Sunday, August 14, 2011

Men without work

The features editor of The Atlantic, Dan Peck, has recently published a mammoth article entitled "Can the Middle Class Be Saved?"

The article is murky just where most U.S. writing about class is murky: "middle-class" here seems to include everyone who isn't either trapped in absolute destitution or living the life of the consuming elite. Few distinctions between various "middle" strata are clarified; in fact the article opines these are disappearing. The result is undifferentiated muddle. The utterly poor are invisible; the elite are floating above the flailing masses in Peck's world. Basically, Peck's "middle class" seems to include anyone who can hold a job, at least sporadically, but who doesn't earn a comfortable living wage. Peck believes this amounts to about 70 percent of us.

Peck thinks his "middle class" is in trouble -- and provides various proposed remedies. I'll spare you the remedies: they are inadequate on their face to what he describes, technocratic incremental "solutions" offered from on high. All this denies the agency of "middle class" people themselves. There's nary a mention of unions or organizing here. Our betters will discern what we ought to do and how we should live ...

Yet for all my quarrels with this article, I would urge anyone concerned with our current economic and social predicament to read it -- and we should all be very concerned. It's a great catalog of social observations and statistics that throw light on the depths we've sunk into while the very rich got richer over the last 30 years. For example:

A 2010 Pew study showed that the typical middle-class family had lost 23 percent of its wealth since the recession began, versus just 12 percent in the upper class. ... 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.

We tend to picture the decline of living wage jobs as being particularly deep in manufacturing and we're not wrong, but the reality is more complex than just that Chinese and Indian workers are now making goods for peanuts. Production of goods has simply changed, irrevocably.

... industry isn’t about to vanish from America, any more than agriculture did as the number of farm workers plummeted during the 20th century. As of 2010, the United States was the second-largest manufacturer in the world, and the No. 3 agricultural nation. But agriculture is now so mechanized that only about 2 percent of American workers make a living as farmers. American manufacturing looks to be heading down the same path. manufacturing jobs and semiskilled office positions disappear, much of this vast, nonprofessional middle class is drifting downward.

Factories don't need laboring people any more. More specifically, they don't employ men anymore:

The troubles of the nonprofessional middle class are inseparable from the economic troubles of men. Consistently, men without higher education have been the biggest losers in the economy’s long transformation ... 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.

As recently as 2001, U.S. manufacturing still employed about as many people as did health and educational services combined (roughly 16 million). But since then, those latter, female-dominated sectors have added about 4 million jobs, while manufacturing has lost about the same number. Men made no inroads into health care or education during the aughts; in 2009, they held only about one in four jobs in those rising sectors, just as they had at the beginning of the decade.

... In 1967, 97 percent of 30-to-50-year-old American men with only a high-school diploma were working; in 2010, just 76 percent were. Declining male employment is not unique to the United States. It’s been happening in almost all rich nations, as they’ve put the industrial age behind them. Weinberg’s research has shown that in occupations in which “people skills” are becoming more important, jobs are skewing toward women. ...

Not to surprisingly, the decline of male employment is playing hell with family life.

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 Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has connected the loss of manufacturing jobs from inner cities in the 1970s—and the resulting economic struggles of inner-city men -- to many of the social ills that cropped up afterward. Those social ills eventually became self-reinforcing, passing from one generation to the next. In less privileged parts of the country, a larger, predominantly male underclass may now be forming, and with it, more-widespread cultural problems.

By the late 1990s, 37 percent of moderately educated [high school grad] 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 same pattern -- families of middle-class nonprofessionals now resembling those of high-school dropouts more than those of college graduates -- emerges with norm after norm: the percentage of 14-year-old girls living with both their mother and father; the percentage of adolescents wanting to attend college “very much”; the percentage of adolescents who say they’d be embarrassed if they got (or got someone) pregnant; the percentage of never-married young adults using birth control all the time.

White America used to decry the racially coded pathologies of the "underclass." What do you know? -- if white men without fancy college educations can't get and keep living wage jobs, their prospects begin to look like those of Black and brown men stuck in a racial ghetto. Large swathes of the population have been rendered essentially superfluous in the emerging capitalist post-industrial economy. That doesn't seem like a development that can be corrected by some tinkering around the edges. Nor do we yet have a picture of what might replace this unsustainable morass. But common sense says that the people who got us into this aren't likely to get us out of it.

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