Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is the Working Class in Crisis?

Matt Yglesias thinks that the argument over why the working class is in decline, for example between Paul Krugman and David Brooks at the Times, is wrongheaded. How do we know there is a decline?
Two related facts seem to trouble both Brooks and Krugman. Marriage rates are down, and so is male workforce participation. Brooks sees this as a cultural crisis that’s leading to declining material welfare, while Krugman sees declining male wages as driving both trends.

But what if this is a non-crisis driven by abundance? The obvious place to look for an explanation of the declining marriage rate is the vast increase in the economic opportunities available to women. Newly empowered and less dependent on male economic support, women have become somewhat choosier and are now less likely to be married than in the past. You can perhaps make the case that this is bad for kids, and that as a society we should return to total economic disempowerment of women in order to force people into two-parent households. But why not just look at progress and call it “progress”? There is evidence that family instability is hard on children, but as seen above, there’s no reason to think we’re witnessing systematic generational decline.

As for labor force participation, Krugman must be right that poor labor market conditions explain the trend over the past few years. But the long-term decline has been going on since as far back as we have data. Male labor force participation rates were declining in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and in the ‘80s, and now in the aughts.
Maybe the value of leisure is increasing? The past 70 years have seen the popularization of television, color television, cable, VCRs, mini satellites, video games, CD players, computers, DVDs, HDTVs, MP3 players, and a host of other fun gizmos. At the same time, it’s worth noting that stagnating real working-class wages are calculated by using a meaningless overall average rate of price inflation. Some things—college tuition, apartments in Manhattan, health care—have gotten more expensive much faster than average. This means that people who buy a below-average amount of those things are better off than the statistics show. A healthy person living in an unfashionable city with no student loans to pay off can get by on a fairly modest income. . . .

The short-term jobs situation is a real crisis, but the longer-term decline of work is an opportunity. If men want to tempt women back into marriage, they’ll have to use more of their free time to pitch in with housework and child care, building a more egalitarian tomorrow. If employers want to tempt people back into working, they’ll have to offer higher pay or more pleasant jobs. Most likely we’ll get some of both, and more loafing on the couch too. George Jetson, after all, only worked nine hours a week. Why should we aspire to anything less?
I would say that the problem with Yglesias' rosy view is that poor Americans are getting less happy. Certainly there is a class of young American men who don't work very hard because they don't see the point. Some of them may enjoy slacker life too much to want anything else, and that's fine. But many others are profoundly frustrated by the situation, and the reason they work less is not so much that they value leisure more than their grandparents, but that they don't think the rewards of work are worth it. To me, that implies something very wrong with our working lives.

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