This way lies disaster: the disappearing middle classes

The HBR on a subject I’m concerned about: the hollowing-out of the middle class. A problem large and growing – unlike the middle classes themselves.

In the American idiom “middle class” equates to “middle income” – perhaps a better definition than in the UK, where medicine and the law are middle-class. But the principle’s the same: the middle section of society – the part that has most stake in the rule of law and economic growth, the part that pays its own way through life and doesn’t expect or get much from the State – is disappearing, all over the Western world, just as it’s growing massively in the BRICS and beyond.

In the UK, the squeeze on the middle was largely driven by politics, not managers – the last government despised anyone able to stand on their own two feet; much easier to control ‘em if their source of income comes straight from the Treasury. Tax credits, income support, means-testing, and the endless hordes of new public sector workers were the results of this mindset. (People think Gordon Brown was a complex character. He wasn’t; he was a simple, unreconstructued socialist, believing people should be kept on a leash for their own good.)

It led, of course, to today’s problematic public sector and appalling public finances – but at least the masses were controlled! For their own good! And that’s all that matters to a socialist; forget the money stuff; we can always print more.

To be fair, there are controllers on the right too. But Tory control freaks (I was sure George Osborne was one, but the guy’s grown on me over the last year) promote their authoritarianism through rules and regulations rather than the bread and circuses of discredited New Labour – and rules can always be gamed somehow, even if the winning move is not to play.

So 17 million Americans are doing jobs below their skills level, with another 8-10m unable to get jobs at all. 10% of the population. That’s a lot of people to annoy. Especially when those people are articulate, educated, responsible individuals, most of whom believe at heart in fairness of opportunity and personal responsibility.

I’m not counting the working poor or the low-skilled unemployed here; many of them are good people, but they’ll never be genuine contributors to society – through no fault of their own, they’ll never be able to pay enough taxes to cover the public services they draw.As a result, they’ll always hold the view that the State owes them a living; takers rather than givers. This is not a negative on low-skilled people – I hugely admire people working their asses off in restaurants and farmer’s fields – but it’s hard for them to join the middle class and take up a contributing role in civil society. We’ve got a general view in the UK that the NHS – a government-funded monopoly, for crying out loud! – should be the only provider of healthcare available to anyone. An uninformed viewpoint – but that’s what happens when the middle class disengages: public opinion is formed by the uninformed. Less civil society, more mob rule.

The middle classes are the backbone of any civilised society. They pay the taxes (because there are many of them); their views shape policy (because they read the newspapers and vote) and they instil values into their children, connecting across the generations. These things together form something called “society”.

And without a middle class – or worse, a middle class that feels hard done by, as in Britain today - we are truly lost.

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