More on the declining middle class

An article in today’s Age about the decline of middle class jobs in the USA has highlighted some of the issues I have raised in a number of articles.  The Age reports on a study undertaken by the National Employment Law Project in the USA.  The NELP describes a ‘low wage recovery’ and  relates concerns about growing polarisation between high paying good jobs and low paying bad jobs – even in the event of the recovery.

But what is going on – what are the dynamics at work in this hollowing out of the middle – and the slowing of growth across a number of traditional middle class occupations?. One explanation that I have found very helpful comes from labour scholars, Barbara and John Ehrenreich. Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of the ground breaking book Nickle and Dimed, relating her experiences of working in low end jobs.  (Elizabeth Wynhausen did a similar thing in Australia)

The Ehrenreichs published a fascinating and, in my view, seminal article in 2013 – on the demise of the professional-managerial class (PMC) in the 21st century. They identify the professional managerial class as comprising the workers in those occupations which had evolved in tandem with the growth of industrial capitalism over the 20th century such as journalists, teachers, managers, professors, creative workers and social workers. The Ehrenreichs argue that these occupations constituted a new social class outside the old divisions between capitalist owners and workers, identifying as a class of its own, representing values of scholarship and reason, social progress, and public mindedness.

However, under the onslaughts of neoliberal policies from the 1970s – and moreover those gaining ground in the 21st century and at their apex now with the current Australian Government – there has been ongoing withdrawal of support for the public and corporate policies which supported the proliferation of these professions – and their standing as a unique social class. But the Ehrenreichs also say that the professional-managerial class is in some ways culpable for its own demise. Standing at arm’s length from the struggles of the industrial workers who lost their jobs and political muscle in the later decades of the 20th century, the PMC failed to form an allegiance that may have given it some weight for taking on the challenges it now faces. And in fact, the professional managerials  also played a role in oppression and disempowerment of the old working class by way of its elitism and smugness with many in this group co-opted especially by governments, into controlling and subjugating ‘the poor’.   Perhaps it is time, as the Ehrenreichs suggest, that the professional -managerials forged a new partnership with the remnants of the old working class to staunch the losses that they now face – they suggest that the Occupy movement may be somewhere to start.

Perhaps the Ehrenreichs thesis helps to explain what is going on in America at the present time. But how to recover these middle level jobs is the great challenge of the 21st century.

But what does ‘middle class’ mean?

‘Middle class’ of course is a loose term – and I use it very loosely in my articles in relation to jobs that provide a decent wage, good conditions, security and stability as the basis for a ‘middle class’ life. In a short article, it is a short hand term. But Professor Nelson Lichtenstein  at the University of California, Santa Barbara, reminds us in his article – Class Unconsciousness Stop Using “Middle Class” to Depict the Labor Movement  – that such short hand usage is incorrect and unhelpful in terms of addressing real economic divisions – and the struggles of the working poor and marginalised groups, unemployed or outside the workforce altogether.

The loose use of the term ‘middle class’ as by President Obama (as I have documented) also has the effect of reducing class identity needed to empower and construct a sense of agency precisely amongst those who need to do this most. Equally the Occupy Movement’s claim of representing the 99% is unhelpful and obfuscatory. Lichtenstein believes that a return to concise terminology in discussion of class is the way forward for addressing the pressures felt in the heartland of America’s workers as described in the National Employment Law Project discussed above.

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