Death of the Middle Class?

Lots of jobs that existed in recent memory -- secretaries, travel agents, gas station attendants, cashiers -- have been replaced by technology. The middle class may be disappearing with them.

Jason Kottke points me to Douglas Coupland‘s “A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years.” Most of it strikes me as either obvious or outlandish. But this one is pretty interesting:

6) The middle class is over. It’s not coming back

Remember travel agents? Remember how they just kind of vanished one day?

That’s where all the other jobs that once made us middle-class are going – to that same, magical, class-killing, job-sucking wormhole into which travel-agency jobs vanished, never to return. However, this won’t stop people from self-identifying as middle-class, and as the years pass we’ll be entering a replay of the antebellum South, when people defined themselves by the social status of their ancestors three generations back. Enjoy the new monoclass!

Travel agents are a much better example of this phenomenon than the one’s I tend to use:  secretaries and gas station attendants.  All three jobs still exist, of course, but they’re radically less abundant than they used to be, largely replaced by technology and deemed too inefficient by businesses striving to maximize productivity.  And, while we’ve saved money in all three cases, we’re likely worse off as a society for the change.

The transformation has been rapid.   All of these changes have occurred within my clear recollection.

When I was a little kid, someone pumped the gas, cleaned the windshield, checked the tire pressure, and handed out some sort of keepsake prize (a Zodiac sign coffee mug or a plastic tumbler, say) whenever dad pulled up to fill the tank.  Then came the Arab oil embargo and higher gas prices.  Soon, some station owners started to have “Self-Service” pumps wherein customers could pump their own gas and save, say, a nickel.  Even though my dad hated to get the smell of gasoline on him, it was worth the risk to save the money.    Before long, “Full-Service” stations became a rarity outside the states that forbade allowing customers to pump their own.

Within my memory, although not my working life, office workers of any seniority had someone to do the time consuming work of sorting through the mail, answering phone calls, sending routine correspondence, making photocopies, sending faxes, mailing packages, scheduling meetings, and the dozens of other tasks that really aren’t a manager’s job but that would otherwise wind up taking up for too much of their time.   I’m not sure if “Mad Men” is completely accurate in this regard but the idea is:  even very junior executives had secretaries to do this sort of thing into the early 1980s or so.

The rise of word processing, email, and other technologies made it simple enough for managers to do.  Other office machines became more automated, too, so little or no training is needed to make copies or send a fax.   But, at the end of the day, the $100,000 a year middle manager is now spending a large part of his day doing tasks that a $40,000 a year assistant could be doing instead.

Much more recently, it became possible to bypass the airlines and the travel agents and do comparative shopping online for the best air fares and hotel rates.   This was largely a boon, in that it added transparency to a system that was far too mysterious.   You could still call a travel agent, of course, but why would you pay the added expense after having done the leg work already?

The problem, though, is that, unless you’re a frequent traveler between two cities — and maybe even then — you’re operating blind.   In theory, at least, an experienced travel agent knew which hotels were worth staying out, why a particular discount package wasn’t so good a deal after all, and so forth.   But it’s a service that hardly exists anymore.

We’re seeing this sort of thing all over the place.   Suddenly, we’re being transformed into grocery store clerks, as supermarkets make you either queue up behind the one manned register or scan your own items.   Oh, and put them in your own bag:  the teens who used to earn some pocket money bagging your groceries don’t work there anymore.

Of the jobs mentioned, travel agents are the best example because they were unquestionably middle class.  Secretaries could at least aspire to it middle class status as their careers progressed.   Gas attendants, checkout clerks, and grocery baggers were always low wage jobs, although ones frequently performed by young people on their way to bigger and better things.

I’m not suggesting that the disappearance of these jobs has been mostly bad.   Some of the efficiencies have been passed on to consumers in reduced prices, enabling us to enjoy luxuries that we couldn’t previously.   And some of the people who would have taken those jobs doubtless moved on to better ones requiring more skills.

But, in addition to lowering our quality of life in other ways — turning us all into clerks, as it were — the fact remains that the type of fellow who was pumping gas or bagging groceries at age 40 is unlikely to have landed at Google through the miracle of creative destruction.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business, Science & Technology, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Actually I don’t buy this. There may not be travel agents but there are starbucks managers, medical technicians, geeks to go, casino and hotel beverage managers, govt bureaucrats, car hire managers, J Crew designers, compliance officers, and so on endlessly. These people may have been squeezed economically and socially by technology but they haven’t ceased to exist by any means.

  2. Brummagem Joe says:

    Oops I forgot finish my thought which was that in fact the middle class is bigger than ever. The class that is really disappearing is the traditional working class.

  3. john personna says:

    Coupland‘s article appeals to my native pessimism, and on #6 I can see his logic. I don’t really think there are enough secure and pension paying middle class jobs to replace those lost.

    A Starbucks barrista job might be fine … if you had a European healthcare and pension to go with it.

  4. john personna says:

    (When Joe says “traditional working class” he might mean those factory workers with cars, houses, and mabe a boat or cabin, who called themselves middle class.)

  5. Brummagem Joe says:

    “A Starbucks barrista job might be fine …”

    Actually I believe Starbucks health benefits are fairly good within the context of the US economy. However, the underlying point about healthcare is well taken which is why whatever Republican politicians may say there’s no doubt in my mind we’e ultimately going to end up with a European type of system. SS and Medicare didn’t come into being because FDR or Johnson thought it was nice idea and would secure their place in history. They came into being because the majority of the population over 65 were living in penury and/or likely to become a bankrupting burden on their children when their health needs escalated.

  6. Brummagem Joe says:

    john personna says:
    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 13:04

    What they call themselves, or even how they used their disposable income, is bit irrelevant to what they really are. And they are disappearing fast.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Add to the “new jobs” category endless levels of indirect producers: marketing consultants, PR representatives, web site designers, graphic artists, and so on. We have a lot fewer professional musicians than we did 80 years ago but we’ve got DJs, media experts, and sound engineers and you can hardly escape music without trying hard. A century ago most adult males were farmers. Now more food is produced than ever and we have very few farmers.

    I note, too, that we have far fewer manure shovelers and street sweepers than we did a century ago but the streets are cleaner and that the air is noticeably clearer than it was nearly a half century ago when I was in college.

    I think the actual problems we have are a little different than the “pessimist’s guide” might lead you to conclude. So, for example, I think that those who fear the barbarians at the gate are half right. It will look more like a continuous attack by computer malware or Nigerian spammers than the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, however. Nothing will ever really work the way it’s supposed to.

  8. Brummagem Joe says:

    “Nothing will ever really work the way it’s supposed to.”

    I think I prefer cleaning up my computer to cleaning up the blood after a visit by the Visigoths. Citizens of the West have never been healthier and wealthier. Wiser is perhaps more problematic.

  9. Rebecca Burlingame says:

    As I read through the comments, I think to myself, “it really is a good thing you’ve got a few old bloggers who are broke!” Otherwise how would the whole story be told? When I was young and struggling to get through college…when it didn’t work out, Dad just said, you can make good money as a secretary. Years later, I paid more than a $1,000 to get that last secretarial job and they let me go after only six months.

  10. Gerry W. says:

    I think that there is a number of things going on. This article focused on technology and that is one factor. And in fact there was a NYT article on older workers who got laid off. only to find that the employer wanted them to learn more as more automation came into place.

    Another factor with technology is that the internet has replaced the public relations person in the front office. We were told to use the internet to get all your work related, retirement, medical, and company information.

    Other factors is that we have globalization, and jobs can be outsourced with cheap labor.

    Another factor is lean principles that applies to one person doing the job of two or three.

    Our country has gone through years of ignorance and arrogance with business as usual and with failed ideologies that if we just give tax cuts, that everything will be fine. And with all these failed ideologies, to give an example,we see an infrastructure (according to American Society of Engineers) needing some 2 trillion dollars. Talking about the infrastructure gives an idea how far we have fallen. We have not prepared our country for the loss of jobs and for the technology that replaced those jobs. At 61, I see this all harmful to older Americans. The younger people may adapt better. However, where the jobs are is anyones guess. And the new jobs like solar farms only needs about five people to maintain them, whereas, the factories we close had 500 or 1000 employees. And to scrounge up another job, if one exists, that job will pay less.

    And then you have the housing crisis and a recession. And it compounds everything else.

    With 2 billion cheap laborers who want our jobs, we will feel the pressure on jobs and wages. With technology changing also, the middle class is being squeezed. We can’t even rely on the private sector with new products such as the i pad or i pod, as they are made in China.

    I don’t think I have ever seen a time when things look so dismal from my standpoint. Of course, for younger people, it may be an exception. They will adapt with their video games and transfer that to their jobs. The older people will remember simpler times, working 30 years, getting a pay check, and retiring. And knowing that social security (while it had fixes) would still be there.

  11. mannning says:

    We still must use servi ce people from computer to software to plumber and electrician to cafrpenter and HIVAC man. These jobs command salaries above that of the much lamented travel agent, the secretary, and the admin assistant today, and if you are good and go out on your own, you can make a bundle. Service calls here run from $125 to $145, plus parts and labor over one hour. This is the new middle class, promoted from mere technician to technocrat.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    “This is the new middle class, promoted from mere technician to technocrat.”

    A distinction without a difference surely. But I agree geeks to go has replaced travel agentry as a middle class occupation. They are both facilitation activities really.

  13. john personna says:

    We still must use servi ce people from computer to software to plumber and electrician to cafrpenter and HIVAC man.

    The plumbers have probably protected themselves against illegals and oversupply more than most. They might be finding the billable hours even through this contraction. I’m not sure finding the hours is the norm though.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    john personna says:
    Friday, October 15, 2010 at 09:33

    “The plumbers have probably protected themselves against illegals”

    Really? I see plenty of south american plumbers around. In England (another country of course) plumbers are notoriously Polish.

  15. mannning says:

    A technician exercises a particular skill to keep things running, while a technocrat does that AND exercises managerial authority at some level…which the inidependent service contractor must do. So there is a definite distinction here. That is, if one believes Webster.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    ‘So there is a definite distinction here. ”

    I can’t say that I saw Tom at Geeks to Go in best buy, or Jim the guy who got my furnace working (all in the past three weeks) exercising much managerial authority but they could have been doing it outside of my sight I suppose. In the case of self employed businessmen who are obviously exercising managerial functions that’s their primary occupation even if they are leveraging a personal skill within the business.

  17. mannning says:

    A clear progression from technician to technocrat, don’t you agree? Which is allowed in the definition.

  18. Brummagem Joe says:

    mannning says:
    Friday, October 15, 2010 at 22:05
    “don’t you agree?”

    Only if the progression is from plumber to plumbing contractor. When a plumber owns a plumbing business (probably organized as a S corp) his principal occupation is plumbing contractor. It’s his ownership of the business that involves the managerial duties that elevate him into technocracy using your def not joining pipes. These sort of people have always existed they are not new entrants into the middle class as you suggest. As I mentioned above there are plenty of new middle class occupations to replace travel agents but their membership doesn’t revolve around whether they’re technicians or technocrats. Lab “technicians” were and are members of the middle class.

  19. mannning says:

    Dear God you strain at a knat! Around here there are plenty of businesses that began as a single technician of some sort, but managed to add skills as their clientele grew and demanded their kind of caring service. They have become certified to be both plumbers, electricians, and HVAC sales and service, and have even added generator sales and service to their skillset, and have thus graduated into technocrats that manage quite a desparate set of professional crews for both manufacture, sales and services. Simarily, computer techs have grown their businesses in a number of technical directions, adding sales to serv ice, adding software services and programming, networking, PC building to order, maintenance contracting and general contracting to their businesses.

    It is therefore not at all necessary that there must be a simple, single professional alignment of tech skill and tech contracting. That entrepreneurship has always existed here is not in question, either. So the progression from technician to technocrat is quite obvious and demonstrable, and as new technology becomes ubiquitous, so do the technicians and technocrats to support them.