In these enduring economic hard times, class consciousness in a lagging indicator that most Americans are still loath to recognize. Wall Street C.E.O.s lend their support to campaigns for sweeping “entitlement reforms” for wage earners and the elderly, but pocket escalating bonuses and generous benefit packages for themselves. Repeatedly Americans are warned that if we don’t embrace prudent national austerity now, the United States of the future will become like Greece today. But for the chronically unemployed, underemployed, over worked and underpaid, there is no need to wait; the American Greece has already arrived. The “corrective course” that the elites plot for America’s future consigns many of us to a grimmer reality now. There is a fundamental disconnect in America that centers on class. We face different economic worlds. We don’t all live in the same America.
America’s self conscious socioeconomic landscape is still lit by the afterglow of the late 20th Century, when Americans swore allegiance to an elastic middle class, a one size fits all middle class big enough to hold virtually us all. Sure some were better off than others but everyone, or so it seemed at the time to most, could readily avail ourselves of a few material comforts and still look forward to the promise of a poverty free retirement. Back then the wealthy and poor bracketed the rest of us as “average Americans” by contrast. America was defined by its middle class, thereby blurring the harsh lines that separate privilege from exploitation.
Those stark divides never vanished; they just became hard to focus on. America was never a classless society. Even in the best of 20th century times a few of us were filthy rich while many of us were dirt poor, but the middle class grew to mythic proportions back then. Half of the poor identified themselves as “lower middle class” while half of the wealthy called themselves “upper middle class”. Those were the days when janitors morphed into sanitary supervisors with no one changing uniforms, or pay. Unions were still strong but growing weaker. Having already secured 40 hour work weeks, true living wages, safer working conditions, health benefits and retirement packages for tens of millions of American workers, what real use were they of anymore? The working class never shrank, but that identification slowly faded, absorbed into the amorphous American description of “the middle class’.
Dreams die slowly, and Americans are reluctant to let go of our dream of an expanding and ever more affluent middle class where almost all of us belong. Data that indicates otherwise is discreetly compartmentalized away from our aspirations, in special nerd and wonk files where they are unlikely to disturb our self image of ourselves. But there comes a time when walls start to crumble, when the state of denial becomes undeniable, and that time has arrived. Americans had long taken it as a matter of faith that each succeeding generation would live longer than its parents, receive a better education, find more gainful employment, and enjoy a less stressful retirement as our nation as a whole moved forward in shared prosperity. That dream is already succumbing; the one of the mythical all encompassing and ever benevolent middle class follows close at its heels.
These are epic sea changes that don’t happen over night. There first is a period of churning as some waves advance while others seemingly retreat. But the turning point in hind sight leaves a high tide mark on the shore, often seen best from a perspective gained by distance, or in the case of us humans, by pain. The day the future grew dimmer was that turning point for most Americans. The return of class consciousness is next.