Welcome to the Future: Downward Mobility and Social Depression

The mainstream is finally waking up to the future of the American Dream: downward mobility for all but the top 10% of households. A recent Atlantic article fleshed out the zeitgeist with survey data that suggests the Great Middle Class/Nouveau Proletariat is also waking up to a future of downward mobility: The Downsizing of the American Dream: People used to believe they would someday move on up in the world. Now they’re more concerned with just holding on to what they have.

I dug into the financial and social realities of what it takes to be middle class in today’s economy: Are You Really Middle Class?

The reality is that the middle class has been reduced to the sliver just below the top 5%–if we use the standards of the prosperous 1960s as baseline.

The downward mobility isn’t just financial–it’s a decline in political power, control of one’s work and income-producing assets. This article reminds us of what the middle class once represented: What Middle Class? How bourgeois America is getting recast as a proletariat.

The costs of trying to maintain a toehold in the upper-middle class are illuminated in these recent articles on health and healthcare–both part of the downward mobility:

Health Care Slavery and Overwork

How a toxic workplace could, literally, destroy your health

We’re afraid our work is killing us, and we are right

This reappraisal of the American Dream is also triggering a reappraisal of the middle class in the decades of widespread prosperity: The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?

And here’s the financial reality for the bottom 90%: declining real income:

Downward mobility excels in creating and distributing what I term social defeat: In my lexicon, social defeat is a spectrum of anxiety, insecurity, chronic stress, powerlessness, and fear of declining social status.

One aspect of social defeat is the emptiness we experience when prosperity does not deliver the promised sense of fulfillment. Here is one example: A recent sociological study compared wealthy Hong Kong residents’ sense of contentment with those of the immigrant maids who serve the moneyed Elites. The study found that the maids were much happier than their wealthy masters, who were not infrequently suicidal and depressed.

The maids, on the other hand, had a trustworthy group – other maids they met with on their one day off – and the coherent purpose provided by their support of their families back home.

Downward mobility and social defeat lead to social depression. Here are the conditions that characterize social depression:

1. High expectations of endless rising prosperity have been instilled in generations of citizens as a birthright.

2. Part-time and unemployed people are marginalized, not just financially but socially.

3. Widening income/wealth disparity as those in the top 10% pull away from the shrinking middle class.

4. A systemic decline in social/economic mobility as it becomes increasingly difficult to move from dependence on the state (welfare) or one’s parents to financial independence.

5. A widening disconnect between higher education and employment: a college/university degree no longer guarantees a stable, good-paying job.

6. A failure in the Status Quo institutions and mainstream media to recognize social recession as a reality.

7. A systemic failure of imagination within state and private-sector institutions on how to address social recession issues.

8. The abandonment of middle class aspirations by the generations ensnared by the social recession: young people no longer aspire to (or cannot afford) consumerist status symbols such as luxury autos or homeownership.

9. A generational abandonment of marriage, families and independent households as these are no longer affordable to those with part-time or unstable employment, i.e. what I have termed (following Jeremy Rifkin) the end of work.

10. A loss of hope in the young generations as a result of the above conditions.

If you don’t think these apply, please check back in a year. We’ll have a firmer grasp of social depression in October 2016.


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  • jadan

    This sort of essay may serve a purpose in underscoring what people already suspect is true, though they are loath to admit it. But as nothing changes and we move ineluctably along the conveyor belt to our fate in a bubbling vat of soylent green, I don’t think we should be accentuating the negative in this way. Cheer up, Smith! Better to light a single candle than bewail the darkness. We need a revolution. Conditions grow worse which means opportunities for deep structural change become more probable. It is dawning even in through the thick skulls of the elite, such as Ben Bernanke, that financial crimes should not be tolerated. That’s a fine attitude to have in retrospect, Ben! Let’s just consider that the elite would not care for the sort of catastrophe their behavior is tending to make inevitable. Let’s just consider that the elite will be amenable to political revolution and will not stand in the way. Bernie Sanders is a phenomenon. Why? They’re letting him do his thing. The system that created monstrous inequity is an enemy to the 1% as well. There may be fascist ideologues among the elite, but there is also deep and pervasive nostalgia for this same American dream you are busy burying, Smith. Stop your bitching. Feel the bern.

  • animalogic

    I’m afraid i’m more pessimistic than this writer. For example: points 6 and 7.
    ” 6. A failure in the Status Quo institutions and mainstream media to recognize social recession as a reality.

    7. A systemic failure of imagination within state and private-sector institutions on how to address social recession issues.”

    Does the author actually believe that the social ills he so accurately diagnoses are merely “failures”? That such elites are not quite aware of the consequences of their deliberate policies and
    practices ?

    Every point the writer makes is the inevitable outcome of a conscious
    and systematic program by elites to increasingly transfer money and power into their own hands. Corruption, criminality ? Mere fribbles, costs of doing business…the “costs of progress”.

  • flaccus

    Not only is “downward mobility for all but the top 10%” the future trend in America. It is what’s been happening here since the early 70s.