Crisis of the Middle Class

Excerpts from the book Confronting Complexity: X-Events, Resilience, and Human Progress by

John L. Casti

Roger D. Jones

Michael J. Pennock



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“Middle” Crises

One of the most talked-about films of 2014 was Richard Linklater’s epic Boyhood, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the maturing of a young man in twenty-first-century America. While the film covers over 4,000 days of the growing-up of the film’s star, Mason Evans, Jr., the actual filming took just 39 days of shooting. Linklater describes his film as an “epic of the intimate,” which is very descriptive as we see the hero deal with various life trials that a young man confronts in early twenty-first-century America.

As Anand Giridharadas remarked in a piece about Boyhood in the New York Times, many of these trials that Mason Evans encountered involved dealing with “ephemeral, adult relationships” he is forced to address in his early years from infancy to pre-teen. Mason is raised by a single mother, Olivia, who engages in—and fails—at four different relationships during his first 12 years. Each of the men presents a very different style of abusiveness to her, each form of abuse presenting difficulties and challenges to Mason in the development of his character. Again, as Giridharadas states, “the movie is about various responses to this male confusion . . . and Mason’s own resistance to traditional heteronormative American maleness.”

In by-now-familiar terms, what Mason faces is a “complexity gap,” in that the outside world, principally his mother and her abusive partners, present him with an environment of very high complexity, while the complexity of his own inner resources for interacting in a suitable and constructive fashion with this environment are quite low. The result is not difficult to predict: forces beyond Mason’s control combine with a highly unstable social environment giving rise to a highly stressful, difficult path in reaching a middle-class American life.

One might compare the account of childhood a la Linklater with the pop- ular TV series from the early 1960s Leave It To Beaver, which recounts the daily adventures of “Beaver” Cleaver at home, in school and around his sub- urban middle-class American neighborhood. The show gives a glimpse of a 1950s-style middle-class, white American boyhood and the challenges it posed to a young man like Mason—but from a couple of generations earlier. Even though many episodes of the series revolve about Beaver’s parents debating approaches to child rearing, the home environment for Beaver is one of great stability and parental concern. In this version of the American middle-class, parents always have time for their children, no one is ever drunk out of their minds, mothers are always married, and fathers are eternally patient, relatively passive, and totally non-abusive. Reverse all these fantasies and fast-forward 50 years to end up at Linklater’s vision of middle-class America and the challenges it poses for growing up as a young male in the early twenty-first century. In the 1950s, the complexity levels between what the young man’s resources could supply and what society required were far more in balance than what we see today. Here’s another view of Western society today that tells much the same story.

For as long as anyone can remember, the Western middle-class has always been composed of people who had a professional identity. In other words, peo- ple chose professions that suited their self-perceived identity. So, for instance, nuts-and-bolts types become travel agents or perhaps accountants. These pro- fessions then reinforce their identity. Those days are now drawing to a close. The on-going economic crisis in the Western world, coupled with the rapid pace of technological change as robots take over every type of routine job, leads to fewer and fewer people gaining any satisfaction from their job or even remain- ing in the same profession. In short, the connection between people and their job has been severed. So instead of having their job reinforce their already exist- ing identity, this disconnection has forced people to find new identities. A good example of this identity restructuring is in academia. This was a field that used to attract people who liked ideas. But as the pressure to publish almost totally meaningless papers and scrounge for pennies from research granting agencies mount, academics have become nose-to-the-grindstone types digging deeper and deeper into smaller and smaller corners of the intellectual landscape.

One of the most evident results of this type of identity change is that a person’s story about who they are collapses. As one’s job status changes, so does their sense of self-esteem and the way they are viewed by their friends and family. No wonder being unemployed makes people far more unhappy today than in an earlier era. Instead, re-employment today generally leads to a job that involves serving people, such as a waitress, taxi driver, or bank clerk. It’s very difficult to create a sense of purpose and identity from such a job. One of the principal reasons for this is that these are very low-complexity jobs. Yet a meaningful sense of self-worth almost always involves projecting an image of someone who’s “complicated” and involved in the complexities of modern life. And unless you command a set of very specialized skills that are generally the result of years, if not decades, of training, the skill set of a bank clerk or travel agent is just too low complexity to match up with a high-complexity self-identity.

According to a fascinating account of this loss of identity for today’s middle-class, Simon Kuper argues that people who cannot choose their job and thus create an identity from a satisfying, generally non-servile occupation, must create their identity in another manner. Kuper presents the case that one way to do this is via consumption. Such people “become” their favorite make of automobile or their favorite football team or their favorite smart phone. Another way Kuper notes is via social media. For those who do not have a professional identity, their Facebook page becomes their identity through which they present themselves to the world. It can be argued that a large share of the success of sites like Facebook and Twitter is due to the fact that more traditional sources of identity have weakened.

So in both the case of Mason Evans, a growing youngster, and in the case of a former middle-class denizen who lost his professional identity, the difficulties in making their way in modern society can be traced to a growing gap between the level of complexity that society requires and the level that they themselves command. As the gap widens, the social stresses grow. Sometimes there is a technological solution to the problem as with the Facebook identity. Other times no such quick fix presents itself, as with Mason Evans. In the latter case, the stresses mount to the point where an X-event ends the process, often in a dangerous and brutal fashion.

The end result of both of the complexity gaps just chronicled is a dra- matic withering away of the traditional American middle-class. As we have just noted, many of the assumptions about American culture—fairness, prog- ress, opportunity—are being questioned. One of the most central assumptions upon which many of the others rest involves the economy and how its largess is distributed among American workers. It will come as no secret to know that this distribution has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. For example, the median inflation-adjusted family income in the US peaked in the year 2000 at $64,232. Over the next twelve years it fell nearly 6 percent—and is still falling.

The two primary reasons for this decline are the slow economic growth over the past few years, together with the way the economic pie has been divided. The first cause leads to a generally shrinking pie to begin with, while the second is giving an increasingly larger piece of the pie to the now-infamous “top 1%.” Figures 3.1 through 3.3 tell this sad story, together showing just how dramatic the situation really is.

So who’s to blame for this depressing story? According to findings by the Pew Research Center, middle-income earners target US lawmakers, banks, and big business as the prime reasons why they are poorer today than two decades ago. But others have argued that the real culprits lay in a very different direction. The basic reason they say is that the lack of jobs stems directly from increased productivity due to technology. In other words, the US has mecha- nized and computerized the labor force into obsolescence.

This notion is by no means new, of course. As long ago as the early nineteenth century, skilled textile workers in England labeled themselves the “Luddites” and went on a machine-bashing attack against technology. Economists decry the false notion that an increase in labor productivity by itself necessarily reduces employment. While it is true that there is only a finite amount of labor to carry out, technological change generates new products and services that ultimately increases overall demand for labor. In other words, jobs lost to technology are more than compensated for by jobs gained from the technology. They are just different types of jobs. The machines have simply boosted the demand for workers who can perform “non-routine” tasks, those that complement rather than compete against the jobs now done by the machines. These tasks come at both ends of the job spectrum. The first type of non-routine task are abstract work calling for problem solving, intuition, creativity, and the like. These are the sorts of things associated with professional jobs like medicine, engineering, and design. At the other end are manual jobs such as driving a truck, cleaning a house, or cooking a meal. Such jobs are difficult to transfer to a computer but rather easy for humans to carry out. The downside is that they involve skills that a large number of people possess, hence don’t carry a very hefty paycheck.


So what we are seeing as a consequence of technology is a hollowing-out of the middle. Technology creates lots of jobs at either end of the employment spectrum, but eliminates just those sorts of employment opportunities that previously served to support the middle class, what we might term the “routine” jobs. The end result is job growth in the highly paid and low-paid ends of the job market, while middle-income jobs have gone into free fall. Put compactly, computerization has degraded the quality of jobs for a major slice of the work force.

From the complexity gap line of argument we have been using in this book, the high complexity and low-complexity ends of the work force are doing fine, at least insofar as employment goes, if not in terms of actual income at the lower end. But there is a huge gap in the middle. Using the rubber-band stretching metaphor we employed earlier, the band has been stretched beyond the breaking point, and now all we have left are one part of the band in each hand. But the situation is not hopeless, and some commentators have argued that middle-skill jobs will still be available, just not in the traditional blue-collar and white-collar type of positions. Rather, we are likely to see a middle-income group, what some term the “new artisans,” consisting of jobs like licensed practical nurses, teachers, repair and support technicians, and personal trainers come to the fore in the

decades ahead. Right now, though, we are in the uncomfortable position of being in a transition period where the new artisans are only beginning to emerge as the old middle class dies off.

Much of this middle-class angst over inequality is focused at the individual level, since that’s where the actual jobs reside. But there is also inequality at the entire social level, an inequality that threatens the very fabric of modern social and political life as we have known it for the past century or more.

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