Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Decline of the Non-Professional Middle Class

I quote from "Can the Middle Class be Saved" by Don Peck, The Atlantic, September 2011: 

Since 1993, more than half of the nation’s income growth has been captured by the top 1 percent of earners, and the gains have grown larger over time: from 2002 to 2007, out of every three dollars of national income growth, the top 1 percent of earners captured two. Nearly 2 million people started college in 2002—1,630 of them at Harvard—but among them only Mark Zuckerberg is worth more than $10 billion today; the rise of the super-elite is not a product of educational differences. In part, it is a natural outcome of widening markets and technological revolution, which are creating much bigger winners much faster than ever before—a result that’s not even close to being fully played out, and one reinforced strongly by the political influence that great wealth brings.
Recently, as technology has improved and emerging-market countries have sent more people to college, economic pressures have been moving up the educational ladder in the United States. “It’s useful to make a distinction between college and post-college,” Autor told me. “Among people with professional and even doctoral [degrees], in general the job market has been very good for a very long time, including recently. The group of highly educated individuals who have not done so well recently would be people who have a four-year college degree but nothing beyond that. Opportunities have been less good, wage growth has been less good, the recession has been more damaging. They’ve been displaced from mid-managerial or organizational positions where they don’t have extremely specialized, hard-to-find skills.”
The article is interesting. According to Peck,  the bottom 70 percent have been suffering over decades, especially during the Great Recession, while the top one percent have been doing very well indeed, thank you. Those of us with advanced degrees, clustered in places like Washington, New York and Silicon Valley have been doing well, while much of the rest of the country has not. Large numbers of men, those with high school educations, have stayed in declining fields such as manufacturing and are suffering economically, while women, increasingly college educated, have taken new jobs in service industries such as health and educational services, and are gaining economically. The results seem to be hard on many American families.

The decline of the economic situation and expectations of the lower middle class is also associated with a decline in the participation in civic life of its members. (This echos the theme of Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

Peck also writes:
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.
I think it may be very bad for our society if it continues to become more stratified, with the extremely wealthy consuming more and more (and more conspicuously), a growing professional class, more than comfortable in wealth and income, and a large and growing lower class deprived of hope for a better life for their children.

Perhaps one of the problems is that we have been investing in the wrong kind of innovation. Perhaps we could reorient our research and development to provide more and better jobs for the people who would once have been in the middle class, who are now in a decline into the lower class, but who could again be in the middle class. Such R&D might be less remunerative for the very rich and the professional class, but might lead to a better society.

So too, I think we need to revamp our educational system, focusing more on lifelong learning. Certainly our colleges and universities should continue to be supported and certainly we should continue to maintain and build a strongly educated professional class, but we should also provide many more opportunities for people who don't go to college or university to invest in the skills, knowledge and understanding that they will need to work more productively (and especially to change into the new jobs from a more socially responsible innovation policy).

Both of these changes would seem to require cross-the-board cultural changes. We have as a society to become more concerned with the equity of opportunity in our society. We should be less concerned with increasing the affluence of the already affluent, and more concerned with the advancement of the rest of society. We will have to rethink attitudes toward vocational education, continuing education and on the job training. (The Republican objection to programs to retrain workers who lose their jobs due to competition from emerging nations and the resulting change in trade patterns is a prototypical example of the attitudes we need to change.)

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