Joko MacKenna

An American story on Independence Day

How the American Dream didn't really work out for me

It's the Fourth of July, American Independence Day. It's a day I can't help but think about my home country, where it's at and where it's going.

I just saw a graphic on BBC News which showed how the American middle class has gone from 75% of the population 25 years ago to less than 50% today. In other words, there are now more people who are either poor or rich in my country than there are those who aren't described by either term.

Wage stagnation

I saw it in my own working career in America. Fresh out of college, I got a good job that paid me, on average, $1000/week. That was good money back in 1993. Twenty years later, even though I was much better at doing it, I was still making $1000 a week doing pretty much the same job. Wage stagnation, they call it.

In my generation, at least from my experience, we haven't been able to settle into a profession. Unlike America in the past, where a person could get a good job and then expect that job to be good throughout his working career, my career, big ticket appliance sales, just got worse and worse the longer I did it.

Well, tough shit, Joko. That's the reality of modern America. You should be happy making a steady middle class wage whilst all around you the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

Domino effect

I stayed the same, but the world got more expensive. Debts accumulated. The cost of living went up. As time went by, I found myself going from getting by to living on the edge. I tried to join those who were rich and getting richer. I became a loan officer at a mortgage company. A sub-prime mortgage company at that. Then, 2008 happened. Then I had a car accident.

Fast forward to 2013 and once again I was making pretty good money doing what I loved and was good at: hawking refrigerators and washing machines at a big box retailer. I'd gotten back into community theatre, so along with video making and the ukulele, my free time was rich and rewarding.

Down on luck

Just as everything was going great, corporate America struck a blow typical of the fate of the middle class these last decades: they slashed my wages by 25%. From that point on, I learned the ins and outs of the pawn shops, payday loans, and how to live on really shitty cheap food. I was definitely becoming poor.

At just about that same time, I got an offer in the mail from the company I'd worked for previously for almost 20 years. They owed me something rare in today's economy: a pension. They said I could cash in my pension now for a significant amount of money. Well, this was an opportunity to make a major change in my life.

Just as it seemed like the major change in my life was going to be from hanging on the edge of a middle class existence to being on food stamps and assisted housing, here came the funds to get myself a qualification to teach English, settle (most of) my debts in America and buy a plane ticket to start a new career somewhere else. I'd always wanted to travel and teach abroad, but I never had the resources to make that happen.

A brighter future

I took the money, cashed in my pension and haven't looked back since.

Now, I'm teaching abroad in Southeast Asia and even though I'm making half what I made in America, there are no money concerns. Not that I care about class distinctions, but I'm definitely amongst 'the rich' in Myanmar. I'm saving money for my eventual retirement, something I could never do when I was living paycheck to paycheck.

Unlike the last time I lived in Southeast Asia when I was student, nowadays, due to social media, I can keep up with what my American friends are thinking and doing. Me myself, I'm currently out of the steady decline of the financial security of the American middle class. But I remember being there. I've lived it. It's sort of why I'm here.

Anyways, when I look at America today, there's a political decision to be made that's in the front of everyone's minds. Both camps in the debate blame certain forces for causing the decline the American middle class, the key demographic to winning any American political election.

The blame game

Hillary blames corporations, and declares she'll stand up to them. This is an unconvincing argument given the amount money she's taken from them over the years.

Trump blames trade. 25 years ago, almost all the refrigerators I sold on my floor were made in America. In my last years of selling appliances, less than half were. This kind of mirrors the same trend in the buying power of my paycheck. Now, before you say Trump has a point, understand that the prices for refrigerators hasn't changed in that same 25 years. A top of the line fridge cost $2000 back in in 1990. It's still close to that today. The cheapest fridge cost $400; that hasn't changed. At the same time, everything else has gone up, including salaries, except for those of appliance salesmen.

I guess what I'm getting at it is that macro-economically, even for the middle class American, relatively cheaper prices for appliances has been a good thing. Less of the average American's paycheck has to go towards buying a new appliance, and that's a good thing.

If there were no NAFTA (and Mexican refrigerators), if China didn't have normal trade relations with America, if all the free trade influences that killed my career as an appliance salesman didn't exist, I'd still be living in America, making good money selling overpriced white goods. Meanwhile, there'd be folks living without food storage, tenants living with shitty fridges and far fewer folk being able to enjoy the benefits of ice and water through the door.

Clinton (Sanders) supporters blame multinational corporations. Trump supporters blame China and Mexico. Life is hard being part of middle-class America today. Perhaps before we start casting blame, we should look at what we, individually speaking, are doing as part of the modern global economy from which there's no turning back.

It took me a long time to realize that my chosen career was dying. America needs to honestly understand where it stands as a nation state in the 21st century. We can't magically recreate a country where state of the art fridges are made here instead of Korea. We can't bring back television, smart phone or air con production back to the USA when places like here in Myanmar, the cost of labor is $20 a week as opposed to $20 per hour.

I ain't got a solution for the declining state of the American middle class. Except to say that we need to face reality.

I also have a YouTube page with lots more stuff about the teaching lifestyle in Myanmar


If there were such a thing as a time machine, and you went back to 1960, or 1973, or 1985, I am certain there would be plenty of people huffing and puffing about how tough it is. Tough to get on a good career track. Tough to move ahead. Tough to work your butt off, and yet the good life seems out of reach. The government stinks and is unable to do anything about it.

I know there are a lot of numbers floating around which "prove" that today is uniquely tough (Joko quoted some). Maybe it is, but I am not 100% convinced. I wonder if a lot of this is just age old themes, repeating themselves. Have-nots grumbling.

The good news is that today more than ever, it is very possible to work in another country. If you don't like "home", you can go make a new one.

By UrbanMan, Behind a fake IP address (9th July 2016)

Well written and interesting article which reflects how I feel about my 'home' in England. Many of the comments below your article from fellow Englishers reflects exactly how I feel too. I don't feel (and to be honest never did in many ways) like I belonged there. It's sad that so many Americans and Brits feel so disillusioned with their roots but it shows just how backwards both countries have become!

By Stuart, Bangkok (8th July 2016)

Joko always has something interesting and well thought out to write about, refreshing.

By Jack, In front of my computer (5th July 2016)

I also left the USA 8 years ago for similar reasons and have never looked back. Event though I am making less money here as a teacher then I was making in the USA my quality of life is much better here in Thailand for sure. I am living a lifestyle here that a similar one in the USA I definitely could not afford and with very little stress. Plus I have a beautiful Thai girlfriend twenty five years younger then me and I am sure a woman similar to her back in the USA would not even give me the time of day.

As far as the politics back in the USA most of the politicians have sold out and the system for the most part has become more and more rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. And instead of the political system and politicians bringing people together for the common good it had done the opposite. But that is the oldest trick in the book, to divide and conquer, and as it is said, "united we stand, divided we fall", and America does seem to be falling especially for the average American.

By Thomas, Thailand (5th July 2016)

Great piece, but just part of the story. It's true that there's no guaranteed path to middle-class success in American these days (has there ever been?), but it's still very achievable. A college degree helps, and an employable degree is even better (software development, nursing, engineering, pharmacy, etc.).

I spent time in the Army to pay for college, got a degree in English, taught TEFL in Thailand and Japan until I was 30, then landed back in the states with no real plan. So I got a post-graduate certificate in technical writing. Honestly, it was petty sketchy, but enough to assemble a portfolio and land a job at an entry-level salary.

Three years later I got a much better paying job in the same field, and have held that job for 12 years now. I worked hard for it but also had some luck, because I didn't plan ahead, didn't get an employable degree, and didn't start in my field until the age of 30.

By the way, most of the software developers I work with are not native-born Americans. They are Indian, Chinese, Russian, eastern European, etc. They grew up poor and worked their assess off to get a skill they could sell anywhere in the world. They now work in America because we simply don't graduate enough skilled software engineers of our own. They laugh at American schools and American kids who just don't seem to care enough to put in the work to grab the golden apple dangling right above their heads. In a lot of cases, it's not greedy corporations, corrupt government, free trade, or anything else that's to blame -- it's our own damn selves.

By Tim, Gilbert, AZ (5th July 2016)

After my schooling was over, I did a few years in the military. I had been shielded from ‘the real world’ until my mid-twenties!

As soon as I took part in it, I knew it was going to turn out badly if I stayed.

In the mid-eighties, I emigrated and have since lived and worked in various countries for the last 30 years. My bi-annual visits back to Old Blighty have become very depressing and I don't look forward to them any more. It's now a courtesy visit just to say 'hello' to my dull family before they die.

The corporations won the battle to whittle down the expectations of the working class. This made them easier to control. This has made struggle to be rich and successful in the Western world was just too much effort… at least for me.

Joko, you did the right thing… and how long will it be before the rest of the Western world catches on and realises that their precious time on earth should be all about THEM and not the hopeless and moral expectations of people you don’t know or care about.?

It’ll be a while, I hope… I’m running out of places to avoid them! :)

By Mark Newman, Irving (5th July 2016)

Excellent piece, and I must say I felt something similar living in the UK. There was a chance to move to a higher level, but the work and pressure it brough didnt seem like a good trade off.

Where I lived in the UK was an old mining area. There was forever talk of the mines re-opening, providing jobs for young people. Sadly, what they missed was that not many young people are interested in going down big dangerous holes for back breaking work these days. The UK has changed, those jobs would be filled by Poles, as many other lower level jobs are, rather than British people, in my opinion.

When I came to Thailand, i was and still excited by the pace of growth, the change and the industry. I was lost going to a football ground, walking round a neighbourhood, every other house was a mini factory, workshops as they were, making cloth and clothes. Britain used to be like that Im sure, and it was exciting to see. A road is built here, they dont need tax breaks, incentives, people just build, start businesses, and communities thrive. Is it better when combined with the poverty, Im not sure, but for me it is.

By Rob, Bangkok (5th July 2016)

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