The middle quintile is not much better off in salary terms in the US than it was 15 years ago. Apart from stagnating wages, they also face higher property prices and greater job insecurity, particularly in 'new economy' sectors such as financial services, technology and media.
Though the numbers of people employed in these sectors are relatively low, 'modern capitalism' has focused its energies in these areas. Companies take advantage of the 'youth premium' (low wages/long hours), whilst increasingly employing people on short-term project-based contracts.
Furthermore, more middle-class jobs (computer programming, for instance) are being off-shored, and healthcare and pensions provision is less certain. In this unstable environment, the 'dutiful but not brilliant' workers with families to support suffer the most.
Ten years of research discovered the anxieties felt by middle-class workers today, in particular in relation to the percieved failing of their families (this affected working-class workers in the past but whereas they pooled resources in their communities, the middle-class 'nuclear' family goes it alone). All groups surveyed – both young and old – recognised the need to keep upgrading their skills.
But the young realised that there were more trained people coming out of schools and colleges than there were jobs; and the older ones knew that employers were likely to opt for younger staff at home or pre-trained ones abroad. Sennett notes: "Nothing was more grinding, to me, than listening to people my age talk of re-inventing themselves to be more competitive, mouthing clichés they barely believed."
Lacking sufficiently in contacts to help them survive, this class clings to conferences and conventions to make much needed contacts. Politicians, says Sennett, still focus on the skills debate (even though these are increasingly found overseas), whilst they ignore the impact of the 'new economy' and their own policies on the decline of the work ethic and the 'continuity and durability' of middle-class life.
Further reading: The Culture of the New Capitalism (Yale University Press, 2006)
Stranded in the middle?
LSE Magazine, Summer 2006
Review by Morice Mendoza
Image: CMK Consulting