STATE OF AMERICA
The Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier – “The American dream is dead for the majority of America,” financial guru Suze Orman told Forbes last year. Orman believes the hope of someday owning a home, of working one job for life and retiring at 65 has been crushed by the financial crisis. The researchers at Pew Social & Demographic Trends couldn’t agree more as their new report calls the last 11 years “the lost decade” for the country’s middle class. “America’s middle class has endured its worst decade in modern history,” the Pew Research Center said in its report. “It has shrunk in size, fallen backward in income and wealth, and shed some of its characteristic faith in the future.” For the first time since at least World War II, middle-class families finished the first decade of the 21st century poorer and with lower incomes than they had 10 years earlier. Incomes have dropped since 2000, while wealth rose modestly early in the decade before gains were wiped out by the recession and the financial crisis. While more than half of the shrinkage in the middle class came from families that moved upscale, about two households in five that left the middle class moved below Pew’s cutoff. For the first time in at least 40 years, the total percentage of national income earned by the middle class fell behind the share earned by the upper cohort. “That the middle class always enjoys a rising standard of living is part of America’s sense of itself, and it has always been true – until now,” Paul Taylor, a Pew EVP said in an interview.
BRAVE NEW CONSUMER
Voicemail: A Thing Of The Past – With the rise of texting, instant chat and transcription apps, more people are ditching the venerable tool that once revolutionized the telephone business. The behavioral shift is occurring in tandem with the irreversible fading of voice calls in general. In data prepared for USA TODAY, Vonage, an Internet phone company, says the number of voicemail messages left on user accounts was down 8% in July from a year ago. Checking one’s voicemail seems to be considered an even bigger chore than leaving a voice message. Retrieved voicemail fell 14% among Vonage users in the same period. “They hate the whole voicemail introduction, prompts, having to listen to them in chronological order,” says Michael Tempora, senior vice president of product management at Vonage. As with most declining technology, the exodus is led by younger, more impatient users who are quicker to embrace alternatives. Someone such as Neveen Moghazy, 33, who unlike her voice-mail-loving father, rarely leaves messages but juggles texting, chat app WhatsApp and Google Voice. “If my friends call and I’m busy, I text them asking if it’s urgent, or I just call them back later without checking voice mail,” says Moghazy. The last voice mail Moghazy left consisted of she and her husband singing Happy Birthday to a friend last month. “He texted me back, saying he’d call back later.”
Left Alone By its Owner, Reddit Soars – Last Thursday, President Obama signed up for an “Ask Me Anything” (A.M.A. in geek speak) session at Reddit, a social site that is a staple of digital life for the young and connected, but less well known among grown-ups. Reddit, a social news website where users submit content, has just 20 employees but serves up more than three billion page views a month. With its basic graphics, endless links and discussions, Reddit can seem like peering into a bowl of spaghetti, but it has surpassed better-known aggregating sites like Digg to become a force on the Web. Condé Nast, the magazine company, bought Reddit back in 2006 for a reported $20 million. That kind of deal is usually a signal that a ritual sacrifice was about to begin in which a clueless old media company snaps up a hot Web property and proceeds to squeeze the life out of what it just bought. But that is not what happened. Very early on the company decided it would not be the blob that ate Reddit and for the most part, left well enough alone. Its two founders, Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian, stayed on after the sale for three years – a feat unto itself. “Condé gave it enough rope and left the people there to their own devices. I don’t know whether it was a brilliant strategy or accidental neglect, but the founders did not leave, the community stayed intact, and the site grew beyond anybody’s expectations,” said Anil Dash, a writer and entrepreneur in digital realms. No further validation of its success is needed then having the leader of the free world stops by to answer questions from its users.
The Ultimate Employee Perk: A Do-Good Sabbatical – A number of big companies, including Intel, Microsoft, and General Mills, offer paid sabbaticals for their employees to recharge. Software giant SAP offers them as well but with a unique twist: the paid sabbatical focuses on doing good and developing skills. The program allows specially selected employees to take time off from their regular work to collaborate with non-government organizations (NGOs) in emerging markets like India, Brazil, and South Africa. The program was created for “high potential employees” to develop leadership skills, connect with leaders in emerging markets, teach SAP about the needs of NGOs in these markets, generate strategic social investments for the company–and of course, support the development of the NGOs, which were selected with help from CDC. The pilot social sabbatical program, which recently ended, sent nine employees to Brazil, where they worked in teams with three NGOs–an association of garbage collectors, an organization that empowers people with disabilities, and an institution that supports artisans by exporting their products internationally. Next up: SAP is sending employees to India and South Africa in October. The company will eventually expand the program into two or three other locations, all strong emerging markets with growth potential for entrepreneurs. Judging by the program’s initial success, it will be around for awhile.
ON THE RADAR
Culture Observation: According to the latest Nielsen’s Mobile Insights study, two-thirds of Asian American mobile subscribers, 57% of Hispanics, and 54% of African Americans own smartphones. Within non-Hispanic whites, just 45% of mobile subscribers own a smartphone. Non-Hispanic whites are the only US mobile subscribers who are more likely to own an old-school “feature phone” rather than a smartphone. Nielsen Mobile Insights Study, Nielsen.com | May 7, 2012
Watch This: In the documentary Craigslist Joe, director Joseph Garner sets out on an experiment to see whether or not online communities could take care of people in real life. Can someone without a support net of family and friends find assistance from online strangers? In order to find out, Garner left all his money at home and traveled the country for 31 days with just a pre-paid cell phone, a wireless Internet card and the clothes on his back. Executive produced by Zach Galifianakis, Craigslist Joe takes a look at the idea of community and social isolation in an increasing online world. Watch the trailer here.
Try This App: If you’re worried about online privacy, you might be interested in McAfee’s newly launched Social Protection app. The product, now in free beta testing, is a browser extension available for Windows 7 machines running anything higher than Explorer 8 or Firefox 8. Unless you’re on a pre-approved list, all photos will appear fuzzy. Social Protection also blocks your Facebook photos from being downloaded, shared or captured as screenshots. Furthermore, facial recognition software scans Facebook and alerts you if you appear in photos that have been uploaded but have not been tagged.