Merryn's Blog

Why a good job no longer gives you a good life

The idea that you can work in a skilled manufacturing job in the West and enjoy a comfortable lifestyle belongs in the stone age, says Merryn Somerset Webb.

In a probably vain effort to keep them safe from the simplistically weird fantasy world of modern children's television, I have taken to only allowing mine to watch cartoons from the 1960s. At the moment we are watching The Flintstones.

But it has now occurred to me that while it is based on a pretty innocent idea two nice families live next door to each other and have various adventures to do with bowling and camping trips its storyline is just as damaging as those of the shoddily written programmes I'm trying to avoid.

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I'm not, on this occasion at least, referring to the idea that humans and dinosaurs at one point co-existed, to the possibility that you can use a baby mammoth as a vacuum cleaner or to the old fashioned sexism of the family set ups, but to Fred's working life. Fred worked as a crane operator in a quarry (his friend Barney also works at the quarry, though I think we never find out quite what his job is). But Fred and Wilma still had all the best technology (a foot-powered car, a pelican as a washing machine, and monkey-powered automatic windows being classic examples); they lived in a nice split-level home and they regularly ate out in restaurants. They had pets; they went on holiday; and they had time for hobbies and all manner of community activity. There were no dual income households, and no one was working two jobs to make ends meet.

This would all have made sense in the aspirational days of the 1960s. Those were the days of strong demand for manufacturing labour in the US, of tough unions, of wages being a high percentage of GDP and hence of rising equality. But that's all over now. It would bemuse and confuse a young person in the US to be told that working five days a week in a skilled manufacturing job was first, a possibility for everyone and second, a path to a comfortable life filled with leisure.

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David Blake of Montrose Associates sums it up like this: in the last 20 years, anyone earning the average wage has seen their real income stagnant or falling. If they are in the bottom 80% of the population, their share of national income has gone down sharply. If they are in the 19% above that they have kept their share steady. "It is only in the top 1% that gains have been made and for those in that group the gains have indeed been spectacular."

We've written about this before, but the numbers are backed up by a new study out from the Pew Research Center in the US, which shows that the American middle class has just suffered its "worst decade in modern history" in terms of income growth (or in this case lack of growth). 85% of Americans say they are finding it harder to maintain their living standards than they were a decade ago, and if you look at the charts here you will see why: their median net worth has plummeted and their median income is down by around $3,000 a year.

How did this happen? Technology, falling union strength, the rise of cheap manufacturing in China, the rise of hugely dominant and profit-oriented companies, the collapse of paternalism, the rise of the bonus culture, tax cuts at the top (particularly on capital gains) and the rise of the power of central banks (who all too often interpret inflation in terms of wages rather than money supply and so work to keep the former down). All things we've written about here before.

In one episode of the Flintstones, Fred loses his job. It's miserable. All I want, he says "is my old job back and my old life. Oh, and two weeks paid vacation for all the workers in the quarry, an annual cost-of-living increase, and those little packets of ketchup in the lunch room." That's all most of working America wants these days. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they are going to get it any time soon.

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