Should Top Gear UK Continue Without Jeremy Clarkson?

I can’t believe I’m actually writing this post. Jeremy Clarkson was fired (his contract was not renewed) this week because he punched a producer of the show Top Gear. If you need a refresher on the details, you can read the BBC statement here. I am a longtime fan of Top Gear (since 2004), but I can’t condone Jeremy’s actions. He is brilliant but also quite rubbish in real life. The BBC isn’t like a TV network in the US, they are funded by tax dollars and can’t allow inappropriate things like this to happen while being funded by the government. After Jeremy is let go from the BBC, it is expected that the other hosts James May and Richard Hammond will also leave. Therefore questioning the future of the show that was the most watched factual programme in the world. 

Its a small world after all.

Its a small world after all.

You may already know that Jeremy Clarkson resurrected TopGear in 2002 from a sleepy little car review show and turned it into one of the biggest TV show franchises ever. I discovered TopGear many years before it was broadcast on US TV while on a quest to find all the Eddie Izzard TV appearances. (of whom I was fascinated with at the time) After seeing Eddie’s appearance on a dvd recording of TopGear, I looked up the show online. I spent about half of my day at work the next day watching TopGear clips on YouTube. The first episode I remember was Series 7, episode 3. The one where they take a Ford GT40, a Ferrari and a Pagani (panini) Zonda to Paris and almost get them stuck in a parking garage on their way to shoot some scenic car p#rn on the Millau bridge.

There I was in my cubicle laughing with disbelief when they almost scraped up these 100K+ super cars on the exit ramp from the garage. It was pure un-planned reality TV at that time, and far more entertaining than anything on US network TV. The OMG humor in the garage situation was contrasted with the amazing and majestic panoramic views of the cars on the Millau bridge. TopGear was brilliant because early on they decided to embrace the things that went wrong and have a sense of humor about it. They were also great about balancing the humor in the show with genuine moments of awe. (especially in many of their travel shows). The production quality and editing was also really good for a car show and with that they singlehandedly changed car commercials forever.

Stig is quite proud of this. He might get a producer credit.

Stig is quite proud of this. He might get a producer credit.

At that moment I saw the show in YouTube, I was hooked. I had a family that appreciated cars even though we didn’t have enough money to do anything stupid with them. (Buick!) My brother spent high school and college rebuilding and street racing an IROC camaro (and a bunch of beaters) and my dad was one of those people who could name any make and model of car (1930-present) pretty much on sight. I got the car humor on TopGear immediately and identified with the sort of friendship that the three hosts had on the show.

I’ve posted before about the contrast in the hosts personalities making the show great. The love of cars might be the only thing that they had in common when they started working together. Even if they amplified their personalities to the point of becoming a character on the show, it worked. I saw the same kind of humor and silliness in my brother’s friends all those years that they were taking apart their Camaros and Mustangs in an effort to make them faster, cooler and in some cases, just function. I was fascinated by the TopGear hosts and the fact that they had found a way to make a living messing around with (other people’s) cars. How do you get that gig? And then how do you live up to the expectations of everyone watching you muck about like a teenager? It was really unbelievable. Part teenager’s dream, part improvisational reality TV and part relationship drama. Oh yea, with cars. After seeing TopGear, I never ever wanted to see Motor Week  again. TopGear found a way to bottle that energy that I knew existed within the gearhead/streetracing communities here in the US and sell it to the world. Brilliant.

After initially discovering the show I had to share TopGear with my family, and after a while I was able to get a region free dvd player and some dvds from the UK and we would watch the show together. (later we found other ways of getting the shows on to our US television) My mom even thought it was a funny show even though she didn’t care about cars.

We watched TopGear on most Sundays when I would go home to visit my parents and have Sunday dinner together. TopGear was a fixture in our lives from about 2004 until 2012. Those were really good times spent together. My dad passed away in 2013 at about the same time that I had a baby. I haven’t been able to watch much TopGear since. (we’re about 2 years behind on the dvr) My brother is still a loyal fan, and isn’t 2 years behind on episodes because he doesn’t have a toddler. We have introduced our son to one or two shows of TopGear and he does like cars. (but he would prefer that it was hosted by Elmo) Maybe some day when he is older we will get the old dvds out and show him all the seasons of TopGear and have that kind of family time again. Why do I bother to tell the story about my family watching the show? Because it illustrates the kind of connection that TopGear had with so many people all over the world with this particular formula.

The story doesn’t end there though.

I have told a very long story without answering the initial question in this post.

Should TopGear live on without Jeremy Clarkson, James May & Richard Hammond presenting? 

I think TopGear can live on without them because the BBC owns the rights to the concept, the name, the production. Everything. The BBC has the distribution network and the rights to keep selling a car show to the world. They can hire new hosts, write new content and keep producing. That said, I don’t know if the BBC should continue to produce TopGear without Jeremy, James and Richard. It doesn’t really make sense.

Some logistics for the BBC to consider: New hosts take at least one season to get their bearings set and develop a rapport with eachother. Sometimes you pick the wrong people and it takes longer. The TV watching public expects an amazing amount of humor, production quality and entertainment from TopGear because of its reputation. There is no way to meet the expectations of the public before they abandon a show (maybe 2-3 episodes?). The viewers had a relationship with Jeremy, James and Richard. It developed over years of inviting them into our home every Sunday. Its awkward to have someone new over to replace someone that has been a regular guest for so long. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

camaro n mustang

The IROC in all its glory. Note the burnout patches on the street. Also note the date-stamp.

If the BBC wants to continue the TopGear UK show my suggestion is to do a franchise re-boot and not a continuation of the current show.

1. Start with 3 people that are very well versed in cars but rather unknown personalities. (not all of them have to be men)

2. Make sure they are young, but they appreciate and know a lot about automotive history.

3. Make sure they have very different personalities, yet don’t hate each other.

4. Take them to some improviser workshops. Make sure they’re OK taking direction and comfortable on camera.

5. Introduce them to the Stig. The Stig stays. (Like many Stigs before him.)

6. Possibly rename the show.

7. Possibly add some different segments or twists to the segments.

And what will happen to Jeremy Clarkson, James May & Richard Hammond? I am sure that they will continue to make entertaining shows elsewhere in the world after TopGear. The viewers still have that relationship with them and the hosts take it with them wherever they go. I think a US network/company would be perfectly fine with a host that punches people occasionally, but Jeremy isn’t a fan of the US all that much. So, we will see if he considers working on this side of the pond. James and Richard could follow Jeremy wherever he goes because they are an automotive triumvirate and car companies will still trust them with 250K cars.

It doesn’t mean that things will be easy starting over. Jeremy, James and Richard aren’t getting any younger. I actually thought that the show would end someday because one of them was seriously injured or because they were too old to get insurance for those kind of stunts. (they have taken so many chances with pushing the limits over the years) They have to really think about how they can muck about and have fun in an age appropriate way. Going to the North Pole may not be a safe option anymore. Maybe they need younger sidekicks to mentor or kids to teach about cars. Maybe they broaden the scope of the show beyond cars? Maybe its traveling that they are into now? Maybe its new car innovations? Who knows, I am sure that they will have some ideas and may already be working on something.

Whatever happens, we will survive with or without Top Gear. (We have the archives right?) It was a great time in TV history and we will remember them for their innovations and their humor. We will still have cars as an interest in our day to day lives. After all, I still drive a 300 hp turbocharged Volvo and my husband has a cutting edge electric Chevy Volt. (its faster than you think) My brother drives a V8 Buick Lacrosse Super. My brother in law drives a white hybrid Audi Q3. (I don’t know what’s up with that.) And we will enjoy many more years of interesting cars because of TopGear.

Advertisements

SAAB Car Company – Saying Goodbye

Saying goodbye to SAAB cars. I viewed the TopGear UK (season 18/Ep 5) show this weekend at my brother’s request, and found that Jeremy Clarkson and James May had some nice and not so nice things to say about the loss of SAAB (Swedish) car company late last year.  Since I still drive a 2001 9-3 SE turbo 4-door hatchback (117,000 miles), this episode review is also a summary of my thoughts on losing my brand and the history I have with my car.

First off, I was surprised to see the TG UK guys mentioning the SAAB cars at all, since it has been about 5 years since they have included any SAAB cars for review or inclusion in their show.

Their review segment provided a look back into the history of SAABs that included some interesting and odd findings:

black vintage saab top gear uk 2012

1. After WWII the SAAB company found that the need for their airplanes was greatly diminished and put a wing designer to work designing a car for consumer purposes. The result? A profile of a car that looked like the profile of a wing.

Top Gear James May Driving a Vintage Saab

2. Some of the earliest SAAB cars had issues with small 2 stroke motors that required the gas & brake pedal to be used at the same time since these (lawn mower) engines mixed the gas and oil together, lubricating and fueling the engine all at once. When driving down a hill there was still a need to lubricate the engine, hence the gas/brake pedal use together. This resulted in some issues with brake failure as James demonstrates in the photo above.

3. They also cite that in later years GM had several budget talks with SAAB engineers about making their cars the same as another brand/car/platform with just the badges/grille/tail lights different (like how GM is trying to cheapen/kill Buick right now by inserting Chevys like the Sonic as the Verano) and SAAB continued to defy them until their last days by making vastly better cars in safety, design and usability. I am glad that someone told the arses at GM that this strategy never works, it only cannibalizes your market by making expensive cars that look just like the cheap ones. On the other hand, SAAB was massively in debt because of their decisions and that did lead to their end.

saab history cars ads

Image from Flickr

4. Top Gear also showed the old SAAB jets in almost every advertisement possible. The only ads I remember were the quirky hand drawn animated ones that starred my car. I thought the “Born from Jets” line was a more recent one, but in reality it was a very tired and worn out marketing line that has no actual relevance to the cars. The only similarity between the cars and the planes is that they were both made from steel. It is too bad they never came up with an ad for “the smartest people on the road” featuring the geek-eliete with their vintage framed glasses and european scarves that are so popular these days.

Jeremy & James also went into detail about some of the best hits of the SAAB years.

1. They demonstrate quite literally that if you drop a SAAB on its head (upside down from 8 ft off the ground) it is much more surviveable than a similar BMW dropped from that height. Nuff said.

2. They also point out that in their opinion, SAAB drivers are some of the most educated people driving. Not car education, just generally well-educated folks. They keep referring to architects as the target market, but the people I have known to drive SAABs have been doctors. At least that is who introduced me to SAAB cars, and I have been driving one ever since.

My take on things:

Even though I bought my SAAB used in 2004 (for $14,000), I will agree with the TG guys that these SAAB designers/engineers have always been quirky and brilliant at the same time. I had previously owned 2 almost-identical ruby red 2 door Buick Regals and this black-midnight-egg car seemed so much more sophisticated, luxurious, sporty and european. Because it was.

1. I found the origami folding cup holder both hilarious and very functional in a small space, although when the coffee mug gets stuck and you yank upward to release it, the mug hits the rear view mirror and splatters coffee all over the dash.

2. I decided that I really like a Turbo charged engine for both efficiency and power. There was always a small turbo lag, but then it kicks you in the seat and take off whether you have the sport button on or not. All this, and I get 25 mpg average and previously I was getting around 18 mpg with a much slower car.

3. I found out that heated leather seats are a necessity in Chicago. No matter that they are a dark grey/black and require layering towels on them in the summer after sitting in the sun for hours so you don’t burn your bum.

saab car full of stuff

This is what moving looks like with the hatch full.

4. I don’t know how I ever lived before I had flip down seats and a 4 door hatchback for carrying things. I have impressed so many loading dock guys when I transform the car like origami and they remark “what kind of a car is this?” while loading furniture/TV/boxes in the back. It also made moving to three different locations a lot easier. Did I mention it hauls like an SUV and gets 25 MPG?

5. I am quite proud that with the SAAB sport button on, I can usually beat my husband’s Integra GSR in a drag race. This may be because he has to waste time shifting gears manually and I don’t. (I understand that isn’t the proper theory but he doesn’t shift quickly)

But it hasn’t been all wine, roses and warm heated seats with the SAAB.

Some of the funniest moments have been when it fails.

And SAABs fail in the most spectacular ways possible. And when I say spectacular, I mean expensive and weird.

saab won't start

SAAB won’t start – service men pushing it from the car wash

1. For the last 6 months I have had issues starting the car after running errands, stopping at the store and getting my car washed. We initially thought it was a water/rain related problem shorting out the electrical and security systems because after 30 minutes of inactivity it always starts fine (yes it has done this exactly 7 times). This past weekend I had this happen again and found that after locking myself in the car it started fine. Bizzare.

Towing after the fuel pump line crack spewing gas problem

2. I had a fuel pump line crack after some Chicago winter snow hydroplane-ing in the alleys (which don’t get plowed and you just drive through them as fast as possible so you don’t get stuck) which resulted in my 16 gallon tank of gas being spewed out all over I-88 on my way to Aurora, and it was empty within 60 minutes. It is freaky when you smell gas and you turn the car off and see nothing dripping, no puddles, nothing. Then see the gas gauge dropping by the second as you drive. Freaky-Weird-Bizzare.

Saab at service dealer

Somebody at the dealer liked my car enough to park it like this.

3. I had to replace the turbo at 80,000 miles within a month after the 6 year warranty expired. I was on my cell phone in the showroom with customer service yelling that “this is why nobody buys a SAAB twice”. They paid for 1/2 the $3,000 cost.

4. I have also had the odd collection of failures like the LED dashboard displays ($800 each) and the electric antenna (stuck up then, stuck down now) as well as small things like headlights that go out and come back at random, regardless of the age of the bulb, the air conditioning system needing to totally be replaced (both the condenser and the compressor) Another $3,000.

5. The brakes always squeak when I am backing out of parking and the electric side view mirrors broke within a few months of the warranty expiring. The fog lamps have never worked. And the wheel wells are rusting because of the salt on the roads in Chicago.

A little burlwood on the dash makes a girl happy.

All these things have gone wrong so, why am I so reluctant to give up this car?

It is unique, my black egg car looks like nothing else available today, and is the only car that I have ever seen that combines the best of all possible features into one. In this crazy over-diversified car market where there are too many companies and too many models to choose from, I really enjoy a car that gets all of the qualities you want in one vehicle. I am waiting for another car company to see the value in this all-in-one-car strategy because I think they will win a lot of the public’s respect and sales. Here are the strategy highlights:

koeneggsaab

We had hope for a few weeks that it would become a koeneggsaab, but that never happened. I also wondered why Alfa Romeo didn’t buy SAAB since they made quirky cars also and the 9-5 looks a lot like several alfas.

1. Safety (I have never had to test this) Having not had an accident, I would say that great brakes are a plus, airbags a must and a structural frame that can be dropped upside down is a differentiator.

2. Luxury/Comfort (don’t go overboard) But leather heated seats and an upscale interior is a must. A little burlwood on the dashboard makes a girl happy, but no chrome and no carbon fiber or suede. (ick)

3. Sport (for everyday use) Use of Turbo 4 Cylinders has recently caught on with Buick via Opel. I want an e-Assist and a Turbo in the same engine. Possibly a supercharger too.

4. Fuel Efficiency (25-40 mpg) More would be even better.

5. Convertibility (hauling in a hatch, see A7, Panamera) I see so many sedans on the road that could become a 5 door without changing much. Once people have the availability of this feature with a luxury car they won’t ever want to buy anything else.

6. Reliability (ok they could have been better) But over the years I have been driving my SAAB I have had some great long distance trips and most days I get to work just fine, no matter how cold it is outside. Those Swedes knew how to make a car for the cold Chicago winter.

The 9-3 lived outside for the first 5 years I had it.

Someone came to this post with the search term “saab born from jets, killed by assholes“. Congratulations for being the funniest search term I’ve seen this week.

Is More Data Always Better?

google think magazine data overload obesity information ideas processing analysisThere has been a discovery in the online marketing and data/statistics world in the last few years. We have had more websites, products and tools created online than we can possibly keep track of. The terms to describe this deluge of activity we have been hearing the most are “data overload” and “information overload” from both companies and consumers. This Google Magazine uses the term Data Obesity to describe this phenomenon.

They ask the question, why is more data always better?

I think the idea of “more data us better” is common from people who lived before the Internet was prevalent. We had to work hard to find data. Researching something meant going to a library and looking in a card catalog (or maybe something called Gopher) and then finding your way around the Dewey decimal system to find that book. And then sometimes they didn’t even have the book because it was checked out or possibly it was just filed wrong because nobody understood the Dewey decimal system.

On a related note recently we got invited to my cousin’s wedding in Santa Fe New Mexico. My dad promptly went to the library and checked out 3 books on Santa Fe and New Mexico. I cringed. He asked how to find out the flights to book something without a travel agent. I realized I have been traveling since 2000 this way and he stopped traveling about that time so he never has. I introduced him to Travelocity, it was mind blowing and a bit of data overload compared with the OAG book he used to use in the 80’s.

The point here is that finding data was really difficult. People had control over its distribution because it was in print. When it became more freely accessible due to Google and other companies efforts we assumed this would be good, because people could remember where to find it and use it whenever we wanted. We never thought it would get this big so fast. Now travel sites are overwhelming, they have too many choices and there are too many of them trying to get you to opt into something you don’t want while being over charged for bringing a suitcase on a flight. This is just one example of how data has gone exponential so quickly.

Others of us have come to a data overload conclusion when they have 200 emails in several in-boxes, 1000+ rss reader posts from feeds waiting, several work projects, 500+ Facebook wall posts in their feed and hundreds of tweets that have gone un-read. This is among a climate where you have to follow-up with projects 5-10 times to get things done, post blogs/tweets/FB status updates daily to keep on people’s radar, empty the DVR so it doesn’t get overloaded and auto delete something you really wanted, listen to the radio on the way to work just in case something big happens and still find time to scoop the litter box before it gets full and the cats poop on the floor.

And the real purpose in all those tweets/FB posts and feeds is that you business changes yearly and if you don’t know about the latest trend and some real insights about it before your boss asks about it, you won’t have a job for all that long. (in digital marketing)

Having data overload be a “good” problem to have from some people’s perspective (as in that it is growth oriented). The democratization of publishing combined with tracking methodology and databases have all contributed to this problem, giving everyone a voice, a potential following of readers, a data trail to analyze and method to say something important online 24/7/365.  And then we have an even bigger problem of processing what is being said, figuring out if it is important or not and sharing/processing/saving it in some way if it is. Acting on that data is way down the line and many of us don’t even get there.

And this isn’t even the big problem with data overload. Where will we store it all? Why do tweets disappear from search so quickly? Because there are millions of them and the failwhale is full. According to the ThinkQuarterly UK, there are 800 Exabytes of data/information created every two days. It took humans from the beginning of civilization until 2003 to create the first 800 Exabytes, and we’re on a roll now.

Where does all this seemingly random data go? How will we know what it says without having to go into a database table and read specific field information? Where are the software tools to manage all this and still give humans the ability to customize the out put in ways that match the behavior or business purposes that we really need? Does any of this stuff ever get deleted?

These are all huge questions we have to answer as more people publish, share, create, track and do business online. We also have to weigh the possibilities of sharing data openly and locking it behind walls as well as how will people comprehensively find what they need when they want to as well as gauge the validity/accuracy of the information presented?

I’m betting on paid services for personal and business data management/archiving & Analysis tools. We will pay for good analysis, good data access & processing and good reliability/backups when we feel the pain of missing good insight, losing good data and just too much happening. Both personally and professionally. But unless you know how to work with SAP, SPSS, SQL, Oracle or a bunch of other systems data management is largely out of your control at this point. They are the librarians of our digital data and they need to find a workable way to Dewey decimal system it back into order and allow us to use it as humans need to.

TopGear’s MyFirstCar contest

You may know by now that I’ve been a huge Top Gear UK fan for about 7 years now. I discovered the show when I was on a quest for Eddie Izzard comedy performances and saw that he was a guest on the show. This slightly crazy show really caught my interest. I almost immediately found the Top Gear episode where they take 3 supercars through France and get them stuck in a parking garage and I was hooked because it reminded me exactly of the stuff that my brother and I were into back in High School and college.

When I heard about the #MyFirstCar contest from BBC America I thought, we had a good story to tell. And although it is a cost saving move to ask your fans to do your advertising for you, I was still hooked.

For the contest I set out to figure out how one makes a video with the very limited tools I had available. I did not want to talk in front of a webcam, it felt too awkward, and I’m not exactly a glamour model at this point in time. Plus I’m never going to be as interesting on camera as Jeremy Clarkson without some training.

I was looking for the “ken burns” slow zoom effect on some photos because that is mostly what I had to work with, 1990’s advantix camera photos. I thought I might be able to do a voice over narration and possibly talk Scott into it too, but it ended up just as me in the end. 

We did find that Scott had one vhs tape with some stuff a guy Paul had taped and given copies to the guys. It was fun to watch and see some of the racing stuff I had not seen them do but most wasn’t fit for broadcasting due to my flip camera video of the TV and the nature of the comedy on screen.

I ended taking a few shots with the Flip camera I got from work for Christmas and used them at the end with the car in the garage and we pooled photos from my house, his and my parents. Scanning them in and finding the software wasn’t that hard. (I found Muvee and it wasn’t hard to learn to use, although some people may find it too automated)

Writing the story was the most difficult part. I wrote out a few versions, Scott edited them and then we realized the photos and content were nowhere near as long as the written piece. And I could not read it and watch the pictures to keep up at the same time. So I was winging it, and I say “Um, So, Yea” a lot as I’m thinking of what to say next. We also found we didn’t have photos of crucial parts of the story that were funny so they were cut. We also tend to be funniest when we play off eachother and make fun of eachother and he wouldn’t take part because he’s shy or something.

The end result isn’t a funny video like I had hoped, but like I said most of the funny content wasn’t suitable for publishing. We ended up with a more sentimental documentary piece. It doesn’t have the views to really be a contender in the competition. It was fun though to do something new and try and think about the story in a video creation like what they do on TG all the time. I have even more respect for what they do and the high level of quality in their work.

UPDATE: it is now 2/8/2011, a week into this contest and my video has received a whole 62 views. This is in comparison to the other people’s videos who had really old falling apart cars as their first car and weird stories as to how horrible they were are all 1,000 views and such.

I guess my video isn’t the intended story they wanted to tell. And I admit my storytelling wasn’t great considering my editing ability is limited and the story had to fit what the software and photos provided. And I can’t exactly get on camera and talk about this right now. And I’m just more low key than the guys jumping around on their cars in the videos.

I suppose that I should have expected this. I haven’t been to an improv class in far too long. Best of luck to the rest of the crowd, I applaud your ability to get the BBC people to put your videos on TV.

UPDATE: 2/8/2011 As I was lamenting that the video has not performed very well with views, I got an email from BBCA. Plot twist…

Update: 2.28.2011 – So, they did email us a release form to use the video in their promotional process for TG UK (America). We did see that they did post our video to the Top Gear My First Car Tumblr feed, of which drove about 400 views to the video. I’m guessing that is where our story ends. We haven’t heard anything since and although I asked if our video would be included in snippets used to advertise the contest on TV, and they said yes, we never saw it there. Granted, it has been a pretty busy few weeks so I could have missed it. .

This was fun and all, but considering that Rutledge Wood posted on FB today that he was flying to the UK to meet Hammond for the first time today, and he’s the host of the USA show, I’m not going to hold out thinking that the general public will have any way of enjoying Top Gear in person anytime soon.

I kind of wish I did re-record the voice over since I think I sound like a dork in it, but I’m not going to have time at the moment. Maybe at a later time I will be able to spend more time on car related videos.

Update 3.1.2011 – I finally had time to go through the episodes on BBC America tonight and look for the 1 commercial spot they use the #myfirstcar clips in, which is usually somewhere in the 2nd half. I saw a one second glimpse of a  photo from my video used, so they did indeed use something after sending me all kinds of forms to sign. It wasn’t actually a picture of the car we had as our first car though. (possibly the assignment had a bit of scope creep adding the history like that) So the Electra – Park Avenue gets its brief moment to shine instead of the IROC camaro. I think they had to use this picture because it had people in it and they seem to want someone’s face involved in the video. I’m not wild about my appearance these days so I thought I’d spare people the pain, and keep the focus on the cars but I guess that wasn’t outlined in the guidelines, but it was still important.  I kind of want to reshoot it and start over, but time is fleeting and the contest is almost over.

Update: March 2011. I ended up with about 400 views on the video and have taken it down now since the contest is over and things have moved on.

TIME Magazine Article – The Social Contract in America

I was reading my parent’s TIME Magazine this week (that I usually swipe to read on the train) and they had polled Americans on the state of the economy and their take on how they plan to personally “get by” in the coming years. You can read the survey results and the article about this concept of a social contract online at TIME.com.

I had never heard of this concept of a “social contract” that business and government have with America. I work in a recruitment related field so if it existed, I thought I would know about it. As a human being I was aware of it as a colloquial dream we have perpetuated by the stories told by our parents and grandparents.

My family history doesn’t go back that far here in America. My great grandparents arrived from Poland and the Ukraine pre-WW1 and went to work in the gritty factories of Chicago because it was a better living and opportunity than they had back in Europe. (poor peasant potato farmers I usually say) and the economic opportunity has kept us here in Chicago ever since.

My grandparents generation went on to slightly boring but consistent blue collar jobs with pensions and my parent’s generation went on to white collar jobs after getting college educations. Some of them got a pension and health insurance and others did not. My generation doesn’t even get a shot at a pension. Companies have found that they can hire good people without it and they tell us that a 401K is really the same thing. (for reference I am 33)

So, we have these 401Ks that seem to never make money fast enough to accrue enough funds to equal what a pension would. They plummet in value every 10 years or so in recessions, and someone changes the funds available without asking or telling us. Most of us have health insurance through our jobs. We pay handsomely for it, between $100 and $300 per month per person.  And then when something happens that requires medical care, the insurance only covers 1/2 the costs. It is totally possible to go bankrupt with health insurance coverage these days because most coverage is crap compared to what my family had back in the 1980’s.

TIME says that there is an “implied” social contract in America where you give a company (or number of companies) your time and energy and they give you “a basic level of economic security provided you work hard and took responsibility for your family”. (direct quote from TIME July 28, 2008 p 42) And I think things have changed. This contract implied or not doesn’t really exist anymore. I see businesses every day making decisions to give workers less and people have to get more creative trying to survive.

I think the social contract is more like this now.

1. A company promises to pay you as little as they can for your time. This sounds pessimistic but I have seen the proof on paper that you are paid what they can get you for with your experience rather than what you are worth or how much “the job” pays. You have to wait years to work your way up the ladder to make a good wage and then marketers and your neighbors taunt you daily to buy everything in sight to keep up with the Joneses. 56% of the people who made over 100K a year said even they can’t expect to afford health care, college or a secure retirement anymore.  And 100K a year is a lot of clams. (I don’t make anywhere near that. ) I do realize that these businesses have to keep costs low in order to compete with India and China, but somehow I’d rather see the cuts come from other areas that don’t erode the culture in America and impede our ability to raise families. 

2. Marketers will prey on you from every direction. A lot more people could make it through hard times if they had savings but the national savings rate is negative now. All the “stuff” and services you “must” have seems to replace the financial security your grandparents achieved. Just say no didn’t work for reducing drug use in the 80’s and I think that the disposable consumer culture will probably continue here too.

3. Health Issues will cost you. Most young people don’t need much care because you haven’t gotten to the age where things start falling apart yet and we don’t have any concept of how much it costs to survive a serious health issue like cancer or bypass surgery. Both my parents had heart surgery in the late 1990’s and they were 50 & 60K each. We paid about 10K each of those costs and the insurance paid the rest. I just heard someone at my dad’s workplace had bypass surgery last month and it cost $100K. I know they have really poor health insurance there, and I can guess that the guy might have had to pay 50K out of pocket. Even dental issues are expensive. I need have needed a crown for about 5 years and because there is no pain or damage being done since the root canal and filling, I am holding off on the $1,000.00 price tag since dental insurance is only going to pay 1/2 and I would rather save the $ for a real emergency like fixing the 7 year old car I have or paying for the radiator heat to be fixed in my condo.

4. Retirement is going to be difficult. Very difficult. Some people wonder if social security will be around in 2040 when I turn 65. I personally, think it will be. It may not be nearly enough though. Most of us will have some 401K savings but as the Frontline Retirement special found, most people make crucial mistakes with managing their 401K and end up loosing a lot of money and getting little out at the end. (and then have to go back to work) Some tips include, never take a lump sum benefit, due to the tax penalty, never just let it ride and not watch the performance and watch for trading and management fees eating up your money. It also helps not to own a McMansion when you retire and live within your means before retirement. Saving money (like 10% of after tax income) on the side and investing it in some low risk but higher than inflation yields is also a smart way to prepare. And well let’s hope medicare still exists in 2040 also, and that doctors and hospitals still accept it as payment.

5. Creativity & Leverage are the new working hard. Money makes more money, it’s all who you know and being clever with side jobs or side businesses usually helps. Yes, saving a large percentage of your income by living simple and investing it can help you have the “power of compounding interest” as they say. Keeping in touch with people and maintaining your network helps with job opportunities and side opportunities to make some income. Starting weekend jobs or part time businesses online or otherwise helps too. I find people living simply and leveraging clever ways to work in more than one place are the ones that will have what they need later on. Getting into an industry that is doing well in the economy also helps but that may take pro-active skill re-training. Paying off your mortgage early and not moving also helps. You loose thousands of dollars on the services and fees associated with that transaction every time you move, and  we all know you pay 3x the value of your loan in interest if you really pay your mortgage over 30 years. After that you are seriously in the hole.

The only contract I think we really have now is that everything will change by the time the 30 somethings reach retirement age. The only thing we have to rely on is ourselves. In general business is struggling because the US has passed it’s peak and we will be in a pack of “also rans” soon. Companies in the US will not see the skyrocketing growth that they saw post-war in the last 60 years with China, India and Eastern Europe emerging as super-economic powers. This coupled with dwindling natural, energy and food resources will make the next 50 years a post US dominant era that will be much harder and more global.

I actually believe if the US was more competitive with skills and education we would do well in a world economy but I haven’t yet seen the expertise or drive to innovate. All I see every day is the drive to reduce expenses and cut resources in business and make short term gains with little or no thought about long term survival. I feel like the country is being run by the lowest common denominator MBAs right now and the next 10 years for us commoners are going to be difficult as a result, as we all lack the jobs/growth that they sucked/poached out in the short term and ran off with the profits.

So, enough about all that negativity.

How do you plan on coping with the changing game living and working in the US in the next 50 years?