There is much hoopla at the moment about the decline of the American middle class. I know all about it, since I have been close, but not quite managed to grab one of those hallowed academic jobs which would make my life finally comfortable after years of deprivation. The numbers in the faculty are getting worse by the year; when I began graduate school in the late 90s, about 75 percent of all teaching was still done by full-time faculty, with benefits, but by the time I was a serious contender on the job market, in 2008, this had shifted to 75 percent part-timers. Now, only 20 percent of teaching at U.S. colleges and universities is done by full-time faculty. The profession has literally disintegrated out from under me. We were told by our professors: hey, the baby boomers are about to retire, so now’s a great time to be on the job market! As it turned out, the MBA-efficiency people had figured out that they could downsize everything, and pay everyone virtually nothing, for the same work. Great idea, right! Except that the U.S. professoriate has been gutted; there are many geniuses with Harvard PhDs now waiting years to get a tenure-track job, if ever.
The real issue here is the disentegration of the American middle class. It is now far harder to become a professor, something like 4-5x harder, than 20 years ago; so that the Chronicle of Higher Ed is running ads saying “Don’t to go graduate school.” And the example of the professoriate is typical of a number of other former ‘professions.’ Most of the writing, editing, architecture, creative design, journalism, etc., fields, in which there used to be an ok number of permanent jobs with benefits available, have been similarly gutted. Same with teaching high school or even elementary school. Often the only places hiring are inner-city schools where there is no teaching to be done, but one has to be more of a warden than a teacher, and one is literally in danger of one’s life! Hardly a middle-class lifestyle. How many business people go into work fearing that their colleagues may pull out a gun… teachers have to put up with way too much stress, especially urban teachers. And elementary schools on ‘lockdown’ all the time, because the stupid arse NRA has so much leverage, and has convinced half the populace that they will be safer when packing a pistol? What is that, the wild west? In England, almost no one has guns, and somehow, they don’t shoot each other. In the wild west, everyone had guns, and they all shot each other. The logic there is pretty plain.
So, the main point being, that many avenues into the middle class which were once mainstays of the populace, are now closed. Being a professor is not possible, being a teacher is not possible. Being an office person is about the only career path left. And yet downsizing has made this much much more stressful than ever before. Now, to keep a job, you have to literally work 70 hour weeks? And get ulcers and the like? Doing what? Often, incredibly meaningless, tedious work, for no reasonable purpose.
And labouring and manufacturing, also, were the first to go, in the 70s and 80s. I guess we should have seen it coming: if we allow the blue collar jobs to go, it’s that much easier for the white collar jobs to follow. Now, I dont’ really advocate socialism per se; Britain through the 70s became incredibly stagnant with everyone on the dole. It does make people lazy. But there has to be some incentive to go into the middle class, via a pathway which provides meaningful, healthy, sane work, which is not brutal, dehumanizing, etc. There are indeed very few of these paths left, and they are getting smaller.
A good simple way to measure the progress of the american middle class is to look at the physical shape of suburbia: the architecture. The architecture of my hometown illustrates this trend perfectly. In the 1890s, everyone lived in town houses. The poor in row houses, the middle class in slightly better row houses, and the rich in urban mansions, with a bit of grass around them. Then, in the 1920s, the rich got cars, and began to move out to the country, along the main arteries of communication with other towns. Then, after 1945, the baby boomers returned from the war and demanded, and, for the first time in history, got, little houses on little suburban lots with white picket fences and cute drapes. Average size about 1100 square feet. (110 sq meters). Then, in the 1960s, the upper middle classes began to multiply, and we got housing developments of suburban houses, which in the 1920s were only for the rich. And in the 1970s, everyone went crazy, and you could get 1,500 sf houses on 1/3 acre lots for 45k – enough so that almost anyone with a manufacturing job, or any sort of entry-level professional job, could afford. This continued through the 1980s, though then the manufacturing people began to lose their incomes. But things stayed ok, until the 1990s, when population pressures began to decrease lot sizes. They went from 1/3 acre, to 1/4 acre, to 1/5 acre, and down to about 1/6th of an acre. The houses were much bigger, say 2,200 sf., but the lots were the size of the 1950s suburban houses. And a lot of townhouses started to be built, to accomodate the growing underclasses, who weren’t keeping up with the american dream. Teachers started finding things more difficult; etc. But the internet boom came and saved everyone; everyone got into the housing market… and then it went bust, just after W was elected. It’s probably his fault- – really, his election was a huge blow to the liberal leaning tech industry, and it caused a selloff, which ended the dotcom boom. And so everyone then plied their money into real estate, and we got a housing boom. If you had a house before 2003, you were great, but if you didn’t, now it started to hurt. If you didn’t get in now, houses were balooning out of reach, and people’s salaries were about the same they had been in the 1980s, with houses about triple that.
So then comes the 2008 bust, and those with houses are often saddled with mortgages which are too much for them to afford, and or far more than their house is worth. And then the professions are being disintegrated by managers, who have decided that the only people worth paying are the CEOs, and they spread propaganda though Fox news to brainwash everyone into agreeing with them. Even doctors as assaulted by HMOs, though they seem to have survived for the time being.
And the sign that the middle class is in steep decline is not just that they are getting smaller suburban houses, or having to move into town houses, both of which are true, but that an increasing number of what 20 years ago would have been comfortably professional people are now being prevented from getting any full-time, decently paid job at all, and are thus forced to rent until they are in their late 30s or 40s. Houses are now only for the rich, and/or for the hyper-exploited who will put up with hyper-stress jobs in business.
Why did it happen? In part, yes, the US is no longer the capitalistic behemoth next to a shrunken communist China and USSR and impoverished India. It is no longer the commander of the majority of global resources. But things don’t have to be this bad. There can be a middle ground, even if one is not the biggest fish. The Dutch and the English and other Europeans were once the global leaders, and they have managed to keep pretty high standards of living, which could be mucy higher with slightly better policies.
So the time has come then, to suggest solutions. If I were king, what would I suggest?
1) Lower population. Economists scream holy terror, but this drastically increases living standards for everyone, especially in terms of housing and land ownership. That is a great start for building a middle class.
2) Simply make laws reinstating the norm through the mid-1990s, which was that ‘professions’ have to mean middle-class jobs with beneifts. Right now, there is no reason to go to college: why bother, when you will be just as badly off as people who don’t bother? The disintegration of the professoriate, and journalism, and other professions is not due to any inexorable march of technology, like the managerial pundits like to propagate. It is all due to policy. Managers wish to slash the jobs, breaking them into part-time pieces, to scatter at the poor. And the laws allow this to happen. The laws, friends, have to be changed, and the professions regulated. Will this cause a slowdown of the economy, if the part-time jobs are stitched back into full-time jobs again? That’s what the right would say. How about this:
For decades, the engine of the American miracle economy was the American middle class. THey had good jobs, with good benefits, and thus disposable income. NOw, no one has jobs anymore, b/c they have all been broken into pieces. Thus, no one can spend. So the american economy goes into the shitter, b/c no one can buy cool stuff at Target, let alone anywhere more exclusive. So the point is: yes, deregulation is good for business, but so is a middle class with disposable income. If no one spends, businesses will fail anyway. So there is a balancing act here, folks. Let’s try and put some of the pieces back together. Allow teachers and professors to have dignity, and decent working conditions, and, goodness, a bit more money. Notice that while the middle class has gotten poorer, CEO pay has skyrocketed? It has literally made up for all the savings from white collar jobs. So yes, the pay has just gone from the many, to the one. Not cool! And not economically viable, either, despite what the myopic economists’ models might say about it.
3) Create another set of regulations, which maximize economic production, while also maximizing the amount that the average income can buy. Many policies, such as planned obselescence, force people to buy a new dishwasher and TV every 3 years, when they don’t need to do this; food is way more expensive, in many instances, than supply and demand would dictates. This income could be used instead on vacations, cooler more interesting gadgets, etc., which are not necessities and thus improve everyone’s quality of life.
That’s it in a nutshell; the rest of the details on these policies have been spelled out elsewhere in this blog. If we keep our eye on the goal, we can definitely improve our collective lot (b/c we are in this economy together, after all), within our own lifetimes, quite dramatically. Good luck!