The Other America is the Majority

The Other America is the Majority November 26, 2012

From Richard Florida:

America’s stark class divides are a product of its ongoing economic transformation. As the ranks of the working class have shrunk due to the devastating one-two punch of automation and globalization, two other classes have swelled. On the one hand, there is the creative classof scientists and engineers; business professionals and knowledge workers; artists, entertainers, media workers and cultural creatives. Numbering more than 40 million, they account for almost a third of the American workforce. With average annual earnings of more than $70,000, they collect almost half of all U.S. wages and salaries and control some 70 percent of the nation’s discretionary income.

But in parallel, another much larger class has arisen. More than 60 million Americans belong to the service class. These are some of America’s fastest-growing job categories, such as food preparation, personal care, and retail sales, but on average they earn just over $30,000 in annual wages, and many quite a bit less than that.

The math is terrifying. Add the ranks of the unemployed, the displaced, and the disconnected to these tens of millions of low-wage service workers, and the population of post-industrialism’s left-behinds surges to as many as two-thirds of all Americans. This is a much larger, and perhaps more permanent, version of the economic, social, and cultural underclass that Michael Harrington long ago dubbed “the other America.” In fact, it is our majority.

Yes, it’s that many and it’s that bad.

Worse yet, the ranks of the 66 percent are a product of the very structure of post-industrial capitalism. If the top third of America’s workers are navigating and prospering in the knowledge economy, the other two-thirds are disconnected and sinking. And if things continue to go in the direction that they have been, their children and their grandchildren will be too.

You’d never know this from our politicians, who either ignore or elide both the depths of these workers’ troubles and the staggering extent of their numbers. For all the deserved criticism Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney received for his remarks about the 47 percent, Democrats are just as deep in denial. President Obama might have bailed out the car companies, but manufacturing’s glory days are in the past. Just 6.5 percent of domestic workersare involved in directly producing manufacturing products.

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  • Is a national economy that consists almost entirely of the creative class and the service class viable, stable and sustainable?

  • Phil Miller

    In 1930, John Maynard Keynes worked out that the average work week should be about 15 hours by now. That was based on extrapolating increases in productivity out into the future. Productivity gains have actually met or exceeded his estimates, but yet many Americans are working more than ever. Why is that? Mainly it’s because we don’t work less when we become more productive, rather, we take the extra income generated by that and use it to consume more. So we are truly a consumer-driven economy.

    It’s really hard to see how the prospects of “the other America” are going to get much better in the near future. Short of massive re-education efforts, I don’t see how we ensure that people with skill sets that aren’t valued in the economy at large can actually make a good living. I don’t see government policy as being powerful enough to really make a difference in the long run.

  • Craig

    Florida seems to have a strangely restricted conception of “working class.”

  • “In 1930, John Maynard Keynes worked out that the average work week should be about 15 hours by now.”

    Keynes was wrong about a lot of things.

    I’m not a pessmistic about any of this at all. 30 years ago we were worried about population bombs and global cooling, in the meantime technology and science has headed off all sorts of potential disasters (disease, food shortages, ect.) while posing all kinds of new ones..such as an overfixation and reliance on science and technology at the expense of spreading the Gospel.

  • Phil Miller

    I too think Keynes was probably wrong about a lot of things, but his assumption for productivity increases was rather modest – 2%. The interesting thing is that for those in the “creative class” the distinction between work and leisure can be blurry. People who aren’t doing manual labor or operating machinery sit in front of a computer at the office and probably spend a great deal of time sitting in front of a computer at home.

    This article is where I’m getting my info from, btw:

  • Jag

    It would be a different matter had those productivity gains found their way into the pockets of workers. Most productivity gains benefit the “investor class” while workers’ wages stagnate and work hours increase. It’s essentially an upward transfer of wealth.

  • Is Florida really redefining the wealthy as those who earn more than $70,000 a year? And does he think the economics, problems, and struggle with class of today are worse than, say the US in the early 1900s or anytime and place in ancient history? Does capitalism have its limits and evils? Yes! It is, after all, a human system. But has there ever been another time in history or system of economics where 40% of any country’s population had, much less controlled, any wealth? I doubt it.

  • Earl

    “such as an overfixation and reliance on science and technology at the expense of spreading the Gospel.”

    False dichotomy. The gospel as interpreted by a large segment of “Christianity” (notice the quotes) has very little to do with the actual words of Jesus — the Jesus who would quite forecefully point out the greed and manipulative avarice of the current economic rulers.