09/15/2010 11:40 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Will the Middle Class Have Room for Baby Boomers' Kids?

Watching our kindergartners engaged in a game of musical chairs, we nudge them along mentally, past the gaps, hoping they end up in the right place, at the right time.

The music stops. Ten kids scramble for nine chairs. Nine land safely; one panic-stricken kid is left standing, squeezed out of the game. When it's our kid who has no place to sit, our hearts break just a little.

And so we baby boomers watch, with trepidation, as our grown children scramble for their spots in the middle class, with its tricky dance steps, its new rules, its ever-dwindling number of chairs. We observe their progress, nudging them forward, helping where we can, hoping they're in the right place, at the right time.

If they're lucky, they approach the game with all the basic tools - a solid upbringing, an adequate education, a firm work ethic, a pocketful of emotional intelligence, a head screwed on straight.

Getting a toehold

Maybe they are fortified with degrees from good schools. Maybe they are ambitious, or charming, or lucky. Maybe they know somebody who knows somebody with an employment opportunity. Maybe they are blessed with perfect timing.

Or maybe they are just more resumes in tall stacks on the unoccupied desks of people who were downsized -- more college graduates with big student loans and big dreams on hold, struggling to get a toehold in the world.

They piece together part-time jobs that may, or may not, turn into something bigger. They work outside their fields. They roll with the punches -- downsizing, pay freezes, unpaid furlough days. If they are fortunate, they accept bare-bones health insurance grudgingly bestowed up them by tight-fisted employers; if they are not so fortunate, they pay for their own insurance, or go without it. They scrape. They stay alive.

A different script

We've been inclined, for some time now, to wonder if our children will ever duplicate our standard of living -- a standard built on steady, if unspectacular compensation, good health, rising real estate values, and the prudent use of readily available credit.

We rose above our parents, economically, following the script of the American Dream. Is that still a viable model? Will the next generation rise above the previous one? Mounting evidence says it won't.

Everywhere you look these days Arianna Huffington is talking about her book, Third World America, in which the Huffington Post creator lays out a convincing case for the disappearance of the middle class in this country.

Huffington is hardly the first person to notice the growing gulf between rich and poor, and the erosion of the middle. Consider just one piece of the crumbling puzzle: A record 2.8 million U.S. households got foreclosure notices in 2009, and the wreckage could be even worse this year.

Will our children own their own homes? Will they find jobs, and keep them? Will they be able to give their children the advantages they, themselves, enjoyed? Will they figure it out? Will they find a chair when the music stops?

Email John Schneider at

This post originally appeared on September 12, 2010 in the Lansing State Journal.