Comfort was their reward. Greg and Beth bought a house on the edge of town and a succession of new cars. Today, in the evenings, in the home where they raised their children, the couple can relax on a new living room couch, dine with a microbrew or a local red wine, and cover fresh peaches with ice cream for dessert. In his youth, John recalls summertime trips to a faraway beach—San Diego, South Padre Island, or someplace else—to splash with cousins in the surf.
The parents knew early that their path might not be available to their kids. On a winter afternoon in 1983, Beth and Greg sat at tables in a high school cafeteria and listened to a senator from Colorado test out a presidential-campaign message about the changing global economy. This generation, Gary Hart told the crowd, is the last one in which people will hold a single job for 30 years; your children will need education and training to prepare for the tumultuous job market to come. The message stuck. When the Sherry children reached school age, their parents began saving for college. We’ll pay for college, they told Allison and John—and we expect you to go.
A WEED-STREWN YARD
The Sherrys’ ranch-style house has a panoramic view of downtown Grand Junction and the mesa beyond. The backyard, a long rectangle of grass of a softness and greenness you sometimes forget exists on the parched Western Slope, drops steeply to reveal the skinny Colorado River snaking through town. This is the yard in which John Sherry romped as a child.
Today, the back door of John’s West Denver house—purchased by his father and rented to John at a discount—opens to a sun-baked lot with litter and weeds, a fading pink shed, a drooping clothesline, and a back fence that looks one summer storm away from collapse. Inside, the hallways are cluttered with bikes, televisions, and secondhand furniture. John lives with two roommates who help make the rent. His mother calls the neighborhood “a barrio.” This is the house John landed in, years after he dropped out of Metro State.
He and his parents tell near-identical stories about his childhood. He, in some ways, enjoyed learning and worked hard outside of school. He would recommend nonfiction tomes to his parents. As a grocery clerk, he’d get thank-you notes from customers for home-delivering the sacks of food they had left at checkout.
But when it came to school, John couldn’t bring himself to care. It was hard growing up in the shadow of his older sister, now 34, who at age 10 started to walk around holding a clipboard and collecting quotes from her parents for miniature news stories. Allison, the first in her father’s family to attend college, graduated from Colorado State University—her parents paid, as promised—and landed a job as a reporter for The Denver Post. John’s elementary school teachers asked Beth and Greg why their son couldn’t be more like Allison; whenever his parents conveyed this to John, he’d feel the sting and rebel. In high school, he skipped classes and spent a lot of time grounded. “I just didn’t have the motivation,” John explains. He graduated with a C- average.
He attended Metro State because he wanted to leave Grand Junction; his friends were going to college, and his parents expected him to go. “It wasn’t something I really wanted to do,” John says. “ ‘Obligation’ would be a better word for it.” He hoped to earn a degree and go into social work. But the dream faded when he struggled with math and science. When he quit school, he was too scared to tell his parents. Only months later, after a relative saw him in a UPS uniform for a holiday temp job, did they learn that he had dropped out.
Thanks to the wrenching changes in the American economy, John’s career choices were few and unpromising. The assembly-line and clerical jobs that had sustained high school graduates were pretty much gone. Frank Levy, an economics professor emeritus at MIT, has written extensively on the changing skills the American workforce requires. These lost “rules-based jobs,” as he calls them, are anything simple or routine enough for a computer or offshore worker to perform instead; they paid a lot more than the options that John had available after he left college. By Levy’s calculations, a 40-year-old man with a high school diploma earns 5 percent less today, in real terms, than he did in 1980, while a college graduate who’s 40 earns 25 percent more than before. The jobs available to high school graduates today also offer less prospect for rising pay. Levy’s research suggests that a male high school grad in 1980 could expect his income to grow by about 75 percent before peaking in his mid-40s, versus just 61 percent today.
John Sherry’s work life has proved a long and punishing lesson in these unpleasant truths. He has never earned more than $13 an hour. Now he makes $11 an hour—about $23,000 a year—teaching students in an expensive preschool in downtown Denver. He sometimes relies on a sort of payday loan from his bank to pay his rent. He rides his bike and plays kickball in a league for recreation—they’re both free—and brews his own beer at home. He wants to go back to school to study early-childhood education and become an elementary school teacher, with a salary at least double what he makes now. Meanwhile, he’s thinking of applying for a job at night, waiting tables, or slinging drafts at a bar he frequents once or twice a week.