Inside the Heart of Occupy Wall Street

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The Occupy Wall Street movement started on September 17th in Zuccotti Park, New York, then spread to parks and squares around the world. What thoughts and feelings drive thousands of people into the streets to protest for weeks at a time?

Demands or Complaints?

Political pundits aren’t sure what to make of the Occupy movement. Chief among the criticisms of this world-wide protest movement is the seeming lack of any specific demands or proposals. Some of the protesters themselves have remarked that the lack of specificity marks a new kind of protest movement. Indeed the emotional tone seems to be one of frustration rather than urgency for change. The occupiers are more concerned about pointing to problems than developing solutions.

Even isolating the grievances takes some doing. Separate but aligned with the Occupy movement, large numbers of people have been telling their stories of economic discouragement and dislocation since 2008. These stories are told on hand-written cue-cards as part of a candid self-portrait posted to the Internet, each of them signed “I am the 99%”, identifying the author as part of the 99% of people who were harmed by the economic crisis as opposed to the wealthiest one percent who got even richer through the meltdown.

Cheaters Prospering

“Wealth Inequality” is a phrase that gets kicked around a lot in relation to Occupy Wall Street and the 99%, but I think it misses the mark. Most aren’t complaining about unequal wealth so much as how different the rules are for the very wealthy as opposed to everyone else.

Some wealth inequality can be legitimately justified as pay for performance: create more and get paid more. All of us are richer by allowing stellar rewards for those that create outstanding value. But somewhere along the way, value and rewards got decoupled for the top one percent. Past a certain point in the corporate hierarchy, compensation is bountiful for both the best and worst performers. Being fired is traumatic for the 99%, but for the top earners it means a golden parachute — a reward for failure.

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Worse still, many executives are compensated based on their company’s stock price. Stock price as a proxy for actual value is approximate at best and many high-flying executives were tempted to cook the books to collect real money for the mere illusion of value. At the top, it literally pays to cheat.

In hundreds of ways small and large, wealth allows the wealthy to tilt the rules in their favor. From special tax breaks given to major political contributors, to different tax rates for investment versus wages, to bailouts for failing banks, it seems that there’s more and more opportunity for wealthy individuals to protect and grow what they have while wages for workers stagnate and basic expenses such as education and health care explode. As I’ve written separately (see “The War on Unfair”), perceived unfairness is corrosive to motivation. If I had to point to one reason why people would occupy parks rather than get on with their job searches, I’d say it would be the outrage at the perceived unfairness of our current economic system.

Social Insecurity

One economic change that started long before 2008 was the shifting of risk away from governments and companies and on to individuals. At least in the United States, medical care is increasingly expensive and increasingly difficult for even middle-class workers to insure against. Employers and health care companies have found many subtle ways to shift risk, including raising premiums and co-pays, refusing to pay for a growing category of medical problems classified as “preexisting conditions” and delaying availability of medical coverage for employees until long after their hire date.

Employment too, has become risky. Another way companies control cost is to hire (and then rapidly dismiss) an increasing population of temporary workers. It does not hurt a company’s bottom line that these temporary workers don’t qualify for medical or other benefits.

The word “pension” has become about as antiquated as “cassette tape.” Both were common just a few years ago but are now rare and increasingly irrelevant. “Retirement” and “employee loyalty” seem to be on their way out as well. With stock market prices rocketing up and down, the fortunes of retirees and those approaching retirement age can waver between poverty and plenty in just a matter of days. With interest rates and lower-risk investments nearing zero returns, individual investors search in vain for a way to protect and grow what little wealth they can muster.

The Heart of a Movement

If the the economic analyses and intellectual arguments of Occupy Wall Street or the 99% seem unclear, then consider their emotional tone. The protesters are alternately enraged and hopeless at an economic system that funnels more and more reward to fewer and fewer players. Meanwhile, they are beset by fear of risks once carried by governments and companies, now shifted to individuals’ shoulders. These protesters want to live in a world where they work productively and enjoy a quality of life in return for their labor. They want to live in a world where they can manage the risks of health problems and retirement in old age. These needs are as old as our species. What’s new is our anxiety that soon, more and more of us might lose our ability to meet them.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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