The middle classes died a long time ago

“The death of America’s middle class.” It is a headline that has popped up on several magazines over the last few weeks, the idea being that with unemployment rising fast, real incomes falling and foreclosures gathering speed, the American dream is all but dead. Note that, despite the apparent rise in prosperity over the last few decades, the annual incomes of the bottom 90% of Americans has risen by only 10% in real terms in the last 30 years.

It is a good time to think about all this – what with the double dip – but reading the pieces I wonder if the middle class, as we once defined it, didn’t die long ago – both here and in the US. Being middle class is about all sorts of things. But some of its main characteristics I would think, would be a sense of autonomy in the work place, a reasonable amount of leisure and a sense of security.

But how many of us really have the leisure we associate with middle classness? “We used to sit around the dinner table every night when I was growing up,” Connie Freeman, an apparently middle class American, told the FT magazine, “Nowadays that’s soooo rare.” We work day and night, said her husband “but we are never more than a paycheck or two from the street.”

Think about how ordinary people survive in the UK and you’ll know that many so-called middle class people aren’t that different. How many women do you know who work all day and then fit in more email-answering after their children are in bed? Or men who don’t get home until long, long after their children are in bed? In The Times last week, Camilla Cavendish pointed to the new prevalence of “extreme working, ” jobs that entail “at least ten hours a day at work, plus breakfasts and lunches, plus being available to clients and bosses at weekends and holidays. There is no switch off.”

It used to be only bankers, CEOs and politicians who worked like this. No more. An American study in 2006 found that 21% of “high echelon workers” had extreme jobs, rising to 45% at multinational companies. Half were “clocking more than 70 hours a week” and 42% said they were working an average of over 16 hours more than five years before. The internet, the iPhone and the Blackberry have obliterated any line there once was between work and leisure. The point? Even those members of the middle class who might be making money often aren’t getting a good life out of it.
Which brings us to autonomy. A middle manager in a bank used to make decisions. Today he does not. He types things into a computer and waits for an answer. He might work a ten or 11-hour day, but he is hemmed in at every turn by bureaucracy, rules and technology. It might not be quite as dismal as working in a cotton factory a century ago, but it probably isn’t offering much more in the way of job satisfaction either.

And security, who has that any more? Being middle class used to mean owning, or having a good chance of owning and continuing to own your own home. The property bubble had done for that long before the banks imploded. And the credit crunch is doing for it now. It also used to mean not having to worry about retirement – middle class jobs used to come with nice final salary pensions and those were long supplemented by equity bull markets and rising property prices. That certainly isn’t the case now.

There is still a strata of the one-time middle class that is doing well – the bankers, consultants and media men circling the globe with international pay packages and multiple properties – but the vast majority are no longer what we used to think of as middle class. With their long hours, controlled workloads, blurred leisure time and insecure finances, many of them may have morphed into a new working class long ago.