Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

The Occupy Movement as Intra-Upper-Middle-Class Strife?

I was somewhat struck by this post the other day by Kenneth Anderson at Volokh Conspiracy, dealing with the Occupy Wall Street (and elsewhere) movement. He maintains that much of the angst driving the Occupy movement comes from the growing disparity between segments of the upper middle class -- people who have gone to good colleges and expect to have while collar jobs. Some in this group have continued to do very, very well. Others have struggled to do as well as those who lack their educational background -- and the student debt and expectations that often come with that.

Megan McArdle links to the piece, and adds a good deal more discussion, including an apropos quote from George Orwell on the perils of the early 20th century English lower upper middle class. (That a class should require three modifiers seems terribly English.)
In the kind of shabby-genteel family that I am talking about here is far more consciousness of poverty than in any working class family above the level of the dole. Rent and clothes and school-bills are an unending nightmare, and every luxury, even a glass of beer, is an unwarrantable extravagence. Practically the whole family income goes in keeping up appearances. It is obvious that people of this kind are in an anomalous position, and one might be tempted to write them off as mere exceptions and therefore unimportant. Actually, however, they are or were fairly numerous.
How on point this is is hard to say. It is true that the prevalence of both college and advanced degrees among the OWS protesters appears to be about twice that of the general US population. (And 25% of the protesters say they are still students.)

What did ring true to me in Anderson's piece are two points, both of which strike me as relating to misperceptions common in my generation. (And since the average OWS protester is white, male and my age, I guess I can speak to the situation as well as anyone.)

First off, a number of interviews I've read have expressed the sentiment, "I did everything right. I got a college degree, and the debt that came with it. Now I can't find a good job." This seems to sum up several major problems we seem to have at the moment in regards to college. On the one hand, employers too often expect college degrees for jobs which pretty clearly do not require them. Instead, having a college degree has become a sign of being somewhat intelligent and having enough persistence to actually finish a degree. (Something which, increasingly, doesn't even necessarily require much brilliance or hard work.) My grandfather used to tell a story about how at the height of the Great Depression he was turned down for a job as a gas station attendant on the basis of not having a college degree -- there were so many people applying for the job that they decided to look only at college graduates. We're not quite to that point, but it seems at times like the combination of the tough economy and the expectation that every person worth employing will come with a degree is getting us close to that. On the other hand, this association with college degrees and employment seems to have generated the idea in many people that if you just get a bachelors degree, someone can be expected to simply give you a job that will be sufficient to sustain you at the level to which you are accustomed. To my knowledge, this has never been a realistic expectation, and it certainly isn't now. Although most levels of the education process may have come around to an "automatic pass" way of doing things, employment most certainly does not work that way.

Second, the trend which Anderson notes of a large number of young college graduates being convinced they have a near entitlement to work in a non-profit or government job is something that I've very much noticed among others my age. Indeed, at times it seems a little like the odd prejudice one finds in Jane Austen characters against those who are "in trade" -- a late breaking US class system based on idealism. Of course, this leads to a lot of heartbreak, because the funny thing about non profit work is that... it's not very profitable. I remember a co-worker back in my first job out of college lamenting that she couldn't find, "A fun job at a non-profit paying at least 70k and including occasional travel." At the time, that sounded totally pie in the sky, as that was twice what either of us made. And to be honest, it still sounds pretty pie in the sky. (I believe she eventually found a solution in marrying a guy who made plenty of money and focusing on mothering and volunteering.)


Anonymous said...

Yes. Totally.

Two big errors of our generation (and shame on the adults who led us into them):

-That "doing everything right" included taking out huge student loans.

-That any college degree would provide the good job.

And that mistake applies not just to liberal arts majors, but also to some disillusioned science majors I've known over the years -- it isn't only the difficulty of the program, but also the overall demand for the specialty. And the willingness of the degree-owner to work in a boring/nasty/annoying sub-specialty.

Pentimento said...

I tried to leave this comment but something went wrong, so forgive me if you're getting it twice.

There is, inexplicably, an "Occupation" going on in my small, jobless city, but the occupiers seems to be older, poorer, less-educated, and crustier than the stereotypical OWS-er, just as they're generally older, poorer, less-educated, and crustier than the average citizen in areas where there are jobs.

If anything, OWS reminds me of the "Bonus Army" that occupied DC in 1932, the violence against which led in part to the election of FDR.

Darwin said...

There was a David Brooks column I found somewhat interesting that I couldn't figure out how to work into the post where he argues that while there has been a lot of talk from the big city Occupy protesters about how they're not getting as much out of their college degrees as the those in the making-off-like-bandits industries, what he terms "blue inequality", what is much more concerning long term is that the labor market for the less educated (both in big cities, but even more so in small ones) has cratered, as has the education system in many areas. (What he terms "red inequality".)

That would tie moderately well with my impressions when I was working in a small town in West Virginia while finishing up college. The local economy there was shrinking fast then, and that was more than ten years ago. It must be horrific now.

Jenny said...

I think there is a lot of truth in thinking that OWS is a manifestation of the lower upper class. I remember an analysis on MSN a few months ago about a family making about 250K. Basically it complained that after the family bought all the stuff that rich people buy, they were actually in the red. The article really was an absurdity. They were spending all their money on keeping up appearances.

Also as a music major, I know lots of people who believe that they are owed jobs in the public school system. One friend, whom I love and is a great teacher, had a job teaching private instrumental lessons all day in a public school. When the system enacted cutbacks, his job was eliminated. Oh the wailing about misplaced priorities and the downfall of civilization! Not just from him but from many. I felt badly that he lost his job, but it seemed entirely reasonable to me to cut the private tutor. Happily he found another job.