There’s no question we’re losing a lot of well-paid, middle class jobs in North America. Some say we might be witnessing the beginning of a new “gilded age” — characterized by both fabulous wealth and grinding poverty, with relatively few people in between.
Several different phenomena are contributing to the hollowing out of the middle class, including the loss of well-paid manufacturing jobs, declining unionization rates, automation, outsourcing, offshoring, austerity measures, high rates of unemployment and underemployment, changes in taxation rates, cuts to social programs, increased education costs and anger over public sector pay and organizations that received government bailouts.
This is all leading to stagnating middle class incomes, as the income of the top one per cent continues to increase and more people join the ranks of low-income workers. Young people in particular seem to have a difficult time securing meaningful work.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, nor am I immune from feeling somewhat resentful towards those who seem to have so much more than I do in spite of the fact they don’t seem to deserve it. For example, I sometimes wonder why a bus driver, miner or automotive assembly line worker should earn considerably more than someone like me.
It doesn’t feel right that someone can do all the “right” things in life — go to university, work hard, pursue continuing education, obtain graduate and professional education and gain management experience — and still earn considerably less than someone with little more than a high school education.
I’m not even talking about highly unusual situations such as entertainers or professional athletes. In some cases, many people could do the jobs I’m talking about with a few weeks’ training, at most.
I’m not using this column as a forum to complain about my own situation (which is actually very good in many ways). Instead, I am just trying to illustrate a point.
If someone like me can feel the way I do, it’s easy to see why society has become so mean-spirited and started engaging in a race to the bottom.
I’m not someone who is generally a snob about what people do for a living, nor am I unsympathetic towards the situation of blue collar or unionized workers. I know some people who work very hard in some of those jobs, in conditions that are unpleasant, dirty and often downright dangerous.
But it’s easy to see why it can be hard for many people to empathize with others who seem to have so much more than they do.
When you’re having a hard time paying the rent or putting food on the table, it’s hard to feel sorry for people who are losing their gold-plated defined benefit pension plans or aren’t getting a raise when they’re already making $40 per hour for relatively unskilled work.
Remaining competitive and increasing productivity
In an increasingly globalized economy, we have to try to remain competitive. But it’s also important to be careful not to get caught up in the proverbial race to the bottom — or we’ll all end up losing out in the end.
Paying people $100,000 per year for unskilled work is probably not sustainable in the long run (even if there is a certain amount of “danger pay” in some of those occupations). In most cases, those jobs are unionized and the unions have to learn to be more reasonable in their demands, because businesses, governments and the general public aren’t going to be very sympathetic in this climate.
But it’s interesting how there’s so much more anger over blue collar workers supposedly being overpaid than there is over the widening gulf between the pay of CEOs and that of the lowest paid workers in many organizations.
As I said, I don’t have all the answers. But I believe our future prosperity may depend on increasing productivity and upskilling our unskilled and semi-skilled workers.
That’s probably much better than engaging in a race to the bottom. But, as a society, we also need to start examining what we pay people in certain white collar, managerial and professional roles in relation to well-paid blue collar jobs.
Brian Kreissl is managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on Carswell’s HR products, visit www.carswell.com.