The middle class is not an accident (or inevitable)

By: - September 5, 2017 5:00 am

Labor Day report offers a powerful reminder for NC workers – especially Millenials

A few years back, there was a witty and briefly popular bumper sticker that conveyed several important and frequently neglected and forgotten truths about the lot of working Americans. It read: “The Labor Movement: The Folks Who Brought You the Weekend.”

Though it seems hard to imagine for many of us today, the pithy and plucky message on those stickers was, in a very literal sense, true. At the turn of the 20th Century, life in America – especially for working people – was wildly different than it is for most of us today. Millions of Americans worked six or seven days a week and 12 or 14 hours per day or more for what amounted to little better than starvation wages. Many of the workers were pre-adolescent children. Many – adults and children – worked in horrifically dangerous conditions and utterly without any kind of insurance or safety net. Meanwhile, a small but hugely powerful class of super rich robber barons enjoyed unprecedented wealth and comfort.

Happily, a century later, this is largely no longer the case. For most American workers, there is a basic expectation that the workplace will not be a human sausage grinder in which they are simply used up like so many disposable widgets. For most Americans (emphasis on the word “most”), the idea of reasonable work hours, living wages, time off, vacations, safety protections, access to health care and freedom from physical or sexual abuse are taken for granted.

And while labor unions were not always directly responsible for each and every bit of progress that has occurred in this realm, there can be no doubt that concerted action – by unions, non-unionized workers, advocacy groups, relief organizations, journalists, artists, politicians and enlightened business leaders – paved the way to our comparatively improved 21st Century reality.

Simply put: Our middle class society and the updated and improved social contract it represents didn’t happen by accident. It took many decades of determined efforts to organize, design and pass new laws, secure collective bargaining agreements and just generally educate and enlighten the general population as to what life in a free and modern society of great abundance ought to look like.

The social contract under siege: The plight of Millenials

Today, tragically, much of the remarkable progress of the past century-plus in lifting up the human condition is under assault and in jeopardy as a well-funded and relentless alliance of plutocrats, autocrats and theocrats seeks to repeal much of the progress of the 20th Century and replace it with what might be described as a kind of new Gilded Age or, maybe even a new Medieval period.

The evidence of this reaction is all around us – in the demise of the labor movement and of career employment, in the rapid growth of an unprotected immigrant underclass, in the sustained attack on all things public, in the slow but steady demise of the middle class itself and, of course, in the rise of Trumpism. Where once an overwhelming majority of Americans identified with and celebrated the concept of the middle class, today, for many, this is increasingly seen as a quaint chapter from the history books.

Compelling confirmation of this new reality is especially visible in the circumstances of Millenials – those Americans who entered the workforce right around the start of the 21st Century. As the latest “State of Working North Carolina” report from the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center – this one entitled “Work Interrupted: How the Recession and a Changed Labor Market Will Affect Millennials  in North Carolina for Years to Come” – makes clear, the situation is highly problematic.

In six compelling chapters, the report explains how Millenials (the group that is now the largest share of the North Carolina workforce) are bearing the burden of modern economic and policy trends in an array of critical areas, including:

  • Decreased job opportunities,
  • Stagnant/falling wages,
  • Low levels of economic mobility,
  • The rise in temporary and part-time employment,
  • Paralyzing student debt,
  • Declining wealth accumulation, and
  • Rising housing costs and falling homeownership rates.

What’s more, all of these problems and others like them are hitting home despite new and improved levels of college education, rising rates of worker productivity and improved savings practices amongst Millenials.

The report notes that:

At the worst of the recession, roughly 18 percent of Millennials of working age were looking for a job, a rate of unemployment nearly twice that of the next worst-off generation, Gen X….

In 2016, the unemployment rate for Millennials had fallen to 7.9 percent, which is still almost three percentage points higher than the average for all workers in North Carolina. This leaves Millennials 2.2 times more likely to need a job than a member of Generation X, and 2.6 times more likely than the average Baby Boomer.

The challenge facing Millennials is daunting. While they make up roughly one-third of the workers in North Carolina, they include more than half of all North Carolinians actively looking for a job. Of the approximately 250,000 North Carolinians looking for work in 2016, 140,000 were Millennials, more than all of the other generations put together.”

Public policy: A key problem and potential solution

As with the broader demise of the middle class that it so well symbolizes, the plight of Millenials didn’t happen by accident or in a way that was divorced from public policy. To the contrary, public policy decisions have greatly abetted the current situation and offer some of the best hope for addressing it. As the report notes:

Compared to their parents and grandparents, Millennials face a dramatically different landscape for finding a job, building a career, and benefiting from workplace protections. Unlike their predecessors who came of age when the nation’s policy environment and norms of corporate governance promoted relatively broadly shared prosperity, Millennials have entered the workforce at the tail end of a long-term retreat from the institutions that once provided millions of workers with access to good jobs, relative economic stability, opportunities for upward career mobility, and a strong legal framework for protections on the job.”

Another section puts it this way:

Policy choices shape economic outcomes….The institutions that have traditionally delivered better economic outcomes for more people and places have been dismantled or damaged over the years. Standard & Poor’s own analysis of the financial behaviors of different generations found that Millennials share many commonalities with the Silent Generation [the cohort born between 1928 and 1945]. Both generations entered the labor market at times of unprecedented job loss, and both exhibit conservative financial habits and employment choices. Notably, the Silent Generation benefited from a shorter downturn. From the Standard & Poor researchers:

‘By the time many of them finished their education, the Silent Generation walked into a strong economy, thanks in large part to New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration, which created millions of jobs in public projects and infrastructure. By contrast, government spending on infrastructure projects as a percentage of U.S. GDP is now at a two-decade low, which Standard & Poor’s projects could significantly impact long-term competitiveness.’”

In other words, we have a roadmap to follow, but policymakers have instead pursued a destructive and shortsighted disinvestment in public structures and a retreat from policies that would allow workers to better share in the fruits of their increasingly efficient labor.

As the report puts it:

Unfortunately, national and state policy makers have largely chosen an approach that benefited corporate investors and executives over working people in the United States. Just as American businesses began experiencing these competitive cost pressures in the late 1970s, and Millennials were on the cusp of entering the world, national and state policy makers began enacting a series of tax, trade, and economic policies that undoubtedly helped spur corporate profits, but also served to minimize the ability of employees to benefit from their company’s prosperity. This institutional retreat from good jobs has cast a long shadow over Millennials as they joined the labor market in the late 2000s.”

Going forward

Happily, as Millenials take a bigger and bigger place in the economy and society at-large, there is good evidence that they understand what’s going on and strongly favor new public policies to reverse current trends.

As the report notes, pollsters have found that:

Many millennials think the current economic order is a rigged game.

  • Only 42 percent of Millennials support capitalism.
  • Millennials are more dubious about “free enterprise” than any other generation.
  • Two-thirds of Millennials think that the rules in America have changed, with hard work and sacrifice no longer being rewarded.
  • Almost two-thirds of Millennials believe that politicians stacking the deck in favor of wealthy people and corporations is the biggest barrier to a strong economy

Millennials support policies to lower barriers to prosperity.

  • 75 percent support expanding apprenticeship programs.
  • 66 percent would be more likely to support a candidate who would put people to work using government funds.
  • 77 percent say government has responsibility to ensure all children receive a quality education.
  • 68 percent would be more likely to support candidates who put affordable child care and paid family leave within reach.
  • 67 percent would be more likely to support candidates who favor a $15 per hour minimum wage.”

In other words, whether they refer to it as “the labor movement” or not, Millenials see and understand where things stand and what will be necessary if they’re going to, as one might describe it, “get their weekends back.” Like their forebears of 120 years ago, they recognize that concerted action is necessary and appear poised to take it.

Thank goodness.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.