Five years ago, the future looked bright for Janet Barker and her family.
The eighth-grade English teacher had a secure job with annual raises. Her younger daughter was excited to be starting at the University of California-Santa Cruz. Her divorce was about to be finalized, and she would soon have her small two-bedroom house in Redondo Beach, Calif., to herself.
After years of tending to others, Barker looked forward to a few indulgences. There would be long-delayed travel to Europe and charity work in Africa. She toyed with the idea of moving to the East Coast.
Then the financial crisis struck in 2008. She has abandoned her dreams, and these days, she’s just trying to hold her family together. Five people squeeze into her 1,000-square-foot house because they can’t afford to live anywhere else. She’s supporting her ex-husband, their daughter, an unemployed son-in-law and a grandchild.
Although the economy is recovering and stock prices are setting records, millions of middle-class Americans have been left behind. Their financial expectations have been greatly diminished.
Income has stagnated. Jobs are still hard to come by. Unemployed people who find work often have to take pay cuts.
The hardships cut across all age groups. Young people are saddled with student debt and have a hard time finding jobs they want after college. Mid-career workers are supporting their grown children and aging parents while worried about their own finances. And older people who lose their jobs may never get another one.
“American workers are between two uncomfortable realities: Either they are working and terrified about the future, or they are not working at all,” said Carl Van Horn, a labor economist and director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.
To help pay the mortgage, Barker rents her converted garage to a childhood friend.
A few nights a week, she takes care of her 2-year-old grandson, who sleeps in a crib in her room. There’s no space for his mother, Jenny Barker, who stays with friends. Jenny gave up her apartment because her flower shop was struggling.
Janet, 57, looks on the bright side: The turmoil has drawn her family closer together. She treasures the time with her grandson. She enjoys long conversations with her new son-in-law at mealtimes.
“It’s sort of like an old-fashioned family,” she said. “They used to move under one roof and help each other. That’s what we’re doing.”
But she can’t help but wonder how they all slipped so far, so fast.
“I wonder how many other people who look like they’re coping are having the same experiences as us,” she said. “I don’t know how much more I can take.”
Janet Barker grew up in Redondo Beach in the 1960s and ’70s, infused with a sense of civic purpose by watching John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. on her family’s sage green Philco TV.
“I lived in the formidable years when there was hope and promise,” she recalled. “We were going to make the world better.”
She married her college boyfriend at age 21. The marriage fizzled but produced two children, Ryan, now 36, a transport expert in aerospace, and Jenny, 33, the floral shop owner.
In her 20s and 30s, Janet worked as a reporter at the Daily Breeze, a newspaper in Torrance, Calif., where she met Bruce Hazelton, a staff photographer.
They married in 1986, and their daughter Katie was born four years later. In 1994, the couple scratched together a down payment on a $260,000 California bungalow.
Today, a white picket fence encircles a property blooming with roses, lavender and a strawberry patch. The mailbox is a replica of the house itself, crafted by Hazelton. The interior is awash in pastel shades of blue, green and pink. A backyard of spruce and silk oak trees serves as an oasis of sorts.
In 2002, Barker changed careers and became a full-time teacher at Parras Middle School in Redondo Beach. The family was careful with spending. There was always enough for a new computer or a bike for Katie.
Barker was better off than her parents, who refolded aluminum foil to use again.
“You couldn’t go on big trips and you couldn’t go out to eat all the time, but you always had food in the fridge,” she said. “It wasn’t terrible. It was a step up from the way I grew up, definitely.”
The years leading up to the economic crisis were the family’s best financially because Barker and Hazelton were both working. And though their marriage was ending, the split was amicable. Hazelton had planned to move out after Katie left for college.
Then he lost his job.
One day in January 2009, Bruce Hazelton’s boss sent him to the human resources department. There, the 29-year employee earning $52,000 a year was let go.
Hazelton was devastated. He had just turned 60. The economy was tanking, and he wasn’t able to get another full-time photography job.
Eventually, he looked for any kind of work. The low point came when he was passed over for a job unloading trucks at a department store.
He became disconsolate. He lost his appetite. He barely spoke.
“I liken it to having an undiagnosed cancer of the soul,” Hazelton said. “This illness I had ate away at everything I valued in my life, including my self-esteem, my ego, my drive and my purpose in life.”
Janet Barker endured her own professional hardship.
Her once-automatic raises were replaced by furlough days that sliced into her income, which is now about $68,000 a year.
Sitting in her darkened kitchen two weeks ago, a glass of red wine at her elbow, Barker looked at her bank statement with dread. She let out a sigh. Teachers don’t get paid during the summer, and her bank account had dwindled.
She had $1,401.50 in her checking account and $2,586.28 in savings. She owed $4,668 on a Visa credit card.
Katie Barker-Hazelton thought that by the time she graduated, the economy would have rebounded.
But she couldn’t find a job after earning a degree in sociology last year. Young people like her are confronting the worst employment market for college graduates in decades. She’s also become one of 22 million people ages 18 to 34 who live with their parents, up 22 percent from a decade ago.
She had no luck getting work related to her major or her interest in teaching, and was relieved when she landed a receptionist position at a Torrance antiques dealer with a salary of $1,800 a month after taxes. That enables her to pay $400 a month toward $23,000 in student loans. She contributes to groceries for the household and tries to save as much as $500 monthly for car and other major expenses. She and her husband live on the rest.
“I just thought it was going to be easy when I got out,” said Barker-Hazelton, 23. “They tell you, ‘Go to college. Get a job. It’ll be great. Work hard and you’ll get it.’ But it really hasn’t been that way.”