by Kyle Woodley | November 20, 2013 6:00 am
America just isn’t what it used to be.
For better or worse, the United States continues to evolve. Sometimes, that means a host of new innovations enriching our lives. But sometimes, that also means some things once considered “the norm” are falling by the wayside.
A timely for-instance: a full day’s rest on Thanksgiving. Once considered a fairly untouchable day for most Americans (outside of critical services and the NFL), deal-hungry Americans have turned retailers gutsy enough to bleed Black Friday specials well into Thanksgiving Day itself.
So what else is fading into black? Here’s a look at 10 things disappearing across America:
Pensions used to be the gold standard of American government and corporate retirement plans.
American pensions have been circling the drain for decades as Wall Street companies have tried to shed their high costs for much more bottom-line-friendly 401ks, which put the onus on the worker. Between 1985 and 2012, the U.S. has lost roughly 85,000 pension plans, write Donald Bartlett and James Steele in their book, The Betrayal of the American Dream.
The number of Fortune 100 companies that offer only a 401k or similar plan and no traditional or hybrid pension plan has been rocketing, too. In 1998, only 10 members offered just a 401k. That figure reached 27 by 2004, 53 by 2008, 63 by 2010 and 70 as of last year.
Trans fats are an unsaturated fat that’s typically created artificially and used in manufactured foods. For years, studies have linked them to a growing number of conditions, including obesity and even heart disease, and as a result, many companies have been abandoning their use of trans fats
But now, it appears they’re on the fast track out — in the U.S., at least.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a preliminary decision that partially hydrogenated oils — of which trans fats are a byproduct — are not “generally recognized as safe,” which could lead to an effective ban of artificial trans fats’ use in American foods.
Such a ruling would affect products from brand names such as Mondelez’s (MDLZ) Chips Ahoy!, General Mills’ (GIS) Bisquick, Diamond Foods’ (DMND) Pop Secret and even Girl Scout cookies.
While workers at McDonald’s (MCD) and Walmart (WMT) have made headlines protesting minimum wages, the issue of low pay is much more widespread.
America’s median wage has dropped to levels not seen since 1998, according to data from the Social Security Administration released in October and reported by Al Jazeera America.
Half of U.S. workers made less than $27,519 in 2012, about four bucks less than they earned in 2011 — but nearly a grand off median wages’ all-time peak in 2007. Meanwhile, total real wages per American were 6% off their 2007 levels.
Of course, the other half of the coin is doing much better, especially as you reach the upper crust. In 2012, there were 27% more Americans making $5 million-plus than in 2011, and total wages for this group grew by 40%.
While paid holidays and vacations in the U.S. are far from completely vanishing, they’re on the decline, and America’s allotment looks paltry compared to the rest of the developed world.
Bureau of Labor Statistics data says 77% of Americans receive paid vacation days — that’s actually down from two decades ago, when that number stood at 80%. That number is especially weighed down by full-time workers at small businesses (100 workers or fewer), where 69% receive paid vacation, and the nation’s private part-time workers, only 35% of which receive any sort of paid vacation.
The Center for Economic Policy and Research points out that “The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation.” While American workers on average do receive 10 paid vacation days and 6 paid holidays, none of that is legally mandated. That compares poorly to most developed European nations and Australia, where a total of at least 20 days of paid holidays and vacation are required.
Moreover, the U.S. is the only country among 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave, putting us behind countries such as Malta, New Zealand and Greece.
America’s Common Core standards include the good ol’ reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, but the writing part is more limited than it once was. Regular block handwriting is still included in the curriculum, but cursive has been dropped.
And considering 45 states having adopted these standards, it looks like cursive is quickly being shown the door.
The Common Core is reacting to the times, focusing more on digital communications — typing — as more students focus on Word reports and Excel documents and less on handwritten essays. Still, some teachers are fighting back, with several states working to preserve the teaching of cursive.
According to UPI, “Many (worry that) future generations would no longer be able to read the nation’s founding documents, all written in flowing, curly scripts.” However, opponents point to the nation’s decreased use of cursive.
Despite the rise of seemingly everything healthcare-related, one thing has been dwindling: emergency rooms. The American Hospital Association says the country has 650 fewer emergency rooms than it did 20 years ago.
That’s no reflection of demand — emergency room visits in the U.S. actually have shot up 35% from 1999 to 2009 — but instead is the byproduct of numerous hospitals shuttering their doors. More heavily affected have been hospitals and ERs serving the poor — the New York Times reports that “so-called safety-net hospitals that serve disproportionate numbers of Medicaid patients and hospitals serving a large share of the poor were 40 percent more likely to close,” according to one study.
The problem is particularly worrisome with implementation of the Affordable Care Act right around the corner. Various studies and hospital CEOs say that private practitioners likely won’t be able to shoulder the flood of formerly uninsured patients, which in turn will lead to many showing up to ERs attempting to seek regular care.
It’s hard to think of anything more stereotypically American than the prairies of the Midwest, but these flatlands are shrinking as the nation continues to tap the potential for green energy.
Specifically, U.S. prairies across the Great Plains are being converted into farmland to grow corn — not for food, but for fuel. The EPA will mandate that 15 billion to 15.52 billion gallons of renewable fuel be added to U.S. gasoline in 2014, most of which will be ethanol. And that level is actually a 3 billion-gallon decrease from 2013 targets.
Of course, this green initiative isn’t without its problems. According to an Associated Press investigation, “Plowing into untouched grassland releases carbon dioxide that has been locked in the soil. It also increases erosion and requires farmers to use fertilizers and other industrial chemicals. In turn, that destroys native plants and wipes out wildlife habitats.”
Do you grouse about the five minutes you have to wait in line at the bank to make a teller transaction? Well, technology is increasingly making it so that you don’t have to wait — but that’s taking its toll on traditional branches and the workers who staff them.
According to financial researcher SNL Financial, U.S. bank branches dropped by 390 during the third quarter of this year — about the same number eliminated in the second quarter. Only two states — Iowa and Nebraska — added branches.
Meanwhile, banks including Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo (WFC) and PNC Financial (PNC) are experimenting with smaller “express” branches utilizing video technology and smaller in-house staffs to maintain a physical presence.
The trend comes as more Americans are turning to mobile forms of banking, using smartphone cameras to deposit checks and relying on various online services to manage their money. According to Accenture, roughly 32% of American banking customers “use mobile banking at least once a month.”
Yes, bees. We’ve been inundated with stories about the survival issues plaguing the busy little buggers for some time, and this past year was no different. During the 2012/13 winter, beekeepers reported losses of more than 30% across the nation’s colonies, according to an Apiary Inspectors of America study.
A phenomenon called “Colony Collapse Disorder” — in which entire colonies died off at once — had for years been primarily blamed for the majority of bee deaths, but this year, numbers were instead reported as just “dwindling.” And a new study by the University of Maryland and the USDA points to a “witch’s brew of pesticides and fungicides contaminating pollen that bees collect to feed their hives.”
While entomophobes and many people with allergies might cheer this news on, it has major agricultural implications, as illustrated by the near-crisis reached by California almond growers. According to a Yale study, “one of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators … for a successful harvest,” and that heavily includes bees.
You’d never guess it if you’re stuck in the daily rush-hour purgatory of New York City, Los Angeles or Washington, D.C., but driving in America is on the decline.
Michael Sivak, of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, notes that vehicle registrations and miles driven are both declining on a per capita basis, as is fuel consumed. In fact, those numbers all peaked between 2001 and 2006.
One study by Volpe Transportation Center researchers Don Pickrell and David Pace (via NBC News) showed that miles driven peaked in July 2004, at 900 miles per month. Eight years later, that number had declined to 820 miles. Meanwhile, another study this year by Doug Short using population-adjusted Department of Transportation data paints a similar picture.
Sure, U.S. car and truck sales climbed back to 14.5 million last year after plummeting to just 10.4 million in 2009 amid the worst of the recession. However, despite those recovering sales, the average age of vehicles on the road has reached a record 11.4 years, up from 11.2 years last year.
Kyle Woodley is Deputy Managing Editor at InvestorPlace. As of this writing, he did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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