Welcome to The Restless Project: This Is Why You Can’t Sleep at Night

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We need drugs to sleep at night. Nearly half of us don’t have enough in a bank account to cover next month’s expenses, let alone any real head start toward retirement. We buy homes with mortgage payments our parents couldn’t fathom, or we make student loan payments almost that large.

We are digitally tethered to work by gadgets that constantly let us down with bad directions or dead batteries. We almost never take vacations, but when we do, we read email every day anyway. We chug Starbucks and Red Bull to try to keep up, but we feel like we are letting everyone down all the time anyway.

America, land of the Restless.

But why?

I have a simple question I ask when I try to persuade people that there’s something very wrong with the way we live in America today.

“Can you think of any friends with children who are sure they will be able to pay for their kids’ college?”

There’s always an uncomfortable chuckle, as if I’d just asked if they knew someone who could weave straw into gold. Then there’s usually a discussion about how everyone feels like they are working harder, and perhaps even making more money than they’d ever dreamed, but yet falling behind anyway. So they run on the rat wheel faster and faster.

Restless.

Today I am announcing a new long-term effort, an ongoing series, called The Restless Project. I plan to unpack the root causes of this Restlessness. I believe they are paradoxically both more subtle and more obvious that most busy people realize. And I think it’s such an important discussion — I think it is the story of our time — that I am interrupting my career to shine a spotlight on it. Along the way, together, I hope we can explore ways to jump off the Crazy Train.

Trina Foster-Draper. No one should have to undertake a Fourth Act.
Trina Foster-Draper. No one should have to undertake a Fourth Act.

I will talk about humble Americans like Trina Foster-Draper, a 56-year-old single mom of four who will be proudly writing her last check for her kids’ college this year. She was recently laid off by CenturyLink in Logan, Utah, where she’d worked in customer service for nearly six years. What will she do now? Go back to school for information technology and begin her fourth career transition.

“Everybody has to keep changing, keep reinventing themselves now,” she said to me, sitting in her apartment, which she shares with her father in a brand-new building adjacent to a massive Walmart. “There’s no choice.”

Despite the occasional catcalls from folks who casually argue that today’s adults are just lazy and selfish, for the most part there’s general agreement on the problem — the creeping sense that life is somehow spinning out of control. It is. Today, we all live under pressure from a diabolical combination of economic disease and technology disruption that keeps all of us, not just on our toes, but on the edge of a cliff. Second acts are fine, even romantic. Fourth acts? That’s insanity.

The reasons for Restlessness that I will explore in this series are myriad:

1. It’s an economics story. Just 50 years ago, an American household with one decent job could afford a decent home. That math is now horribly broken. Today, it takes two incomes, and even at that, a much higher percentage of household income to buy a home. That’s why you never feel like you have enough money.

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2. It’s a work-life balance story. Since you are insecure about having enough (what if one spouse loses a job?) you work too hard. Fear is an excellent, horrible motivator. People don’t take proper nights and weekends any longer, instead putting in hours over remote corporate networks, in large part because they feel like they have to. Forty-hour workweeks took hundreds of years to evolve, which is an interesting history I will share soon. Smartphones took them away in five years.

3. It’s a technology story. Smartphones haven’t just wrecked our ability to disconnect from the office. Pick your favorite restaurant: How many people are staring at phones while half-talking to each other? Step back from the scene for a moment. We all look like rude idiots doing that, always more interested in people somewhere else than the ones we are with. Sure, you could be better about phone etiquette. But billions of dollars have been spent figuring out how to make you addicted to these things. You didn’t stand much of a chance.

4. It’s a broken social contract story. America’s social contract, always part myth and part reality, has broken down entirely, in a way that doesn’t make sense. Today, people with regular jobs in regular cities can’t afford regular homes there. That should be impossible. After all, the price of most homes should settle roughly into what most people can pay for them. But not when the value of those homes is propped up impossibly by a credit system built like a pyramid scheme. The math, you see, is against you.

5. It’s a disappearing middle class story. A quick thought experiment: What is a solid middle-class job that would let someone comfortably own a modest home? Teacher? Cab driver? Bike mechanic? Today, workers are driven toward high-income, lottery ticket-like professions such as information technology. Of course, a decent home in an IT-friendly neighborhood near Silicon Valley costs $1.2 million. Better work hard and get that big bonus. Meanwhile, not everyone can write computer code or be a physical therapist. What are the rest of American workers supposed to do?

This isn’t a minimum wage story. This is an average wage story. By every measure, the economic “recovery” after the Great Recession has done nearly nothing to help the middle class. Sure, unemployment is shrinking, but that’s a misleading stat. Here’s the truth: Low-wage jobs represent nearly half of all jobs created as part of the recovery.

6. It’s a marketing story. What do you do when you feel scared of the future? Well, you drink Red Bull, for one, so you can work all night and impress the boss. And maybe work yourself to death. Or maybe you pay $250 for a new pair of shoes, just so you can put aside for a moment those hopeless feelings that you’ll never, ever, pay off that student loan.

Or maybe you’ll hand over your finances to that lovely man in the white shirt who tells you he can help you pay for your kids’ college, even though all he’ll do is suck out a percentage of your money in fees every year. But he does make you feel better. The cycle of Fear and Consumption, as we all learned in the movie “Bowling for Columbine,” is powerful.

7. It’s a where-to-live story. New York City dwellers have always been restless, always with one eye looking out for an emerging neighborhood where it might be possible to afford a dreamy three-bedroom apartment in relative safety. All of America lives like this now.

As I travel the country, everyone with a second or third kid on the way is trying to make impossible math work: Where are the wages higher and the housing costs lower? North Dakota? North Carolina? Florida’s west coast? Oregon? So-called “second tier” cities are gaining steam and migrants as the recession’s recovery drags on, but these moves bring on other problems, like proximity to meth houses.

8. It’s a hacker story. Sure, computer criminals who might empty your bank account in ways that you didn’t even know possible is enough to keep you up at night. But that’s barely the beginning of the story. Behaviorists have hacked you and now desperately try to deliver just the right ad at just the right moment so you can’t resist buying their product. Huge firms with names you’ve never heard of collect data on you by the hard drive-full: Acxiom admits having 3,000 data points on nearly every American. Heck, folks are hacking your genetic code. What are your rights to all this incredibly important, personal information? Basically, you have none.

We’re restless, and I want to explain why. I’m certainly not alone. Brigid Schulte, a Washington Post reporter, recently explored the complex life of the American woman in her excellent book “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.” You’ll recognize some of the concepts about the relationships between two-income homes and housing costs from Elizabeth Warren’s classic, “The Two-Income Trap.”

Since I’ve spent 20 years writing about ripoffs and the dark side of technology, I think I have a unique perspective on the problem of restlessness. For the past year, since I left my job at NBC, I’ve been chipping away at stories in this area. Here are a few examples:

I plan on covering the hell out of this topic. (There are already 27 stories in my special “Restless Project” section, which you can find here.) And don’t worry, I promise to write about hopeful trends, too, such as the explosive growth in yoga, or the technology tools that really do make our lives easier, or what folks in other countries do to stay sane in our digital world, or the members of the “Resistance” who are fighting for worker rights or simply promising to turn off the cellphones for the weekend.

I hope you’ll follow along, you’ll criticize me, and you’ll make suggestions to help bring this story the attention it needs.

The journey is personal. As I look around at my own career, I see the insanity of journalists trying to do an honest job and raise families in a world where everyone is judged, not just by Nielsen ratings, but by Facebook likes and retweets. That’s a popularity contest that no one can win. And I see my friends, who are increasingly incapable of having fun without having their faces in a phone or a video game, and I fear the lonely future that seems stretched out before me. I love a good chat. I hope you will, too.

More from Bob Sullivan:

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  • Whitney Nelson

    ” . . .those hopeless feelings that you’ll never, ever, pay off that student loan.”
    I wouldn’t say that I feel hopeless, because I’m on track to pay off my 10-year term student loans in 7 and my 20-year term student loans in 13-15. However, I would say that I am legitimately exhausted from working three jobs to pay them off (a full-time, part-time and temp job).

  • Jake

    Maybe you need to check out areas near the Gulf of Mexico. There are a lot of jobs in plants down here that only require a high-school or sometimes an associates degree and pay six figures after you have been working less than ten years. The housing and other cost of living expenses are also very reasonable. I know a LOT of guys without college education who had no problem buying a house on one income and sending kids to college.

    • Whitney Nelson

      Thanks, I’ll definitely see what’s available to me.