The Milton Bradley company mapped out a dream for you in red and gold rectangles on a folded slab of cardboard. It came packaged with a wad of rainbow-colored cash, a bag of little plastic minivans, and a vacuum-clogging array of tiny pink and blue pegs. A sweater-clad family smiled up from the top of the box. They called it the Game of LIFE, but it was more than a game. It was a promise of how America was supposed to work.
For a long time, America made good on that promise. You spun the wheel. You moved your car. You grew up, and maybe you went to college. You got a job, got married, and had kids. You earned regular paydays, saved money, and built a nest egg. You retired comfortably. That was how things worked on the game board—and also in the real world, for a huge swath of people.
Life doesn’t work that way today. The promises that underpinned the game, the economy, and American society no longer hold true for most of the nation. A return trip through the classic game board illustrates how badly those foundations have decayed.
Young women and men can’t just graduate from high school and land a good-paying job in a factory or at an office park; increasingly, college graduates can’t either. More and more people worry about the security of their careers, their retirement savings, and the affordable energy that powers their lives. Fewer and fewer of us trust government officials, clergy, scientists, or any other authority figures. One of the great American ideals—that every generation will pass onto its children a better life than the one it inherited—may perish as aging baby boomers chew up the nation’s financial resources.
The best way to understand this decay, and the rebuilding that Americans must undertake, is through the stories of the people struggling to navigate a country very different from the one Milton Bradley promised. These are the stories that National Journal will tell throughout this year, in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election. In a series of narratives in print and online, we will introduce you to people coping with those broken foundations—and working to reforge them for the next generations.
Most important, we hope to engage you, our readers, in a conversation about how to restore the nation. As LIFE reminds all of us, America is more than a set of roads or institutions or political parties. It’s the players who join you around the game board. It’s the people who climb into your car.
CIRCLE THE BOARD
It’s been more than 50 years since LIFE first swept from store shelves to family game nights. Milton Bradley himself had devised a complex prototype in 1860; the modern edition was an update with a simple object: Whoever retires with the most money wins.
A trip around the game board in 1960 offered a pretty good approximation of how white American children expected their lives to play out. You probably didn’t grow up planning to discover Atlantis while skin diving (collect $12,000!), but you could see a lot of your hopes on that board.
Young baby boomers circled the game’s path in a small plastic convertible. In the Generation X version from 1985, which Target now sells for $20 in a nostalgic hardwood box, players drive minivans. You start by spinning a flimsy wheel in the middle of the board that stops on a number from 1 through 10. You pick a car, take $10,000 from the bank, and shove a colored peg in your driver’s seat. Right at the beginning you face a choice: Should you turn right, toward college, or left, zipping straight into the labor market?
College costs a whopping $2,000. Head that way and, if you’re lucky, you’ll come out a doctor or lawyer earning $50,000 per year. At worst, you’ll end up a generic “university graduate” pulling down $16,000. Take the straight-to-business option and you’ll make $12,000 annually, plus you’ll have a head start toward retirement. Either route guarantees you a job. The same job for life, with steady paychecks to support your growing carload.
Almost everything about that scenario sounds quaint today. For starters, Americans who complete college (which costs quite a bit more than $2,000) have opened an increasingly wide advantage in lifetime earnings compared with workers who end their education after high school. In 1985, according to the Labor Department, a college graduate earned on average about $16,000 more per year (in today’s dollars) than a worker who only held a high school diploma. Today, the gap has widened to more than $25,000.
Then there’s the issue of finding (or keeping) a job. Today’s unemployment rate for high school grads is double that of college alums. If you lose your job, no matter who you are, you’ll likely face a long search for a new one. Workers stayed unemployed for an average of about 16 weeks in 1985. Now, it’s 40 weeks.
Your journey across the LIFE board is littered with other jarring reminders of broken social promises, starting with your family. In the game, everyone gets married, and no one gets divorced. Every child is born into a nuclear … minivan. That was largely true in 1960, when married couples accounted for 95 percent of all births. But today, more than 40 percent of children in the United States are born out of wedlock. The trend is particularly pronounced among low-income people and minorities; groundbreaking new research suggests that this statistic is a direct consequence of the country’s widening income inequality.