A Generation Later, Them is Now Us

What a difference a generation makes. I started working in the news business 32 years ago, which is slightly more than a generation in America. Babies who were born in 1979 are having babies today. Our population is continually replenishing itself.

People often choose to live in college towns because that replenishment happens more quickly. It may not keep us young, but it keeps us from getting old.

Eugene remakes itself every four years. If you don’t believe me, ask a new university student about Joey Harrington. Ancient history.

Of the 21,452 students starting their college careers here this month, only a handful will stay longer than four years. Most who were here in September, 2007 have moved on by now.

My first Friday column on this page appeared four years ago today. After writing about 200 of these essays, I find the list of unaddressed topics just gets longer. I understand better today why fabled R-G columnist Don Bishoff’s desk used to prompt avalanche warnings from his colleagues.

The unfinished work is daunting, so I’m choosing instead to look back to 1979. The Information Age was just getting going, or about to exhaust itself, depending on whom you asked. I’m in the exhausted camp, but I’ll wait eight more Fridays (if you’ll have me) to describe how the Information Age ended on October 28, 1979.

Looking back on early 1979, today I’m fascinated with how the financial fault lines have shifted. I recently tracked down a colleague from that year, Terry Savage. She’s now a financial guru, best-selling author, television personality, and a single-person corporation.

Savage and I were hired within months of each other at WMAQ, Chicago’s NBC affiliate. Terry was the television station’s financial reporter. I worked part-time at the traffic desk, an assignment with a deceptively literal meaning. Everything that came from the public to the newsroom came first to me.

The position could have been described as “receptionist,” except television arrived in people’s homes via antennae, so the meaning “reception” was already taken. A receptionist for a television station might have to climb on people’s roofs. I pushed papers and listened to viewers’ complaints.

Remember “self-addressed, stamped envelopes”? That’s what I did in my spare time at the station — stuffing them, licking them, and sending them back.

Savage did a segment on a relatively new financial instrument called “indexed mutual funds,” designed to track the broad contours of the stock market trends. Regular people clamored at their first opportunity to buy a diversified stock portfolio that didn’t require great the wealth or expertise. For Savage, it was her first flood of reader response.

“My news editor told me I’d have to stuff envelopes on my own time. I even had to pay for the photocopies,” Savage remembered the incident vividly. “And copies weren’t cheap back then!” She asked me if I would stay after my shift to help her. There was probably pizza involved. I learned then and there the importance of enterprise reporting — not simply answering questions people have, but telling them about things they never thought to question in the first place.

Indexed mutual funds are no longer exotic. You probably hold some, even if you don’t know it. Retirement accounts often include some mutual funds. Municipalities buy them as a hedge against inflation.

A generation ago, only the wealthy owned businesses and traded stocks. All the classes below them owned no interest in those companies except through the products and services they purchased as consumers. Union membership hit its peak in 1979, representing a quarter of the work force.

“Us and Them” was clearly defined in 1979. Then Savage and I (and many others) stuffed and licked and returned. People bought stocks. Now there is no more Them. Them has become Us. If businesses don’t thrive and grow, people like you and me will lose our retirements.

Now we’re all owners in the business interests of America. As Mitt Romney quipped, “corporations are people, my friend.” The Supreme Court has agreed. Unions have receded dramatically. Every newspaper has a business section, but any section labeled “Labor” or “People,” celebrates new births or town gossip.

What a difference a generation makes.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column for The Register-Guard each Friday and blogs at www.dksez.com. Terry Savage’s website is www.terrysavage.com.