Discussing the worsening economic prospects for people under the age of 35 or so has been an occasional topic on this blog. I’ve discussed the post-employment economy, how the last twenty years of wage (non)growth and corporate excess have essentially transferred massive amounts of wealth from the working class to the extremely wealthy, and how most people are stuck with a permanently insecure economic future.
Linking together these stories has always been difficult. Sure, the Piketty book is making a splash, and that’s an important historical background. But Piketty’s large, historical view only gets us part of the way there. In a much more immediate sense, this accelerating inequality is making everyone worse off: no longer is a rising tide carrying all boats, because most people’s boats are taking on water and slowly (or rapidly!) sinking.
The data on this is unequivocal: America’s middle class has fallen behind its European counterparts. The “recovery” and “jobs growth” glib economics reporters discuss on the talk shows has been concentrated almost entirely at the very top of the economy and the very lowest paid workers, respectively.
Looking at what those workers at the bottom must content with is heartbreaking (my friend Sarah Kendzior wrote an excellent profile of some in St. Louis that you should read right now). They are, more or less, trapped in permanent poverty. People already established near the top of their fields are doing very well, but everyone else, in a very literal sense, including the middle class, are being left behind at an increasing rate.
So what does this mean? I see several worrying trends at play that do not augur well for the long-term.
Our elites are more out of touch than ever before. The hyper-wealthy complain that discussing inequality is like when Nazis killed the Jews. Comfortable, elite think tankers and not-entirely-disgraced former Generals ignore everything dragging the economy down to declare a new golden age in America (which is a staple of such writing).
Oddly, the topic of deepening inequality is also almost exclusively a topic of elite discussion. While polling suggests more and more Americans are dissatisfied with their personal economic situation, it’s not at all clear that there is broad acceptance that our society is driving inequality and our political choices are making it worse over time. More important, voters do not vote our legislators, governors, delegates, and even Presidents who act to further exacerbate this inequality.
The growing disparity between the 1% and everyone else is a very old talking point in American politics, both from the Robber Baron 19th century and in the modern era. And while elites do discuss it, they tend to be on the left side of the political spectrum, while the right side tends to either ignore it or joke about it. For example, Al Gore made “the wealthiest one percent” a routine talking point in the 2000 Presidential Election, for example, and was mocked for his phrasing and terminology.
Taken together — accumulating data strongly pointing in a very clear direction, combined with lack of mainstream urgency and equivocal messaging from political and media elites — resembles in a very vague sense climate change, and also suggests any concrete steps to reserve a catastrophe a reasonable person would assume is coming will not happen.
Is it all despair and hopelessness? Not necessarily. The economy seems almost certain to be headed toward some kind of inflection point. Whether it is another catastrophic collapse where the middle class finally revolt against the hyperwealthy who currently dominate electoral politics, or a permanently entrenched resignation and apathy at most of America becoming a permanent underclass remains to be seen.
It looks like it will be the latter, but even that isn’t necessarily to suggest we’re headed toward mass privation. Younger people are finding all kinds of ways to adopt to this clear trend, to include opting out entirely of the prescribed path of college-loans-job-mortgage (and lifetimes of debt racked up in the process). Others choose to live more humble lives, defined less by the conquest of material goods and more concerned with feeling meaning in what they do: whether it’s working for very low wages at an NGO or starting their own urban farm.
None of those trends on their own will reverse what’s happening to American society, however. Until there is a mass movement, beyond the pedantry that Occupy Wall Street marginalized itself with, to recognize and deliberately work to reduce inequality, we should only expect the youth phenomenon of permanent post-employment to continue.