Twilight of the middle class?
It’s evening in America. That is the worrying news from the latest Heartland Monitor Poll, conducted quarterly and sponsored by the insurer Allstate and National Journal.
The researchers made a striking finding: The U.S. middle class, long the world’s embodiment of optimism and upward mobility, today is telling a very different story. The chief preoccupation of middle-class Americans is not the dream of getting ahead, it is the fear of falling behind.
The poll found that 59 percent of its respondents – a group of 1,000 people selected to be demographically representative of the United States as a whole – were afraid of falling out of their economic class over the next few years. Those who described themselves as lower middle class were even more scared than the overall group – 68 percent feared they could slip even lower down the economic ladder.
This wary vision of the future went hand-in-hand with a diminished idea of what it meant to belong to the middle class. More than half of the people polled – 54 percent – said that being middle class meant having a job and being able to pay your bills. Fewer than half – just 43 percent – took the more expansive view that membership in the middle class was a passport to financial and professional growth, buying a house and saving for the future.
“The key finding is that the middle class in America is more anxious than it is aspirational,” Jeremy Ruch, a senior director at the strategic communications practice of FTI Consulting and one of the people who led the polling, told me. “Some of the traditional characteristics of middle classness are not seen as realistic. They have been replaced by an anxiety about the possibility of falling out of their economic class.”
Even more arresting was the extent to which things that used to be the unquestioned trappings of middle-class life have come to be seen as upper-class luxuries. Nearly half – 46 percent – of the respondents who described themselves as middle class said that being able to pay for children’s college education was possible only for the upper class. Forty-three percent thought that only the upper class had enough savings to deal with a job loss, and 40 percent believed only the upper class could save enough to retire comfortably.
For the land of opportunity, this is a seismic shift. America was created as a country where the middle class could prosper - Thomas Jefferson crowed that America had no paupers and few who were rich enough to live without labor.
This was supposed to be the place where, as Bill Clinton liked to put it, if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could get ahead. And Yanks gloried in the fact that the world’s huddled masses regularly demonstrated their belief in the American dream by voting with their feet.
The respondents to the Heartland poll know the world has changed. Nearly two-thirds of those who described themselves as middle class said their generation had less job and financial security than their parents. More than half said they had less opportunity to advance.
The academy can be sniffy about the economic instincts of ordinary folk, but in this case Joe Public seems to have gotten it right. The respondents were on target when asked to estimate the income of the typical American middle-class family: They said between $60,000 and $65,000 per year. According to U.S. Census data from the Current Population Survey, median income for a family of four is $68,274.
And most economists think the anxiety articulated in this poll is a reaction to a real and new peril.
“I don’t blame them,” Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the MassachusettsInstitute of Technology, told me. “They are falling behind, so it is not surprising that they are feeling anxious.
“The disappointment and the anger of the middle class is not just whining, it is based on real economics,” Brynjolfsson said. “The job security and the income of the middle class is declining, and so is social mobility.”
The saddest paradox revealed in the poll is that ordinary Americans agree with the elites about what it takes to get ahead, or at least to stay afloat, in the 21st-century United States. Half of the respondents said that college was the best way to earn and maintain membership in the middle class. But almost half – 49 percent – thought that only the upper class could afford to pay for their children’s higher education.
Humans have always been good at focusing on the immediate threat, and the nonstop media cycle has only exacerbated that trait: One week it is Hurricane Sandy, the next it is Cyprus, and then it is the Boston Marathon explosions.
For the Western industrialized countries, however, the really big story is the slow, inexorable decline of the middle class. Watching it happen is about as exciting as studying paint as it dries or a frog as it boils. But the pain is now being felt even in perennially optimistic America. There are still a few hours left before midnight – let’s hope we can act in time.
PHOTO: The setting sun casts an orange glow on passing clouds over the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington September 19, 2006. REUTERS/Jason Reed