Getting Bigger Around the Middle?

The United States once stood almost alone among nations in having achieved a middle-class society. Not anymore.

Writing recently in the Social Europe JournalSteven Hill argued that we’re seeing a “global convergence toward the middle-class society.” For Hill, that means there’s increasing acceptance of the “idea that the vast majority of people can — and should — enjoy a decent standard of living and a high quality of life.” He noted that China alone has 200 billion newly added citizens in its middle class. “The challenge for the poorer countries of the world,” he wrote, “will be to foster a political economy that allows not only wealth creation but also a degree of representative democracy.”

Peter Drucker observed something of the same phenomenon in 1989. “When the British left, India had almost no middle class,” he wrote in The New Realities. “Forty years later India has a well-educated middle class of 100 million people out of a total of 800 million. They have middle-class standards of living, middle-class competence, and middle-class expectations.”

But what about America? Just after World War II, Drucker judged many aspects of middle-class America to be unique and, for various reasons, difficult to imitate. The United States wasn’t just a nation with a large middle class. It was a middle-class society. “Like every other slogan, that of the ‘middle class society’ makes no sense if taken literally,” Drucker averred in Concept of the Corporation. “A middle class clearly requires a class above and a class below.”

But, he went on the say, a middle-class society was as much a product of outlook as of shared wealth. “In this country there is only one mode of life,” Drucker asserted. “The millionaire who wants to live in an ‘upper class’ home has to import a chateau from France, and the worker rides to the plant in a car of the same make as that of his boss. This is what Americans usually mean with they talk of ‘equality,’ a specifically American phenomenon for which no parallel could be found in Europe.”

[EXPAND More] Today, however, that sense of equality seems to be eroding. As we’ve discussed, the gap between rich and poor in the U.S. is greater than at any time since before the Great Depression. And many seem trapped in low-wage jobs that no longer afford the chance to drive to work in the same kind of car as the boss. Meanwhile, the kinds of blue-collar labor that, in Drucker’s words, provided “middle-class and upper-middle-class wages while requiring neither education nor skill” continue to disappear fast in our knowledge age.

What do you think are the essential elements of a middle-class society? And is America on a different path from the rest of the world? [/EXPAND]