Saturday, August 07, 2010

A discussion on the Middle Class

A friend emailed me this a few days ago. It's basically a psychiatrist giving his own explanation for why the "American dream" is out of reach--he blames an infantilizing culture in parenting and academia, and I particularly liked this bit:
They're not better educated, they just have more degrees. Were you smarter at 21 post college than your Dad was at 21? And whatever the difference, was it worth the $50k-$200k he paid to get you it? No, but every parent of a high school kid I've talked to about this says the same thing: "I know, I know, but I just want her to get that piece of paper." So work this out in your head: either this parent is a solitary genius who is the sole possessor of the knowledge that the college degree is merely a brand and not a mark of knowledge; or every employer in the world already knows this. So if we all agree the degree doesn't mean anything close to what we are pretending it means, then what's the point of piling on? Isn't this technically a Ponzi scheme?
I've used the phrase "paperwork arms race" before to discuss exactly this phenomenon, but calling it a Ponzi scheme is pithier. In my field, I've taken a master's degree to get exactly where my father was with 2 bachelors degrees, and where someone in his father's generation could have been with a high school diploma. In the industry I'm discussing, one more generation back would take you to the point where high school dropouts were doing the work.

Yes, some tasks have gotten more complicated because of new technology--but the people who have problems with new technology are definitely not the young people entering the workforce, ergo much of this academic training is deadweight.

That said, I'm always wary of "cultural" explanations for things that can be explained more directly. For example, from the Financial Times:
Unsurprisingly, a growing majority of Americans have been telling pollsters that they expect their children to be worse off than they are. During the three postwar decades, which many now look back on as the golden era of the ­American middle class, the rising tide really did lift most boats – as John F. Kennedy put it. Incomes grew in real terms by almost 2 per cent a year – almost doubling each generation.

And although the golden years were driven by the rise of mass higher education, you did not need to have graduated from high school to make ends meet. Like her husband, Connie Freeman was raised in a “working-class” home in the Iron Range of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. Her father, who left school aged 14 following the Great Depression of the 1930s, worked in the iron mines all his life. Towards the end of his working life he was earning $15 an hour – more than $40 in today’s prices.

Thirty years later, Connie, who is far better qualified than her father, having graduated from high school and done one year of further education, makes $17 an hour. The pace of life has also changed: “We used to sit around the dinner table every evening when I was growing up,” says Connie, who speaks with prolonged vowels of the Midwest. “Nowadays that’s sooooo rare.”
The Last Psychiatrist spent much of his post spanking a relatively privileged kids who was offered a starting salary of $40k a year, and said no because he thought he deserved something better, recession notwithstanding. So yeah, we can all laugh at him (anyone want to pay me 40K? I'll take it!) but we could laugh at the stupidity of the privileged, melanin-deficient classes till the cows come home--it wouldn't change the fact that for the much larger number of people, the middle-class dream is actually, objectively out of reach.

Asking everyone to take 3 years of school after high school before they can even expect to start making a liveable wage--much less a comfortable one--is actually an imposition, especially when there's so little evidence it's necessary. Yes, the wage premium for a post-secondary education has increased dramatically in the last 30 years, but for what? So the middle class can work at 1/3 of the wages their lesser-educated parents did?

What we've seen in North America is not an expansion of middle-wage jobs that one can secure with, say, a 3-year post-secondary program. Instead, we've seen a vast expansion of low-wage jobs and a smaller expansion of high-skill, high-wage jobs--the middle class dream is disappearing because there are less middle-class jobs. Talking about "culture" and "infantilized adults" can illuminate some thing--indeed, I do think I am probably less "adult" than my father (and I'm sure he didn't think he was ready at all for 3 kids by 31! But that's only two years away for me.) But I think the objective facts of the economy are far more powerful.

Indeed, when there are fewer middle-class jobs that one can get with a realistic skill set coming out of high school, you would expect people to take longer to "grow up", if we define growing up as job, marriage, house, etc. Nothing matures you like actually having to do something.


Catelli said...

Good post. What it means to be middle class has also changed. Average home size has grown, two cars instead of one, and all the appliances and other electronic conveniences we stuff a home with.

So we have a moving target that is running away from us, and average wages that are stagnating. Result, ever higher household debt.

Borrowing from Lucy VanPelt, Stop the race, I don't think its worth running.

Chet Scoville said...

Indeed. What's the point of growing up if the culture at large gives people no incentive to do so?

Anonymous said...

unYou can see part of the problem started with thinking of universities as upscale vocational schools.

TLP pointed out in another post, that "when Bill Ayers and Alan Bloom were arguing about a classical education, they were arguing it's importance, not it's definition."

I do a little part-time tutoring of high school students. I tell them, (when their parents aren't listening) that if you don't need university for professional certification (nurses, engineers, doctors, lawyers, couple other fields), and you don't know what you want for a career, save your money.