There is one word that Craig Wilson, a college-educated, 30-year-old father of one and mortgage holder of a $130,000 house in Gaithersburg, hates: Yuppie.
"I despise that term. When somebody calls me that, I get mad," said Wilson, a manager for a civic association group. "To me, it means plastic people. People who aren't real. People who are trying to keep up with the Joneses . . . . We don't live like that. We couldn't afford this house or this life style if my wife didn't work."
Mark Grummer grew up with a comfortable middle-class life style in the small city of Appleton, Wis., and moved to Washington 10 years ago to be a lawyer. Today, the 35-year-old attorney with the Justice Department is near the top of the civil service pay scale with a $50,000-a-year salary -- and at the bottom of his bank account each month after paying his mortgage and other bills.
"Sometimes, I sit and think: I'm 35 years old, I've been working at a professional job for 10 years, and I don't have any savings," Grummer said. "Yeah, I've lived a comfortable life, but not extravagant by any means."
A year ago, Alexandria and Stephen West bought their first home, a four-bedroom house just over the Fairfax County line in Loudoun County. Despite salaries that total in excess of $100,000 a year, they had trouble raising the down payment for the house. Alexandria West, a 28-year-old insurance agent, points out that the couple bought the house at a "good" price, $117,000. In another breath, she laughs at her own words. "A starter home. Can you imagine buying a starter home at $117,000? There's no way my family spent a third of that on a house when I was growing up."
The generation of great expectations has fallen short. A recently released report from the congressional Joint Economic Committee has found that real incomes for most families dropped significantly during the last decade. In short, because of fundamental economic changes across the nation, young adults will have to earn far above their parents' incomes to reach a similar middle-class standard. And, in many instances, they are not able to do that.
The Washington area, with its high standard of living, has felt the changes less than have other regions of the country. But even that fatter financial cushion for people here has not buffered them from the constraints of a new economic time. Some feel resentment, some feel helpless and some just do not understand why it has happened to them.
The report found that oil price increases, high interest rates, wage stagnation and deep recessions carved significantly into family budgets during the 1970s and that there are "signs that the middle class is in trouble."
Nowhere are the signs more visible, the report said, than among the young. Workers passing from age 25 to 35 in the last 10 years saw their real incomes increase by 16 percent, while during the boom, postwar era of the 1950s and 1960s income growth for people in the same age bracket reached 110 percent.
The cost of mortgages has grown so that a 30-year-old spends 44 percent of his or her monthly gross pay for a home, compared with 21 percent 10 years ago. Often, both spouses must work to meet costs. Couples are delaying having children and are having smaller families when they do. What once were accepted as components of the American dream -- a house, family, two cars, a long retirement -- are becoming the basis for some tough choices, the report finds.
"Yes, there are all kinds of differences between you and your parents, and there is the question whether you want that life style," said Frank S. Levy, a University of Maryland professor and an author of the report. "But forget whether you want it or not. Could you really afford it?"
"There's no question that inflation has done a lot of harm to family incomes," said George Grier, an owner of Grier Partnership, an independent consulting firm that analyzes the economic markets surrounding Washington. "We've probably done better than most areas in the country, but we're still breaking the budget."
The median pretax family income cited in the report, written by Levy and Richard C. Michel, a director of the Urban Institute, was $26,433. It is a figure close to the median household income recorded in the District of Columbia in 1984 -- $25,692 -- but far lower than most of the surrounding jurisdictions. That year, according to Metropolitan Washington Council of Government figures, Fairfax County reported a median household income of $40,354. Montgomery's median household income was slightly lower at $39,441. Prince George's placed its median income at $32,059.
Grier, who is completing a report that will examine economic figures for the Washington metropolitan area, said he was not sure how metropolitan Washington workers would fare in comparison with the national figures. But, he added, the higher level of income here would not necessarily relieve the pressure of managing personal finances.
"What we once thought of as manageable budget items -- housing, energy costs, telephones -- have become major concerns," Grier said. "There's no question there is affluence in counties like Montgomery, but there are also people who are really struggling."
Five years ago, Cheri Liebenguth became a teacher. It was a job, she reasoned, that was a good, middle-class profession and would allow her the kind of life she had come to know growing up in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Today, she makes $17,000 as a special education teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt. She holds down a second job as a sales clerk, doesn't own a house or a stereo or a color television. She shares a house with two people to meet a monthly rent payment of $225, and her idea of eating out is ordering a pizza. Liebenguth's biggest splurge takes place every two months: The 26-year-old pays $80 for a haircut and permanent.
"The most difficult thing for me is I expected to live the way I grew up," said Liebenguth. "We had nice clothes, we went on vacations; we didn't live extravagantly but we had it nice . . . . I thought everything would work out once I was on my own. I just thought it would all come to me."
Such plans based on chance were something Craig Wilson and his wife Melanie St. Martin Wilson would never have accepted. They began saving for their first house seven years ago, as soon as they got married after graduating from the University of Maryland. First, they bought a town house in Germantown and lived there six years. Last year, with baby Whitney in tow, they made the move to Gaithersburg and into a two-story Colonial.
"We try to monitor our expenses. There are some months we just make ends meet . . . but we're not scraping," Wilson said. A self-described product of the "middle middle class," Craig Wilson grew up in Damascus, one of four children. His wife, now a finance specialist, grew up in Rockville, one of five. Whether the Wilson family of today will be as large is a question that prompts a quick response.
"No way," said Craig Wilson. "It's partially economic and partially life style needs. We don't think we can handle five kids. But we also have to realize the economics of having five kids. We'll probably have two."
The report points to the number of women entering the work force as a significant factor in increasing the proportion of the population at work and cushioning the effects of weaker buying power. In 1970, 40 percent of the population worked. Ten years later, 50 percent worked. Of married couples 25 to 34 years old, 47 percent of the wives worked in 1973. Today, two-thirds of all young wives work, the report shows.
Where did the extra earning power of those women go? Into maintaining the families' place in the economic structure, the report found. In the last 10 years, families paid 54 percent more for utilities and 65 percent more for gas and motor oil. Money spent on furniture, clothes, personal care and charitable agencies dropped. Cost of housing increased, on an average, by $231 a year. By 1981, young families were spending 6 percent more of their disposable income on necessities than they had in 1973, according to the report.
During the last 10 years, consumer savings dropped, debts accrued. Interest rates on consumer loans skyrocketed. Suddenly, a down payment on a house seemed unattainable, the report said, or manageable only with both spouses working or with financial help from mom and dad.
"I don't know anyone our age who can afford to have just one person working," said Alexandria West, who works 12-hour days for an insurance company near Tysons Corner. Her husband, an attorney with a private firm, works the same hours. They admit that their salaries have, in fact, allowed them what some would call the traits of Yuppiedom: a house, car, stereo, color television and VCR.
But the Wests have found the wages do not provide them as good a life style as enjoyed by their parents, who worked fewer hours and brought in fewer dollars. As an example, Stephen West can remember his father taking out a group of friends for dinner, a friendly gesture that he now sees as an extravagance and one he cannot match. At times, the couple, who grew up in Bucks County, Pa., struggled to pay Stephen's way through law school and scraped to put money together for a down payment on their house, wonder about the trade-off of work and money.
"Alex's father's first home cost $2,300. Ours is $117,000. You really find it unfair," said Stephen West. "There are factors controlling those costs that we had no control over. President Johnson's attempt to create a Great Society and the cost of the Vietnam War changed the economy. We're not the ones responsible for it, but we are paying."
"My father said he made a choice," Alexandria West added. "He could have worked longer hours and gotten a higher position, but he chose to spend less time at work and more time with his family. He had the chance to make a choice.
"Today, we really don't have that choice."