My first trip abroad exposed me to people and things that felt uncomfortably like home.
On the cruise ship, a woman serving as a restaurant hostess explained that she was a young mother of a preteen son, but she had an engineering degree. The cruise ship job away from her Asian nation home was the lifeboat in the bad economy, enabling her to stay afloat.
A young tour guide in Italy was in similar straits. She had several college degrees. But leading tours paid the bills. Scratching to get by is not just an American problem. These women, like a lot of young adults in our global economic horror, have had to settle for less just to get by.
On the streets of Mediterranean port cities in Spain, France and Italy were hustlers mingling among tourists, students, wealthy shoppers and other passersby. They were either begging for loose euros or trying to sell such items as umbrellas, purses, watches, jewelry and luggage.
This situation was not unlike men and women in our cities who stand at intersections and alongside highway ramps with signs begging for jobs or handouts. Just like home, many of the people in Europe were black, except these hustlers were African immigrants.
When police officers rounded a corner and strolled toward them, they scattered — just like home. In this economy, many people do the unthinkable to survive.
Back on the cruise ship, a baby boomer who had been in real estate sold her company in Pennsylvania and moved to Florida, where she became a renter. The market is not right to buy, she said. The house-flipping days of quick purchases for quick profit are over. The new/old normal mandates that people stay in their homes at least five years before thinking of selling, she said.
Over lunch in Rome, a company executive from the upper Midwest said the service station business he's in has seen a dramatic revenue drop. People are staying home because they're unemployed or they're traveling less as they ride out the rough economic seas.
But that doesn't help his businesses or the people he employs. Everyone is stressed, praying they'll hold out until better times arrive.
President Barack Obama, with help from the House and Senate, has tried to force an end to the hard times. When George W. Bush was president, Congress passed the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, to keep the sinking banking and financial industry afloat.
In 2009 Obama won congressional approval for the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is pumping more than $800 billion into the economy. Corporations like General Motors and Chrysler got government lifelines. So have construction workers, schoolteachers, police officers and firefighters, who have stayed employed because of federal help.
A man on a flight back to the States said the money was a godsend, creating jobs in his industry, which had gone into the doldrums. Despite what conservative pundits have shouted, the government money has kept the economy from falling apart.
But the bad news is a lot of the money has been committed. Projects are being completed. However, it's far from enough to jump-start the economy. Joblessness, poor sales and low consumer confidence stubbornly remain as global riptides threaten the important holiday shopping season and our economic recovery.
At the Atlanta airport on the last flight home, constant worry drained the color from a woman's face. She had lost a good job in an RIF, or reduction in force.
She was out of work for about six months before picking up another position. But the workload is crushing, with long hours and a lot of travel.
She worries whether she'll weather the strain and the competition from hungry, ladder-climbing co-workers. A 59-year-old woman then added that in three years she'll start to collect Social Security.
She said she knows that if she waits for full Social Security benefits at age 66, the government will likely move the age requirement into the 70s to save the system from the coming 78 million baby boom horde.
The new normal is global worry, and there is no secure or comfortable safe harbor for anyone from the economic storm, which is upon us.
© 2010 Kansas City Star