“Can the Middle Class Be Saved?”—Don Peck’s thought-provoking article in the latest (September) issue of the Atlantic—does more than raise the question and supply the history and patterns that caused him to formulate it in the first place.
It is no secret that for 30 years, as farming and manufacturing jobs dried up in the United States, job prospects for those in the middle—without college but able to have worked on a farm, in a factory or at some other blue collar job a decade earlier—have shrunk along with their respective wages. It isn’t that America no longer manufactures anything or farms, only that mechanization has eradicated most of the jobs in those fields. This all happened well before the Great Recession. But the recession has worsened the plight of this same group of people, mostly men, who find themselves increasingly left out of the service and information economy, sometimes by their own choosing. Many had found jobs in construction before the housing bust, for example, rather than learn skills that might equip them for the new jobs.
Peck reminds readers that only 30 percent of the labor force has a college degree, still, so as the gap between the college-educated and others grows, something must be done for the remaining 70 percent. Of the “nonprofessional middle” Peck writes:
“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. Yet these anxieties should not distract us from a second, more important, cleavage in American society—the one between college graduates and everyone else.”
Investments in education and research that spur innovations, like the technology boom, will help professionals in the future. They will need help because globalization means increased, even international, competition for highly sought professional positions.
The question remains, however, what to do about low-wage work for an increasing number of nonprofessional Americans. How will they find a livelihood in a future in an America divided between the elite top tier and everyone else?