Thursday, March 18, 2010

Social Immobility: Climbing the Economic Ladder Is Harder In the U.S. Than In Most European Countries

If you click on the title of this post you will see the article from the Huffington Post that I am referring to.

This article affirms my own observation that the U.S. has been steadily losing its middle class since at least the 1980's. Although I have had some very good jobs in my life my income level has never equalled my father's. I'm one of those people who has been downwardly mobile in terms of my class. A lot of this is because in my 20's and 30's I had a career in the arts. While it was challenging and rewarding, the income of an artist is almost always unstable, so I had relatively good periods counterbalanced by periods of unemployment or underemployment, often working in restaurants or as an office temp in order to pay my rent. This left my average income below the middle class standard achieved by my parents. In this way my experience may be a little different from some who have likewise found themselves downwardly mobile. Of my family, though, only my oldest brother reached the level of material "success" that my father enjoyed.

When I decided, in my thirties, to pursue a more stable occupation I found that my degree in fine arts was just not that marketable. My friends and former schoolmates who had reached a level of middle class comfort had specialized in college in fields like business or law or education. I discovered what many former English or psychology or philosophy majors did: a degree in the humanities was worth very little in the real world. The age of specialization had come upon us and many of us, having been reassured by our parents and the schools of higher education that any major was useful in the job market as long as we graduated, found to our chagrin that our college years had enriched us as human beings but did not do much for our ability to make a living.

Not wanting to be a waitress for the rest of my life, I dutifully filled out applications for every job I thought I could qualify for and some that I couldn't. The response was underwhelming. It was then I decided. I had to go back to school and prepare for something else. Although English degrees are basically unmarketable, they are good for one thing: teaching. I determined to become a college teacher in English. Actually, I loved graduate school. I could then, and can now, happily be a student for the rest of my life. I got assistantships in teaching to help me pay for my education and ended up getting a Ph.D. I was a little older than my fellow doctors, maybe, but triumphant. I had found my calling.

Which brings me back to my discussion of downward mobility in the U.S. My college students are a bit wiser than many of my generation were, but a lot of them are still struggling to make it into the middle class. A distressing number of my students and former students are now working in big-box stores and other dead-end jobs that used to be filled by high school graduates. I hate to think what happens to h.s. grads if they haven't been trained in a skilled trade. The number of jobs that used to be tickets to the middle class are dwindling, forcing more and more students to go on to grad school where they can specialize still further and postpone adulthood even longer, or take dead-end jobs for which they are overqualified. Hopefully, many of them will eventually move up to positions of greater responsibility, but they will still have lost years of potential income and may never reach the level of comfort that their parents did.

Manufacturing jobs, which once were a reliable ladder into the middle class, are likewise disappearing, shipped to third world countries. A nation that once prospered by making things is rapidly becoming a nation of call-center and other service employees, and even these jobs are going overseas. The once-solid middle class is being eroded.

It appears now that countries like Canada and a number of European nations are outstripping the U.S. in their opportunities for upward mobility. I would hate to see a mass exodus of young talent leaving this country, but eventually they will go where the jobs are.

Meantime, as much as I can, I try to prepare my students for the challenges and realities of our current job market. MBA's (Master of Business Administration) are currently becoming a dime a dozen, while undergraduate degrees in business are about as useless as philosophy majors. Not every MBA is equally valuable now; the degree has to come from Harvard or Cornell or Yale. The competition for professorships is fierce. Not everyone can become a doctor or a lawyer, and even law is becoming an overcrowded field. And with the cost of higher education, we can't keep our students in school forever, leaving them with enormous student loans before they've even found their first job.

It's time we paid more attention to our shrinking middle class.

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