were able to succeed in your time while “they” seem incapable today, maybe take a moment to acknowledge that the deal has changed.
Fewer employers offer health benefits now, and even when employees have access to health insurance, they must shoulder much more of the cost. How many young Connecticut workers in the position my dad was 50 years ago earn a wage that allows them to afford adequate housing? Do they work with the job protections offered by unions they way my father-in-law did during a 39-year career with Pratt & Whitney? Will their employer invest in their education to grow with industry needs or just replace them when their skills no longer match?
Defined benefit pensions are an artifact of the past that will mostly disappear with the Baby Boomer generation. Workers are lucky if they have access to a self-funded retirement plan. In how many towns in Connecticut today can a young family live affordably so that they can provide for their families and still have enough money to provide their children an opportunity for higher education and expanded job opportunities?
I spend my days advocating for affordable housing policy and funding. There are housing answers to some of these questions, but I’m not asking readers to sign on to an agenda. I’m asking you to recognize that the old deal is truly over. If you don’t believe me, ask your niece, your granddaughter, or the guy who cuts your grass. They are living the new deal.
Sean Russel Ghio lives in Cheshire.