An American Elegy

The days of labor have passed. Labor Day for all of those in the working and lower middle class who toil in blue collar and white collar jobs and make so little in wages that they qualify for food stamps and public aid.
09/06/2016 12:18 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2017

Labor Day 2016 is past. And, the days of labor have passed as well.

That's not just for organized labor. It's for all of those in the working and lower middle class who toil in blue collar and white collar jobs and make so little in wages that they qualify for food stamps and public aid.

It didn't used to be that way. Looking back, the period after WWII from the early '50's to just before the mid-70's could be called the Camelot days for American laborers. Fairly compensated and gainfully employed full-time workers managed to own a home, with a car in the garage, and possibly another in the drive alongside the motorboat to take to a small cottage on the lake in the summer.

Those days are gone. As the song at the end of that classic 1960's musical of the same name goes, "Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot." It is the 21st century and the moment has not been shining for the average American worker for some time and is not getting any brighter at present.

Given the spate of new books, it would appear that those most challenged now are either white or in the white working and nonworking class. Consider the current best sellers Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, and the recently published The End of White Christian America by Robert P. Jones which begins with an obituary and ends with a eulogy for those Americans. These books build on a body of evidence put forward by Charles Murray in his 2012 book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

It's not just a problem for whites today, however. Economic anxiety, diminishing circumstances, income and opportunity inequality, declining aspirations and growing concerns about the future know no ethnic, racial or geographic boundaries.

Robert Putnam does an excellent job of documenting this across the board impact in his 2015 book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam points out that:

  • From 1967 to 2011, within each major racial/ethnic group (i.e., white, black and Latino) income inequality rose at the same substantial rate.
  • Between 1989 and 2013, the net worth of college-educated households with children, rose by 47 percent while the net worth of high school educated households fell by 17 percent.
  • From 2009 to 2012, the real income of the top 1 percent of American families went up by 31 percent compared to .5 percent for the bottom 99 percent.

These conditions are not lost on the public in general. The 2015 American Values Survey done by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that an astounding 72 percent of respondents feel the country is still in a recession; 79 percent feel that the economic system unfairly favors the wealthy; and, 84 percent of Americans feel that business corporations do not share enough of their success with employees.

There is definitely a shared economic angst. And, unfortunately, there are indicators that the situation for workers could get worse - possibly much worse - rather than better.

Economist Robert J. Gordon in his book, The Rise and Fall of American Growth, projects that the "life altering" and "break through" innovations and advances made in the United States in the period from 1870 to 1970 can not and will not be replicated going forward. He attributes this to a number of factors including the obsession with technology-oriented innovation; rising inequality, stagnating education, and globalization. Gordon opines that unless there is a radical shift in the nature of innovation the economic conditions for future generations of Americans will not match those of the past.

In her book, Makers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business, Rana Foroohar, an assistant managing editor at Time magazine, presents a persuasive case that "financialization" - the phenomenon by which the financial sector has grabbed control of all aspects of American business is strangling the economy. Foroohar reports that "the financial sector takes a quarter of all corporate profits wile creating only 4% of American jobs" and that the biggest companies are spending monies on stock buy backs as opposed to investing in research and innovation.

Finally, there is the changing nature of work. David Ignatius highlights in an August column for the Washington Post that a new paper from the consulting firm, McKinsey & Co. paints a stark and dark picture of the employment future. According to Ignatius, McKinsey looked at more than 800 occupations and estimates, "in manufacturing 59 percent of activities could be automated...In food service and accommodations, 73 percent of the work could be performed by machines. In retailing, 53 percent of the current jobs could be lost."

Add to that gloomy scenario, the fact that in 2010, the Government Accountability Office using Bureau of Labor Statistics data estimated that over 40% of the American workforce was in "contingent" jobs as compared to only 30% in 2005. One source estimates that percentage will grow to over 50% by 2030.

Those are the studies and statistics. But, they do not tell the human stories of the tens millions of Americans who are affected by these cataclysmic changes. Those are the stories that provide the sad and complete picture of once vital manufacturing cities disappearing, inner city neighborhoods being hollowed out, and rural areas being devastated by drugs.

That is the American elegy. It is an elegy for the end of an era.

The question is what to do about it. There are no easy answers.

But, there is one thing for certain. This problem can not be solved by looking backward or romanticizing the past.

As the lyrics from another song go, "That was once upon a time....But, somehow once upon a time never comes again."

This is a new time and a time for a new deal. That's not a new deal from the 1930's but a new deal for the 21st century.

What got American here will not get America there. America needs a forward-looking plan for American workers.

That plan does not exist today. But, it must be created in the very near future by our political, business and workforce leaders coming together and collaborating to craft a solution.

The good news is that these leaders will not have to start from ground zero. There is already considerable good work that can be referenced to accomplish this. It includes:

  • Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson's, American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper which provides an excellent analysis and argument on the need for the government and market to work together in a "mixed economy" to create better economic conditions for all.
  • A 2015 report titled Opportunity, Responsibility and Security: A Consensus Plan for Reducing Poverty and Restoring the American Dream issued by the conservative America Enterprise Institute and the more liberal Brookings Institution that provides recommendations for actions in three domains: family, work and education.
  • Andy Stern's, former president of the Service Employees International Union, Raising the Floor: How a Universal Basic Income Can Renew Our Economy and Rebuild the American Dream which outlines and describes how a guaranteed income will benefit both laborers and business.

As we noted, this is an elegy for the end of an era for Americans. At the same time, it is a call to establish the framework for a new one.