People are more angry and discouraged now than they have been in a long, long time, as much as they have been ever as far as I can tell. What is going on?
Living standards have been declining for most people since about 1970. My father was laid off from his job as a civilian scientist for the Air Force in 1970, starting my decline from modest middle-class comfort and promise into an economically and socially marginal existence. I only just realized that now; I grew up in an optimistic era, where the future was assumed to be better than the past, which was itself pretty good.
But why shouldn’t it be? From 1945 to 1970 things steadily improved for most people. People had bigger houses and more cars. They had good wages as blue-collar laborers or white-collar administrators. Public wealth increased as well as private. Schools and universities were built. The interstate highway system, and other transportation infrastructure was built.
Americans had become accustomed to the idea of a bright future. Optimism has been the American way for a long time, but especially since the era of westward migration. New land was available for farmers, new cities built for trade, new businesses to serve the new land. Farming is a hard life, and hard times and depressions came and went. The late 1800’s saw farmers express their frustration through the Populist movement. Activist government became more the norm, and the idea that it could ensure the future became common. The ultimate financial panic led to the Depression, capital “D” as we call it, and the permanent enshrinement of a paternalistic guardian government.
World War II seemed to prove the New Deal system was both capable and righteous. People could trust and depend upon it to deliver a better world. The US was the undisputed leader of the parts of the world that mattered, and the economy and living standards improved for most. People born in the late 40’s and early 50’s knew only prosperity and the assurance things would bet even better.
Jobs were easy to come by. A kid out of high school could go down to the factory and get a union job at a good wage he could expect to keep for decades. A college education, in anything, was highly prized. Corporations maintained huge bureaucracies, and a young man graduating from college could expect to join a large corporation and work there for decades.
There was a mild recession in 1969 to 1970, but it signalled the end of the 60’s boom. There was the oil shock recession in 1973 to 1975, a much uglier affair that signalled harder times to come. “Stagflation” ruled in the 70’s, with the theoretically impossible combination of high unemployment and inflation. Paul Volcker crushed it with a brutal recession in the early 80’s.
The idea of decline was something Americans couldn’t accept. In the 80’s there was a pop song called “My Future’s So Bright I Gotta Wear Shades”. The dude singing this was kidding himself. Things were starting to crack up just about them. Chrysler had its first bankruptcy. Japanese cars were increasingly an option, not just as economy transportation but with the advent of the Acura brand from Honda in the mid 80’s, as luxury cars as well. The giant conglomerate- a collection of unrelated businesses, typified by ITT- was ripe for breakup, and the elimination of its huge staffs.
Recessions are thought of by economists, and most Americans, as temporary setbacks in the inevitable march of economic growth and prosperity. Things get worse for a bit; but then they recover, and are better than before. In reality, I think, after each recession things have been a little worse than before. Rather than an upward-trending cycle, we have had a downward trending cycle. This has been generally ignored and covered up, but I think now it is dawning on people how bad things are, and that they aren’t getting better again soon if ever.
This has been very hard for people to cope with. Optimism has been our birthright, especially after WWII. Kids were taught to believe they could do almost anything, all they needed to do was go to school, work hard, and take advantage of the plentiful and inexpensive post-secondary educational opportunities. Jobs would be waiting. The idea of self-employment was promoted more in the 80’s as corporate employment became more doubtful; “entrepreneurism”, a new word, came into vogue.
But the degrees- even technical and engineering degrees- became less valuable. Defense was a big industry up until the late 80’s, employing lots of scientists and engineers, if not steadily. New industries, such as computers, rose and partially replaced these jobs, but even these industries offshored as that became an option. Life became less affluent and more precarious for most.
How have people missed this? One would be working mothers. Before 1970 women with children did not work outside the home; a lot of married women without children did not work outside the home. A poor woman with children might leave them with grandmother to work as a charwoman, but people of no level of security or respectability did this. A man of humble means could support his wife and family with only his blue-collar earnings.
Feminism was of course fine with the business community; it gave them a much larger pool of workers, increasing flexibility and decreasing wages. Roissy would add it gave the “alphas” of management more women to hit on, but that’s another issue.
So, without anybody really noticing or paying attention, two incomes became necessary to maintain the family lifestyle that one had before.
Another factor is debt. People had always borrowed for houses and cars, sometimes for furniture and appliances. But “charge” cards as they were called then were something only affluent people who traveled a lot had. People paid for things with cash or check.
A more insidious thing would be the increasing quality and quantity of consumer goods. The typical family of 1970 would be happy with a black and white TV that god five channels. A more consumerist family would have a color TV, but not cable. People had radios, a few audiophiles had expensive, high-end sound systems. Since then people have acquired more and more sophisticated TVs, sound systems, computers, and cell phones. A young woman at the Occupy Wall Street protest had her $5500 Mac stolen. A student of earlier times would have been happy with a notebook.
But just as the peasant of old times dreamed of a rent-free plot of land to call his own, the average person today craves deep down nothing more than a secure job. Insecurity is the human condition, and a desire to achieve security has driven humans from the mists of time- a hunting range with plenty of game, a territory free and secure from enemies, fertile land, capital improvements to make life easier. People are finally finding the distractions and substitutions of the last 40 years a thin gruel compared to the less superficially affluent, but more relaxed and secure kind of life they had before.
While the bulk of the population has lost ground, another large and important group has gained more and more money and influence- government and quasi-government employees. The payment has been made in response to imagined crimes of the past- the supposed abuse and oppression of public employees before they had unions, and the need to ensure benefits to minorities after they had the full force of the federal government and judiciary behind them. But even this is beginning to fray, as a stressed population has been tapped dry to pay for this. Even the legal industry, the overall biggest parasite, is peaking or contracting.
We don’t seem to be able to kid ourselves anymore. A kid with a liberal arts degree can’t get any job, not even the one that didn’t require a degree before but that he could convince himself he needed it for. If he has any significant student loan debt, he is well and truly screwed, and has been forced to face it.
People’s dreams have been dying and diminishing for a long time. The death of a dream is a terrible thing. It’s all the more awful if it was for a prosaic thing in the first place, like a good job, a modest middle-class home and a little disposable income.
There is simply no political solution to this. It would involve those in power giving up a lot of that power, which people in power never do. A country that can’t or won’t produce anything is doomed to terminal decline.