Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Evolving Culture of the Middle Class

The growing income and wealth inequality in the US has been a constant subject for discussion of late. Don Peck provides some additional insight into the issue with an article in the Atlantic titled: Can the Middle Class be Saved? The picture Peck provides is one in which not only are income and wealth diverging for the elite and other classes of society, but cultural attributes are diverging as well. The driving factors seem to be the rapidly escalating rate of technology change, and the failure of our culture, and our education system to respond to these changes.

The effect of the Great Recession has been to accelerate trends that have been underway for some time. It is easy to embrace the assumption that the economy only produces a few high paying positions and many low paid jobs, but Peck would say that that is a simplification that misses a major point.

“Indeed, from 2007 through 2009, total employment in professional, managerial, and highly skilled technical positions was essentially unchanged. Jobs in low-skill service occupations such as food preparation, personal care, and house cleaning were also fairly stable. Overwhelmingly, the recession has destroyed the jobs in between. Almost one of every 12 white-collar jobs in sales, administrative support, and nonmanagerial office work vanished in the first two years of the recession; one of every six blue-collar jobs in production, craft, repair, and machine operation did the same.”

Peck refers to this process as the “winnowing of middle-skill, middle-class jobs.” Other ongoing processes that must be considered include rising compensation at the top, lower wages for the less educated, and poor labor market performance by males.

The extent of the job losses is somewhat astonishing, and, perhaps, is indicative of the level of response required.

“The financial crisis of 2008 was global, but job losses hit America especially hard. According to the International Monetary Fund, one of every four jobs lost worldwide was lost in the United States.”

Peck says we need to rethink the role of education in the economy. It is often asserted that if only everyone had a college education we would have many fewer unemployed. Peck would not concur. He points out that the four-year college degree (B.S., B.A.) has been overcome by events. In years past a college degree was an indication of achievement. It told a prospective employer that this person has demonstrated the intellectual capability to deal with the factors associated with his efforts. As college education became more broadly available, the value of the degree diminished. While the few top schools might still issue a diploma that retains its value, most employers are looking for something in addition. The people who have maintained their salaries and positions are those with post-graduate college experience, particularly those with advanced or professional degrees. How has this worked out?

“America’s classes are separating and changing. A tiny elite continues to float up and away from everyone else. Below it, suspended, sits what might be thought of as the professional middle class—unexceptional college graduates for whom the arrow of fortune points mostly sideways, and an upper tier of college graduates and postgraduates for whom it points progressively upward, but not spectacularly so. The professional middle class has grown anxious since the crash, and not without reason.”

Of greatest concern to Peck are the lower 70% of the population which appears to be in an economic and cultural freefall. Much of the decline in prospects appears to come from the inability, or unwillingness, of young men to adjust to the changing environment. They seem to be trapped in stereotypical roles that they either embrace or have imposed upon them.

“One of the great puzzles of the past 30 years has been the way that men, as a group, have responded to the declining market for blue-collar jobs. Opportunities have expanded for college graduates over that span, and for nongraduates, jobs have proliferated within the service sector (at wages ranging from rock-bottom to middling). Yet in the main, men have pursued neither higher education nor service jobs. The proportion of young men with a bachelor’s degree today is about the same as it was in 1980. And as the sociologists Maria Charles and David Grusky noted in their 2004 book, Occupational Ghettos, while men and women now mix more easily on different rungs of the career ladder, many industries and occupations have remained astonishingly segregated, with men continuing to seek work in a dwindling number of manual jobs, and women ‘crowding into nonmanual occupations that, on average, confer more pay and prestige’.”

The failure of men to maintain their economic status as a viable breadwinner has produced severe reverberations throughout our society.

“Women tend not to marry (or stay married to) jobless or economically insecure men—though they do have children with them. And those children usually struggle when, as typically happens, their parents separate and their lives are unsettled.”

The college educated middle class has always had more stable family lives than those without a college education. As the economic gulf between the two categories has widened, so has a cultural gulf.

“In a national study of the American family released late last year, the sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox wrote that among ‘Middle Americans’—people with a high-school diploma but not a college degree—an array of signals of family dysfunction have begun to blink red. ‘The family lives of today’s moderately educated Americans,’ which in the 1970s closely resembled those of college graduates, now ‘increasingly resemble those of high-school dropouts, too often burdened by financial stress, partner conflict, single parenting, and troubled children’.”

“’The speed of change,’ wrote Wilcox, ‘is astonishing.’ By the late 1990s, 37 percent of moderately educated couples were divorcing or separating less than 10 years into their first marriage, roughly the same rate as among couples who didn’t finish high school and more than three times that of college graduates. By the 2000s, the percentage in ‘very happy’ marriages—identical to that of college graduates in the 1970s—was also nearing that of high-school dropouts. Between 2006 and 2008, among moderately educated women, 44 percent of all births occurred outside marriage, not far off the rate (54 percent) among high-school dropouts; among college-educated women, that proportion was just 6 percent.”

The fear is that these cultural trends will become self perpetuating.

“As the journalist Bill Bishop showed in his 2008 book, The Big Sort, American communities have become ever more finely sorted by affluence and educational attainment over the past 30 years, and this sorting has in turn reinforced the divergence in the personal habits and lifestyle of Americans who lack a college degree from those of Americans who have one. In highly educated communities, families are largely intact, educational ideals strong, and good role models abundant. None of those things is a given anymore in communities where college-degree attainment is low. The natural leaders of such communities—the meritocratic winners who do well in school, go off to selective colleges, and get their degrees—generally leave them for good in their early 20s.”

Peck believes there are measures that can be taken to reverse these trends, but they will not be easy to implement. We will have to save that discussion for another day.

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