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After losing ground for four decades, middle America increasingly looks doomed. Here's how it happened.
BOSTON — Meet Mr. and Ms. Median America.
Or perhaps you already know them.
His name is likely to be Michael. Hers, Jennifer. They’re 37 years old, and live in a detached home, worth about $188,000 — 60 percent of which, on average, still belongs to the bank. A child or two run around on the lawn out back.
Jennifer and Michael have completed high school, but like 70 percent of Americans, they lack a Bachelor’s degree.
Family time is tight. They sleep 7.6 hours each night, work 8.6 hours, commute 25 minutes each way, and take little more than 20 minutes for each meal. Their paychecks are signed by the state or local government — which over the past decade surpassed manufacturing as America’s biggest employer. There’s a one-in-three chance that they work on the weekend, and they are more likely than couples elsewhere in the developed world to have dual incomes — a necessity these days, to cobble together their $50,000 annual household earnings.
Compared to the middle class in the developing world, Jennifer and Michael are living large. They own two cars and three TVs. She drinks wine; he prefers beer. They’re both somewhat overweight — he’s 5 foot 8, and weighs 196 pounds, she’s 5 foot 3 and weighs 164; there’s a one-in-three chance that they’re obese. Exhausted by the demands of labor and family care, they spend their average 2.6 hours of daily leisure time unwinding with "American Idol" and "Dancing with the Stars."
But compared to their parents, Mr. and Ms. Median America — a statistically representative middle class couple — are struggling. They are not quite an endangered species, but their numbers and lifestyle are threatened, and they are progressively losing ground. Some economists regard the trend as terminal.
The American middle class is more financially stressed and anxious than at any time since World War II. Unlike the “Leave it to Beaver” generation that enjoyed prosperity, growth and opportunity in the quarter-century after the war, today’s middle class suffers from a prevailing malaise, marked by declining wealth, rising debt, stagnant wages, and a mounting angst about their prospects.
“Middle class Americans look to the economic future — their own, their children’s, and the nation’s — with a mix of apprehension and muted optimism,” reported the Pew Research Center in an August 2012 study. They are increasingly preoccupied by wallet issues: a lack of job security, the challenges of paying for education and retirement, and even the formerly sacrosanct idea that the next generation would be better off.
“Only about one-in-ten [members of the middle class] say they are very optimistic about the country’s long-term economic future,” Pew reports.
How desperate is the average American?
Behind the anguish are a barrage of studies and indicators that point to decades of struggle and backsliding, beginning as early as the 1970s.
Of course, everyone knows about the 12 million-plus Americans swelling the current unemployment ranks. But they represent only a small part of an increasingly systemic jobless problem. More than 8 million have settled for part-time jobs because they can't find full time positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And millions more have become so disillusioned that they've dropped out of the workforce altogether.
The long-term trend is truly worrisome. For the American worker, each economic downturn since 1981 has been more bruising than the last, with the jobs market taking progressively longer to recover pre-recession levels. In 1981, it took 27 months for employment to recover. The relatively shallow 1991 recession cost 32 months; 2001 took four years.
Now, more than five and a half years after the Great Recession, unemployment languishes 3 percentage points below normal. With some 50,000 US factories closing since 2000, the prospect for a quick turnaround is grimmer than ever.
“The danger is that full recovery does not come at all,” warned the Economic Policy Institute in a recent report, which blames Washington, not workers. “Nations have thrown away decades of growth because policymakers failed to ensure complete recovery.”
To the American middle class, it increasingly seems that the invisible hand of the market no longer values its formerly vaunted talents and work ethic.
Unemployment isn’t just a problem for those lacking a