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Is the Middle Class Being “Disrupted” Into Extinction?

Co-published by The Guardian.

Man 3

Precariousness is not just a working-class thing. In recent interviews, dozens of academics and schoolteachers, administrators, librarians, journalists and even coders have told me they too are falling prey to an unstable new America. I’ve started to think of this just-scraping-by group as the Middle Precariat.

The word Precariat was popularized five or so year ago to describe a rapidly expanding working class with unstable, low-paid jobs. What I call the Middle Precariat, in contrast, are supposed to be properly, comfortably middle class, but it’s not quite working out this way.

There are people like the Floridian couple who both have law degrees – and should be in the prime of their working lives – but can’t afford a car or an apartment and have moved back in with the woman’s elderly mother. There are schoolteachers around the country that work second jobs after their teaching duties are done: one woman in North Dakota I spoke to was heading off to clean houses after the final bell in order to pay her rent.

Many of the Middle Precariat work jobs that used to be solidly middle class. Yet some earn roughly what they did a decade ago. At the same time, middle-class life is now 30 percent more expensive than it was 20 years ago. The Middle Precariat’s jobs are also increasingly contingent – meaning they are composed of short-term contract or shift work, as well as unpaid overtime. Buffeted by Silicon Valley-like calls to maximize disruption, the Middle Precariat may have positions “reimagined.” That cruel euphemism means they are to be replaced by younger, cheaper workers, or even machines.

This was brought home to me at a legal fair with thousands of attendees this winter. Between the small plastic gavel swag and the former corporate lawyer building a large-scale Lego block version of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, there were booths advertising software that reviews legal documents. That software helps firms get rid of employees, including attorneys, and might soon make some of the lawyers on that trade-show floor extinct.

Other professionals describe how they must endure harsh non-traditional work schedules, much like their retail worker brethren. They work on weekends and late into the day and barely see their children. At the end of the year, they just break even, all the while retaining debt from college and even graduate school that they will never be able to repay.

While households that make anywhere from $48,000 to $250,000 can call themselves middle class, to group such a wide range of incomes under one label, as politicians love to do, is to confuse the term entirely.

A worker at a tech company in California I interviewed has two jobs and commutes at least an hour each way to one of them, much like the working class Precariat does. He can’t afford to live anywhere near his offices – San Francisco is the most expensive housing market in the country, with an average rent at $4,780 for a two-bedroom apartment as of April.

They and other members of the Middle Precariat I have spoken with over the last three years are ostensibly bourgeois, but with few of the advantages we used to associate with that standing. They may not be able to afford their mortgage payments or daycare, health and retirement savings or college educations for their kids. They also usually can’t afford a car for each adult, summer vacations or gym memberships, those status markers of the past. Indeed, some have resorted to SNAP and other federal benefits from time to time.

The Middle Precariat also may be threatened by the rise of the robots, like their working-class peers. Like the lawyers at that trade show. The numbers confirm this: in 2014, only 64 percent of law school graduates had jobs that required bar passage. In 2013, unemployment was at 11.2 percent with underemployment numbers even higher. (By contrast, in 1985, more than 81 percent had full-time legal jobs and only seven percent were not working at all.)

Journalists also have the machines nipping at their heels. Last month, tronc, formerly known as the illustrious Tribune newspaper company, demonstrated the rise of the Middle Precariat: tronc’s inadvertently hilarious branding videos celebrated artificial intelligence over photo editors, reporters and the like, replacing them with optimization and something called content funnels.

Even nurses may soon join the Middle Precariat. The National Science Foundation is spending nearly a million dollars to research a future of robotic nurses who will lift patients and bring them medicine while keeping living nurses “in the decision loop”, even though nursing is one of the few growth industries that allows for upward mobility.

The Middle Precariat, as the 2013 McKinsey Global Institute report on disruptive technologies explained, will only grow, as highly skilled workers are put on the chopping block and the “automation of knowledge work” expands. Soon to come are robot surgeons, robot financial workers, robot teachers and perhaps, robots that can take their mimicry of recent college graduates to the next level and argue that Beyonce’s Lemonade is feminism while drinking a micro brew.

It’s reached a point where this threatened class has begotten a layer of consultants to fix the problem. In San Francisco, Casey Berman counsels economically and professionally desperate people who happen to be lawyers. “There is an easier, less painful, less stressful and lucrative way to make money,” Berman’s site Leave Law Behind reads. When I spoke to him a few months ago, he told me that he sees his mission as “motivating” former lawyers that are now broke and frustrated to do something else with their lives.

But retraining and specialized psychotherapy aren’t the only answers. We need broad-based fixes. Universal subsidized daycare. Changing the tax code so it actually helps the middle class. Real collective bargaining rights for Middle Precariat workers. Paid leave to keep mothers from exiting the workforce against their will. Fair hours, not just for McDonald’s workers, but also for adjunct professors.

We also need to question the pundits and companies that incant “artificial intelligence” as a mantra, even as they are celebrating a future where so many middle-class humans’ jobs may be jettisoned. And we can start to rebuke terms like “machine learning” or “disruption,” unmasking them – along with “the billionaires” – as some of the culprits

Reporting for this piece was supported by Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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  • justquitnow

    Well our overlords are now immortal phantoms called corporations which we keep giving more power and more rights while their representatives remind us that they have no obligation but to make money. They don’t need us anymore….the American rabble. They have cheap labor for their factories elsewhere and brand new customer bases in foreign countries. We’re a drag with our high expectations of clean running water, doctor visits and single family dwellings.

  • Lauren Swan

    I can tell you as a nurse that I make little more than 6 yrs ago. I am also older and they aren’t interested in 50 something. The long, irregular hours and physical labor becomes more difficult.

  • DHFabian

    It’s complicated. In a nutshell: Americans looked at the policies and programs implemented from FDR to Reagan, which actually took the country to its height of wealth and productivity (far from perfect, but better, still a work in progress), and decided to do the opposite. We reversed the policies, ended the programs, and the inevitable has been happening.

    • Bill Sherman

      what’s this we? corrupt politicians taking bribes from corporate america reversed the policies, not we.

  • sharonsj

    If the middle class isn’t middle class anymore, imagine what the lower classes have to deal with: never enough money to pay bills, buy food, keep the electricity from being turned off, and your house from being foreclosed. Oh, and don’t forget being nickel and dimed to death by extra costs because you can’t pay a credit card on time or a check bounced because something got screwed up.

    I agree with Apathy below. The average American is pretty damn mad but too stupid to focus on the real cause of our problems. You can thank conservative radio, Fox News, and a mainstream media that equates both parties while not giving us facts.

    Eventually everything will blow up and fall apart, particularly because we’re all armed.

    • DHFabian

      Since Bill Clinton ended actual welfare in the 1990s, even liberal media have failed to shine a spotlight on the consequences. The “lower classes” don’t have luxuries like homes, they don’t qualify for credit cards, etc. The masses of jobless poor don’t even have housing. In the past, those who hit on hard times (illness, job loss, etc.) were able to fall back on welfare. It provided just enough to enable people to remain housed and fed so that they could get back on their feet. Of course, actual welfare aid ended twenty years ago. Interesting bit of trivia: The overall life expectancy of the US poor has fallen to around age 60-62. There is a third world country in our own midst.

    • sharonsj

      Well, it’s like this: my income varies between $15,000 and $17,000 a year. Although my home is paid for, every year I come close to losing it because I pay $3200 in school and property taxes (and it keeps going up every year). My car loan and insurance is $5000 (a must-have since I live in a rural area and I’m handicapped). My credit card debt is $2000, my phone (and internet) is $1000. I get no TV reception, so satellite TV is $850 (though I will have to give this up soon). Electricity is at least another $1000. Heating is over $2000 (despite living in just two rooms in the winter). I have yet to factor in food, non-food necessities, health care and medicine, and pet food (which is why I end up selling my belongings at flea markets). I never eat out and my clothes and shoes come from yard sales. I can only save money if I never leave my house. I’m about to apply for food stamps again, which will be a whopping $50 a month. And I’ll soon be 74, so I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this. Meanwhile, a friend the same age (who is a self-employed lawyer, no less) has her house in foreclosure. I know a lot of older folks and disabled friends who are living on even less, and they are all struggling. I do not blame anyone for my situation but I would struggle a lot less if our corporate-whore politicians would force the rich and big businesses to pay their fair share of taxes. My school and property taxes are this high because (1) the state legislature refuses to levy even a 1/2 cent tax on the frackers, (2) they gave huge pensions to the unions without properly funding them, and (3) they keep giving tax breaks to corporations.

  • ApathyIsConsent

    I am completely disgusted by American government and their complicity in driving most of us into poverty. Take the TPP, for example – a CLEAR corporate give-away that will lose even more jobs for America as the morally bankrupt, pathologically greedy, corporate uber wealthy continue to squawk for more H1 & 2 visas to import ever more cheap labor to replace us.

    I am now 60 and up until the 2008 banking crook “recession”formerly had a good job. I’ve worked for 40 years, but I have not worked for 2 years now. Add my age on to this equation, and I am sure I will never work again, as Silicon Valley simply does not hire anything but 20 and 30-somethings. I am trying to eek by until I can collect my social security in another 6-1/2 years, living on my mom’s charity. Corporate America has pulled a real coup on America – offering 6 week, 3 month “contract” jobs with no benefits, often far away. Oh, and to add insult to injury, the “agencies” that call me for these repugnant positions – are all from India. THAT is how quickly the sociopathic greedy can change OUR country. From Middle Class to poverty – in an instant.

    GET A CLUE, America. READ the issues and then vote. It totally repulses me how many butt-ass ignorant, empty-headed Americans are voting for Trump – a narcissistic, anti-union, racist, selfish, woman-hating asshat that will make the life of the Middle Class even MORE desperate, because he fills their empty heads with “entertainment”. Trump wages war on unions in his own establishments, dummies – what do you think he’s going to do for YOU?!! Duh.

    Enjoy the ride all the way down to the bottom.

    • ratherdrive

      I wish YOU were running for something. Clearly you know what is up.
      I would vote for you instantly.

    • DHFabian

      We’re the same age. Everything has changed. As long as you still have a means to get by, you’re doing OK. Those who aren’t as well-off as middle class are split between low wage workers and the truly poor. If you can afford food and shelter, you’re doing OK. If you can afford extras, like internet services, you’re doing even better.

      That said, Trump/Clinton have strikingly similar ideologies. We could spend the next few weeks debating which one is most likely to plunge the US into our final war (remember that, after the longest, most expensive war in our history, the nation is now depleted militarily and economically).

    • vippy

      Good blog but voting for Hillary would be worse, Trump is not a skilled politician. But people are too dumb to vote for Bernie, he is the right man but the media calls him crazy because after all we do not deserve what other countries had for decades.

  • OHDisqusNSA666100

    My experience is, with very frequent layoffs after awhile one begins to get consulted mainly for shorter term jobs and therefore jobs where one is not as productive.

  • Kevin Schmidt

    “Middle Precariat”? Who talks like that? Marxists?
    Why don’t you use the term every normal person has used for decades? They are called the “Working Class.”

    • Mens Sana

      OK. Teachers and lawyers are “Working Class”.

      • Kevin Schmidt

        Actually, teachers and lawyers are but a small part of the working class. Just about everyone who works is a part of the working class.

        • DHFabian

          Until they get dumped, at which point they are no longer regarded as humans at all.The US shipped out a huge share of our jobs since the 1980s. The last I heard, there are 7 jobs for every 10 jobless people who still have the means to pursue one (home address, phone, etc.). Ever wonder what happens to those who are pushed out of the job market?

      • ratherdrive

        Yes, they are.
        In comparison, people who live on their “investments” are not.

    • Jopin Klobe

      Have you seen what they call “derivatives”? …

      • Kevin Schmidt

        So what? That doesn’t justify trying to change a familiar term into an unfamiliar term.
        I have found that people who use big or obscure words, when small and common words will do, really don’t have much to say.

        • Jopin Klobe

          Don’t jump too quickly … …

          … The point I am making is that they even pervert the small words …

          … in other words – everything …

          • Kevin Schmidt

            “Derivative” is a common word used throughout the world.
            No one ever heard of “Middle Precariat.”
            Even my spell check wants to change precariat to, “appreciate,” ironically. LOL!

    • It’s the best one-word description I’ve seen to describe what I have experienced in this economy.

  • John StackDecker

    What makes the wealthy wealthy? The divide between their worth and everyone else. What good is wealth if every tom dick and harry can fly first class, stay at 5 star resorts or drive a Bentley?

    • Mens Sana

      Exactly! What good is my wealth if I cannot demonstrate it in such a way as to cause envy in others or at least inconvenience them in some way? And think of all the service jobs that my wealth requires to support it in the appropriate style.

    • Mari McAvenia

      The wealthy stay wealthy because they’re cheapskates. I did not make that up. While living on Martha’s Vineyard for 12 years, year round, I saw the dramatic and sudden influx of these super rich snobs – thanks, Bill and Hillary, for bringing all your obscenely rich asshole friends on vacation with y’all. You just knew they’d want to stay and takeover the whole damned island- and I worked for several of them as house cleaner and personal assistant ( to a world famous, billionairess author, no less ) while also working 3 or 4 other jobs just to make ends meet. One of these rich ladies actually told me, with a sneer, that her class of people ( those with massive inherited wealth ) “stay rich because we’re cheap.” Exploiting people who need to work for a living is what they do best, in other words, because they’ve never learned how to do anything else. The rich are NOT “job creators”, they’re community killers – and proud of it. I prefer pond scum to remain on the water and not behind the wheel of a Bentley, thank you very much.

      • Jopin Klobe

        Made hungrier by the very things upon which they feed …

        … a short definition of Cancer …

    • Jopin Klobe

      “their worth”? …

      … if they were valued for “their worth”, they’d be excreted and flushed immediately …

    • DHFabian

      They can easily fly off to country that suits them better.

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