The Middle-Class Jobs Crisis

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The Middle-Class Jobs Crisis

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the United States in the coming decade is the decline of its traditional middle class. This group, which made up about 60 to 80 percent of the population, was crucial to our global dominance throughout the Mass Production era.

Like few other countries, American culture was defined from the late 19th century by mass media markets, mass consumer markets, and relatively homogenous social values, all personified by the middle class.

For the most part, these people lived in nuclear families and owned homes, automobiles, telephones, and televisions. Most of them watched a few television networks; they mostly attended public schools; most were at least nominally Christian or Jewish; they mostly trusted business and the government; and they felt life would be even better for their children than it was for them.

This perception rested on an economic system that provided a typical high school graduate with an ample opportunity to find a job that paid enough to fund these needs, and even offered many life-long careers with a single employer. When coupled with a growing social safety net for retirees, this middle-class ideal became the "dream" to which immigrants and others around the world aspired.

Unfortunately, as the Mass Production Revolution matured and gave way to the Digital Revolution, this middle-class ideal began to fray. Now, over forty years from the dawn of the Digital Revolution, that fraying is still driven by a number of intersecting trends.

It manifests itself in The Battered American Dream trend we examined in the February 2015 issue of Trends. The chief outgrowth of that trend is the realization that Americans still seek opportunity, but they have become increasingly demoralized about the likelihood of achieving it.

To understand what lies ahead, it's necessary to understand that 20th century America was unique in history and why the future will be different and, quite possibly, even better. Let's start by examining the confluence of factors that made American middle-class affluence in the 20th century the envy of the world.

First, the United States is uniquely blessed in terms of military security, agricultural productivity, and mineral wealth (including iron, coal, and oil) as well as logistical resources like harbors, rivers, and a lack of physical barriers. Because the U.S. seldom needed to worry about foreign invasions or shortages of natural resources, it was free to devote itself to economic development. It imported the technologies and entrepreneurial values that had enabled the first Industrial Revolution in England...

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