The Sinking Middle Class
Whenever politicians of any party speak to the public, they tell us their sole purpose in life is their deep desire to serve their fellow members of the middle class. Who exactly is this middle class? We don’t have classes in America. We are all middle class, aren’t we? Except of course, for the exceptions. We certainly don’t mean those others in poverty, currently about 1 in 6 of our fellow citizens. We probably don’t mean people living paycheck to paycheck, do we? But wait, that’s 68% of the population according to one recent survey, or 40% according to another. There’s probably some overlap between the poverty group and the paycheck-to-paycheck group, but that’s a huge chunk of the population.
We certainly should exclude the top part of the income/wealth group, the top 1%,. Their concerns are totally different than the great mass of us. I’d guess if we had a survey of the top 5 or 10%, we’d see that their primary concerns were mostly just like those of their role models in the top 1%. Those concerns are so radically different from the concerns expressed in most polls that our politicians can’t possibly mean to serve them. So, it looks like on wealth and income grounds the middle class is somewhere between 45 and 55% of the population.
But wealth and income aren’t the only ways to look at the middle class. Historically we meant the group of farmers, small business owners, and professionals, like doctors, lawyers and accountants who worked for themselves. The middle class was defined in opposition to the working class, which depended on others for a job and a living. It was the group below the rich, who lived, or could live, off their unearned income.
That kind of middle class disappeared decades ago, as mega-corporations and merely huge companies swallowed up small businesses, and began to hire more educated people to serve in administrative, sales, and creative slots. Today, most of our scientists and engineers work for giant corporations; and our computer geniuses submerge their libertarian pretensions in their fully voluntary choice to work for the same employers. Professionals found that they could not make a decent living on their own. Doctors became employees of medical/hospital corporations. Accountants and lawyers were hired into corporate slots, where they join the huge number of college-educated white-collar workers as salaried employees. All of these people remain middle class on economic grounds, but they lack control over their own work, and in this are no different from people cutting chickens apart.
Neither regular white-collar workers nor newly-assimilated professionals see themselves as working class, but it is difficult to see the differences between them and line workers or fast-food workers. It used to be that white collar workers were somewhat protected from layoffs and firings when the economy turned down, but that isn’t the case anymore. Just like members of the working class, they can be and are fired for no reason, including expressing independent thought, or because the bottom line worsened. That leads to a lot of self-censorship, or merely attitude adjustment to avoid cognitive dissonance. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two groups is that corporations make an effort to get white collar workers to feel good about their work, while they don’t make that effort for their line and service workers.
One critical similarity between the working class and the white-collar class is that both lack control over their work. They both do what they are told to do by others, on the time-frame set by others, and with most of the benefits of the work going to others. Again, with the white-collar workers, the “others” at least give the surface impression that the worker has some input into the work to be done or the timeframe, but in the end, that is largely illusory. Chicken cutters have to process a specific number of chickens, and corporate doctors have to process a certain number of patients. The needs of the behemoth must be met, and the white-collar types are the servants.
The Seattle Times published an article on its opinion page, and provided this description of the author: “graduated from Stanford University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in American studies. She waits tables in Seattle.“