The Deindustrial Revolution & The Dying Middle Class
Writing in The Spectator, Ed West and Fraser Nelson say something bad is happening in Britain. Excerpts:
To Voltaire, the British class system could be summed up in a sentence. The people of these islands, he said, ‘are like their own beer; froth on top, dregs at bottom, the middle excellent’. A harsh judgment, perhaps, but one that might still have some truth in it today. Yes, we have horrible poverty in our council estates and toffery on our country estates. But Britain is a country that has always taken pride in what we think of as middle-class virtues — hard work, honesty, thrift and self-help.
Today, however, we are witnessing the strange death of the middle class. In Britain, as in the United States, it isn’t just being squeezed — it is actually shrinking and sinking. This is the most disturbing social change of our age and will probably dominate your children’s lives. The lifestyle that the average earner had half a century ago — reasonably sized house, dependable healthcare, a decent education for the children and a reliable pension — is becoming the preserve of the rich. Middle-class pensioners look on amazed at how their children, now into adulthood, seem to have a far harder time.
In his book The Decline and Fall of the British Middle Class, Patrick Hutber identified ‘thrift’ as a definable middle-class virtue. But in today’s Britain, it is actively punished. The individual savings account — or Isa — seemed to have been invented in homage to thrift, allowing people to save cash tax-free. But Treasury policies have now floored savings rates, and the holders of all normal cash Isas must accept interest below the rate of inflation. So savers lose money, year after year, due to official Bank of England policy. It is as if the government is now at war with the very notion of thrift.
This changes a country. Children will no longer grow up watching their deposits grow in a Post Office bank account, and will struggle to understand the point of delayed financial gratification. In today’s Britain, putting cash into a savings account is a mug’s game. Instead, we seem to be nurturing a winner-takes-all economic model — middle-class children can be forgiven for adopting the ‘get rich or die trying’ ethos of gangster rappers. They grow up pinning their hopes on the scratchcard, the rollover jackpot or The X Factor. It seems impossible to save your way to a comfortable life.
Even work is essentially pointless if the aim is to live as our grandparents did. Unless they can get a job in finance, the next generation will find it very hard to live in the gentrified suburbs their parents still inhabit. Even the NHS cannot be relied upon as it once was, but private healthcare is out of reach. Little wonder that emigration levels are running so high in Britain, now at 400 a day, with Canada and Australia among the top -destinations. The exodus is ignored, due to our obsession with -immigration, but a disproportionate number of the leavers are from the skilled middle class, looking for good schools, decent houses and safe streets that seem beyond their reach here.
Read the whole thing. It’s happening in America too. West and Nelson point out that technology has a lot to do with this. Technological change first hollowed out the working class, and now is doing it to the middle class. This fact would appear to pretty severely limit policy responses, right? Does anybody have any real idea how to deal with this structural problem? In our country, it’s obvious that the president doesn’t, and it’s equally obvious that the Republicans do not. What if nobody does? I’m serious. What if this is one of those things like the Industrial Revolution, where the magnitude of the changes cannot be resisted, only somewhat managed.