Frank Thoughts: The Middle Class Journey
Frank Boland
July 26, 2012

My father stood staring out the living room window of our apartment building.  It was a building that was derisively referred to as “The Project” by its inhabitants.  Other people knew it as Public Housing.  It was government housing for low income people.  Many, like my father, were returning World War II veterans.  And these Vets, millions of them, were all starting out the same; Poor.  But in 1948, the best social economic environment was yet ahead of them.  Optimism was ubiquitous.

Suddenly my father saw what he was expecting.  He got very excited, picked me up and carried me outside.  When you’re young you remember situations that are emotionally charged in the adult world.  And this one was very highly charged, especially to a five-year old.

Outside was an older man standing next to an open car door smiling.  My father had bought his first car.  It was black purple with a large rounded trunk.  That purchase, and a newly acquired union membership card, would represent his entry point into the middle-class. 

The period from 1948 through the decades of the 1950s and 60s was one of relative tranquility.  Husbands went to work; wives stayed home and raised children.  In the 1960s a television show, “Father Knows Best,” idealized this family way of life.  But a government policy of “Guns” (Viet Nam) and “Butter” (social programs) began to erode the fiscal and social tranquility of the time.  

Inflation became rampant in the 1970s.  Stay-at-home wives were thus forced into the workforce to maintain the family’s middle class existence.  But it wasn’t enough.  By 1982 there was intense financial pain in the middle class world.  However, by then credit cards were culturally accepted and were being used extensively.  The cards bought more time, as well as product, to maintain the self-delusion.  The rising housing bubble of 1995-2006 extended the deception as home “equity” loans were used to maintain the life style.  But, in reality, that idealized life style had disappeared 40 years earlier.  Increasing debt simply postpones the reality that you cannot spend more than you make, at least not indefinitely.

Middle class jobs are tasks largely performed by hand, not by thinking.  But we are no longer a manufacturing economy.  We are a knowledge based economy.  Example:  Apple Computer.  Steve Jobs created the idea but the company manufactures overseas. This change in the economy has been transformational in our society.   It has created the much politicized 1% versus the 99%.  But we have always been an aspirational society; one that believes in exceptionalism.  The common social goal of every American parent is to want their children to have a better life.  And we all passionately believe it is possible only in this country.  It serves no personal or social purpose to idealize a misconstrued past.    What exists today is simply the most dynamic knowledge based economy in the world. 



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