July marked 121 months of economic expansion — the longest ever recorded in U.S. history, and an impressive milestone that we should be proud of 11 years after the Great Recession. But if there’s one thing Main Street, Wall Street and Robert Frost can always agree on, it’s that when it comes to the economy, nothing gold can stay (forever).
In the past six months alone, we’ve seen several economic fault lines begin to creep into our lives and into our consciousness. The housing market has lost some of its vaunted momentum, corporate earnings have weakened, and a global trade war has started to take hold — not to mention much ado among pundits about an inverted yield curve. This has all contributed to the prevailing notion among the middle class and the Fed alike that blue skies may be giving way to clouds on the horizon.
That’s why it’s no surprise that new research shows that the middle class — already painfully stretched — has gotten increasingly doubtful about their financial prospects. A recent study by CUNA Mutual Group revealed that this group would give themselves a “C grade” to their prospects to achieve the “American Dream” — a decline from a “B-minus” grade reported in fall 2018 — with half expressing worry that the United States will enter a recession in the next year.
What’s more, the survey also showed that these concerns were only heightened among families with children; these households were more worried about a recession at a rate of 54 percent, versus 47 percent of families without children.
So, why exactly does it matter what people think about their plight and that of the wider economy?
It matters because presumably, with concern comes action in the form of preparedness. But unfortunately, the same survey found that despite clear and rising economic anxiety, too many feel underprepared for the downturn they believe is imminent.
Two-thirds of respondents were only “somewhat confident” about their personal economic position, meaning that they could comfortably pay their bills, but want to save more in the long run. Looking a little deeper at the findings, while 68 percent of men were somewhat or very confident — only 54 percent of women expressed the same sentiment. Such a significant gap is alarming.
The best way for the middle class to tackle this problem is to take financial planning seriously to boost their financial position ahead of any downturn that could come our way.
Although we’ve seen signs that the middle class is increasingly recognizing the importance of deliberate financial planning, only 53 percent of respondents said that they would decrease discretionary spending during a recession. Furthermore, just over half reported willingness to make lifestyle changes to respond to the economy’s squeeze.
It’s imperative that we remember one of the biggest lessons learned from 2008 — that waiting to take action until an economic downturn starts is a flawed strategy that can greatly decrease one’s ability to achieve long term financial goals, like college planning and retirement. It seems that members of the middle class are aware of this, but haven’t quite taken the next step.
The real key for the middle class to protect themselves from a looming recession is to establish and deploy their financial stability plans ahead of time. And if the middle class feels more secure now, they will feel more optimistic about their future — and the future of the American Dream.