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.
Later in the game, depending on where you land, you might start your own business. It’s easy. All it takes in LIFE is a relatively small amount of cash. No one is ever hampered by government regulations, undercut by a lower-cost foreign competitor, or starved of consumer demand by a financial crisis. Fewer and fewer Americans who start businesses today go on to hire anyone else to work for them; they go it alone, in a trend that the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation warns could strain economic growth and opportunity for years to come.
Other modern anxieties are also absent from the LIFE board. Your minivan never needs gasoline, which today consumes 50 percent more of a median family’s income than it did in the 1980s. You pay hardly any taxes, certainly not enough to fund a defense budget that, adjusting for inflation, has soared to its highest level since World War II.
The game features three types of insurance—life, auto, and fire—but not health coverage, the one that dominates present-day Americans’ anxieties. LIFE’s only mention of health care costs, which continue to skyrocket today, is a $2,000 bill for a set of false teeth.
Some parts of the game look downright prescient today. For one, LIFE does a great job of undermining your faith in other people. (The board is full of spaces blaring “REVENGE!” that allow you to snatch $200,000 from any player or send her backward on the board. There’s also a stack of “Share the Wealth” cards that allow other players to swoop in and claim half the proceeds from, say, that cattle ranch you just inherited.) As the game plays out, you can feel your trust erode, just as it has in real-life America over the last few decades. Not just trust in government, which now sits at historic lows, but also in churches, schools, business, the press, and even science.
The most spot-on piece of foreshadowing for the Gen X-ers who grew up playing LIFE is that when you retire, you collect a lump sum for each of your kids. The game doesn’t explain why you get that money or where it comes from. (My father used to joke that it came from selling your children, an idea he seemed to enjoy a little too much, frankly.) Today, it’s best to think of the payment as the mounting tax burden that future generations will bear to support the current generation of retirees.
THE PEOPLE ON BOARD
Most people these days don’t play that version of LIFE. They play an updated one that is slightly more realistic and a lot more depressing. The route to retirement is filled with new and vexing choices, along with the timeless college-versus-career conundrum. You buy and upgrade houses, decide whether to go back to school, lose one job, and gain another. You borrow a ton of money for your education. More than midway through the game, no one has yet built much of a nest egg, because everyone is still mired in debt. After a job loss or two, players find themselves asking, “Do I really need to move into that double-wide? What’s so bad about the trailer I’ve already got?”
In real life, this is where the players would cry out to their leaders in Washington for relief. They might as well appeal to the ghost of Milton Bradley. The most damaged foundation of American life—one that you grew up assuming was gospel—is the ability of America’s elected leaders to solve the biggest problems facing the country.
The federal government is paralyzed by partisanship and ideological polarization. Research by Laurel Harbridge, a political scientist at Northwestern University, shows that the number of legislative proposals drawing broad support from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress cratered during the past decade. Both parties have become less responsive to public-opinion swings that would in the past have spurred them to cooperate. Congress hasn’t passed a budget, arguably its most fundamental job, in three years.
If lawmakers can’t work together, it’s hard to see how the country will restore the grand promises of the original Game of LIFE. Of course, some of those (Atlantis, uranium mines, a world without doctor’s bills or marital strife) never existed outside your happy, sweater-clad dreams. But some were real, and can be again, and are worth fighting for: core American values such as how everyone should have the chance to get ahead through hard work and to dream of retiring comfortably.
History reminds us that America’s leaders can draw the nation together to solve problems. At a moment of gaping income inequality, when the country was turbulently transitioning from a farm economy to a factory one, President Theodore Roosevelt reminded Americans, “To us, as a people, it has been granted to lay the foundations of our national life.” In his 1905 inaugural address, he declared, “There is no good reason why we should fear the future, but there is every reason why we should face it seriously.”
American politics in 2012 does not encourage serious conversation. That is why we at NJ see the stories in this series as only a starting point for a conversation among our readers—and policymakers—about rebuilding America’s foundations. We will host and encourage that dialogue through live, in-person events; across social-media platforms; here in these pages; and on a dedicated blog on our website. We hope you’ll join the conversation. The country certainly could use your help.
At the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt chastised the business and political leaders who had led the country into ruin. But his 1933 inaugural address had a hopeful note. “These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.… Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone,” FDR said. “This nation asks for action, and action now.”
The nation asks for action again today. From its leaders, and from its people. Restoration calls.
This article appears in the March 3, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.