By the end of the century, corporations acknowledged that they had downgraded workers in their calculus of concerns. In the 1980s, a Conference Board survey of corporate executives found that 56 percent agreed that “employees who are loyal to the company and further its business goals deserve an assurance of continued employment.” When the Conference Board asked the same question in the 1990s, 6 percent of executives agreed. “Loyalty to a company,” Welch once said, “it’s nonsense.”

What has vanished over the past 40 years isn’t just Americans’ rising incomes. It’s their sense of control over their lives. The young college graduates working in jobs requiring no more than a high-school degree, the middle-aged unemployed who have permanently opted out of a labor market that has no place for them, the 45- to 60-year-olds who say they will have to delay their retirement because they have insufficient savings — all these and more are leading lives that have diverged from the aspirations that Americans until recently believed they could fulfill. This May, a Pew poll asked respondents if they thought that today’s children would be better or worse off than their parents. Sixty-two percent said worse off, while 33 percent said better. Studies that document the decline of intergenerational mobility suggest that this newfound pessimism is well grounded.

The extinction of a large and vibrant American middle class isn’t ordained by the laws of either economics or physics. Many of the impediments to creating anew a broadly prosperous America are ultimately political creations that are susceptible to political remedy. Amassing the power to secure those remedies will require an extraordinary, sustained, and heroic political mobilization. Americans will have to transform their anxiety into indignation and direct that indignation to the task of reclaiming their stake in the nation’s future.

Harold Meyerson, The Forty Year Slump

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Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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