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OPTIMISM ISN’T BOOMING ANYMORE

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In conspicuous short supply recently is evidence of old-fashioned optimism and risk-taking, the kind that can be traced back through American history.

It showed up repeatedly, in waves of immigration, the settling of the West, the entrepreneurial spirit, the literature, the first mass-consumption society, the belief that each generation would be better off than the one before.The future meant hope and opportunity, and it was that soul-deep belief, said the late Prof. George Katona, a founder of the now popular behavioral economics, that distinguished Americans from their counterparts abroad.

Life wasn't ideal, of course. Disappointments, disasters, worries, discriminations and injustices were common, but never quite squelched was the feeling you just might make it, or at least that your kids might.

You can find it still, and plenty of it, but you may have to look a bit, and while doing so you might stumble over a good deal of fear, doubt and even cynicism, and less willingness to sacrifice for a future possibility.

You'll find millions of middle-class people praying they don't lose their jobs in the next wave of cutbacks by the likes of IBM, AT&T, GM, Sears and GTE which, combined, have terminated more than 300,000 workers since 1991.

Maintaining rather than improving living standards is the goal of many. The desire for security often displaces the desire for upward mobility. Belief in the notion that each generation will be better off is not as automatic.

Baby boomers - 77 million between ages 29 and 47 - are especially worried, says a survey commissioned by the Municipal Bond Investors Assurance Corporation, a leading insurer of municipal bonds.

No less than 63 percent of those in the survey (1,000 Americans in all) said regardless how much they saved it won't be sufficient for retirement. Seventy percent of the boomers said taxes prevented them from meeting goals.

Sindlinger & Co., in its 40th year of asking heads of households about finances, hears them complain about an inability to save. The complaints have lessened recently, but they still remain high by past standards.

What's behind changed attitudes? Take your pick, or maybe choose all: Job insecurity, stagnant incomes, big debts, overly high expectations, a degree of affluence, taxes, mandates, health-care costs, government programs.

The reason for job insecurity is obvious. Many of those terminated thought they were secure. Many were forced into jobs requiring inferior skills and offering lower pay. Many feel too old to learn new trades.

The employed aren't immune from stress. Company downsizings are a constant threat. Those with secure jobs might find incomes failing to keep pace with inflation. In the period 1970-1990, average compensation and real wages stagnated. Raises in big union contracts last year were the weakest since 1986.

Household debts might be more onerous than recognized. While such debt last year was officially listed at 16.2 percent of after-tax income, only slightly higher than in the 1960s and 1970s, that level might be misleading.

Lawrence Lindsey of the Federal Reserve found that if you exclude the rich and the elderly from the calculations, the true level of middle-class debt was actually 22.9 percent, a level generally considered unsustainable.

High expectations play a role. Many expect a living standard comparable to that depicted in media. Once considered a goal, the good life now may be viewed as a right - to be supplied by government rather than obtained through risk.

Oddly, affluence itself might be a cause.

As the influence of "haves" increases, so does the desire to preserve assets. Having risked to acquire, one now seeks to protect from threats, as from the taxman, regulators or the vagaries of the marketplace.

Has success undermined the pursuit of success?