Middle-class rut

This weekend, we contemplated buying a barbecue.

Nothing fancy—just a cheap Weber charcoal grill, perfect for firing up veggie burgers. The best way to enjoy the last bits of Sacramento’s mild summer as it slips into fall.

How very American, I thought, as we idly discussed sizes and colors.

How very middle class.

Or, then again, maybe not.

After all, this is hardly the middle class I grew up knowing.

And this isn’t exactly how I thought my life would turn out.

As a child, I watched my parents work to achieve their ideal life, a standard of perfection consisting of owning a home, having kids and working a high-paying job, all while dreaming of retirement.

“I’m just livin’ the life,” my dad said whenever someone asked about the 14-hour workdays that brought him home long after I’d gone to bed.

“It’s the American Dream,” my mother would add.

We weren’t rich, by any measure. In fact, we were about as middle-class as you could get. We lived in a two-story home in a Texas suburb, and both parents worked tirelessly.

Even as a kid, I suspected that this dream, this ideal of middle-class living, was not as rosy as my parents made it out to be. At night, after dinner, I’d watch the news with my parents, fixated by joyless reports on recessions and rising health-care costs and the high price of food and gas.

Adulthood and middle-class life, I thought, seemed dreary: a never-ending quest for more amid a never-ending squeeze of finances.

Still, that’s how I thought my life would turn out. I’d get married, have kids, own a home, work hard and always be rewarded.

But then life happened, whirling by in a parade of layoffs, bad mortgages, skyrocketing gas costs and unbelievable health-care premiums—and there it was, my parent’s version of the American Dream, shot through and shattered into tiny little pieces.

The dream was looked as if it was just another childhood myth, like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy.

Maybe it’s just a matter of perspective—a naive point of view sharpened by experience.

Maybe it’s just a shift in ideals and value—a groundswell revision of all that we once held vital for happiness.

Maybe it’s just a matter of location.

As the nation struggles to climb out of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, Sacramento remains at the epicenter of all that seems to have gone wrong with the middle class, with a high unemployment rate. Indeed, the city boasts the fifth worst job market in the nation, according to a recent Forbes magazine report.

Certainly, this is not the life my parents dreamed about. The upward trajectory they climbed has been replaced by an amusement-park roller-coaster ride, and the ideals have been re-evaluated.

And yet I’m not complaining, even though we rent and I cobble out an income, I enjoy the flexibility in hours that comes from working two part-time jobs. I save money for the future, but I don’t dream about retirement—I focus on finding happiness every day.

Sure, it’s sometimes a struggle to juggle responsibilities and bills, but increasingly, I’m in control of my day, in charge of my life’s direction.

As my husband and I browsed cheap grill options, I thought back to my parents—who eventually divorced—and realized that maybe this is the new standard: learning to get by with less, flexibility and new criterion for what it takes to live the life.

We’re not rich; we’re as middle-class as it gets. But I think we’re happier.