The passing of the middle class?

Few modern institutions have been the object of more satire more often than the middle class family. Dad, Mom, 2.4 kids, a dog or two.

Every TV sitcom takes a swipe at what was the typical suburban norm fifty years ago, a way of life that may be going the way of the dodo.

I’m not talking so much about blended families, one parent families, offshore families, and the like. I’m talking about the small town, mid-sized city norm for millions of families, way back then.

Now, with outsourced jobs and foreclosed bungalows and union busting and slashed social programs, there’s an increasing sense that not just the typical middle class family but also the middle class ideal, the goal of the comfortable life, is fast becoming a myth, a vanishing or largely unobtainable status. It seems that everyone from corporations to governments at all levels is conspiring to undo the American (and Canadian) Dream.

While the stereotypical middle class family still holds sway in significant parts of the social landscape, everyone knows that things aren’t the same. This family has three or four working members, if it’s lucky. If it’s not, Dad has been downsized and takes odd jobs, Mom works for a chain store part-time, the oldest child has moved back home to work in fast food (again) in his mid-twenties after college. No one has health insurance or job security. The mortgage is more than the house is worth. The family’s combined credit card balance is more than its combined annual incomes. The dog, oblivious, is the only family member wagging its tail.

This is just a temporary situation, right? A bump in the collective economic road. It’ll all be back to normal in a year or two. Have patience. Right?

I fear that “right” is the wrong answer. I fear that the middle class, as we’ve known it, has done a Joe DiMaggio, has left and gone away. And if it has gone, or at least is in the process of leaving, maybe it was the modern middle class family that was the aberration in the first place.

The generation that grew up in the Great Depression, survived the war, and raised the children of the Baby Boom has largely passed on. And like me, the oldest Boomers (I’m a charter member, the first-born child of a WWII vet) are turning 65 this year. That’s three generations, more or less, long enough for any social trend to rise, flourish, and fade.

After 1945, the second phase of the War of the 20th Century had spurred such a spasm of industrial production that for perhaps the first time in human history there was enough wealth that, in North America certainly, the majority were able to grab a larger handful of the good life that formerly had been the preserve of only the few. The war left the United States (and Canada, on a similar but smaller scale) with the world’s only undamaged industrial economy. The G.I. Bill and similar programs encouraged and enabled an unprecedented upward mobility. Jobs were plentiful, and wages rose. The children of the jobless 1930’s became the prosperous suburbanites of the 1950’s. Seldom before had so many had such opportunity to rise so far so fast.

It couldn’t last, and it hasn’t. There are many factors, but the two which strike me as far and away the most important are globalization and the concurrent creation of a capital-based economy.

With globalization, the ratio of workers to jobs has been skewed so severely that poverty-level workers in North America are being laid off in favour of workforces willing (for whatever reasons, most of them involuntary) to toil for even less. No level of nationalistic protectionism can withstand a literally inexhaustible supply of cheaper labour. The industrial nation-state is a fast-fading anachronism. Ninety percent of the million plus who work for Wal-Mart, for example, earn less than a living wage. Union membership in the United States, once approaching 40%, is now 7%, with most of those in public sector unions like those targeted in Wisconsin.

Making things far worse, the economy now operates substantially on capital speculation, most insidiously in the form of commodities futures markets. International oil supplies have not been substantially affected, not yet anyway, by the current Mideast political turmoil — but the fear that they will be affected has driven up the price of oil futures, with the result that we are paying more today to protect the projected future profits of capital speculators and corporations. The economy is no longer driven primarily by production but by capital gains, reducing the worker from a prime creator of wealth to just another of the fully exploitable components of the profit-making paper economy.

In the England of the Industrial Revolution, the aristocrats owned the land. The middle class was small and, by our standards, very wealthy. Its members ran the new factories. Everyone else was working class. The big gap wasn’t between the middle class and the rich, but between the middle class and the rest of us. That skewed economic demographic is returning with a vengeance, as corporations and their highest levels of leadership fill the aristocratic role. Something like 2% of us own something like 50% of the wealth. We’re not far from the ratio of a modern banana republic. The true middle class is not Joseph and Joan Smith, with their suburban house and good job at the local plant. The true middle class — comfortably fixed, no fear for the financial future — starts a lot higher up the pay scale than that. The rest of us are vulnerable, and we know it.

In the simplest terms, the last sixty years have been a lucky blip, an “Indian summer” of worker prosperity unmatched since the 14th C. plagues created the first urban economy and invented the first middle class. When or if a comparable respite from the domination of the working majority by the owning minority will return is a matter purely of speculation. I’m not very optimistic.

It seems to me that we are well past the stage where adjustments to the current system — should Wisconsin teachers continue to get health benefits when they retire? — can be no more than footnotes, with grave and present consequences for individuals, but with little effect on the macroeconomic realities.

Farewell to the postwar middle class. It’s all we’ve ever known, but it was too good to be true. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Welcome back to the way things have always been.

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2 thoughts on “The passing of the middle class?

  1. Joseph Stiglitz’s Vanity Fair article reproduced in Arts and Letter Daily gives a figure of 1% holding 40% of the wealth. His main concern about the outcome: “the erosion of our sense of identity, in which fair play, equality of opportunity, and a sense of community are so important.”

  2. These expectations are typically Western/middle class. Asma’s explanation of the appeal of animism for people who do not feel in control of the forces that shape their lives is related, it seems to me.

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