The Two Contradictory Ideas Many Americans Have About the Economy

How do people reconcile a belief in individual autonomy with nationwide wage stagnation?

Brian Snyder / Reuters

In this month’s Atlantic cover story, Neal Gabler chronicles the distressing reality of life in today’s American middle class. Underneath the figures about debt-mired, financially-distressed households is also a sense of shame and betrayal. Gabler notes:

“Many middle-class wage earners are victims of the economy, and, perhaps, of that great, glowing, irresistible American promise that has been drummed into our heads since birth: Just work hard and you can have it all.”

This sentiment taunts at two sacred and quintessentially American convictions—that success is self-determined and that advancement is inevitable for anyone with a serious work ethic. According to a 2014 Pew Global Attitudes Study, people in the United States are much more likely to hold these two beliefs than many of their European counterparts.

Many Americans, then, are holding two contradictory ideas in their mind at once: the optimistic belief that their success is in their hands (on display since Tocqueville’s Democracy in America) and the acknowledgement that wages have been steadily stagnating (on decline since the band America).

How Americans struggle with reconciling these two concepts is a fascination of Katherine Newman, who serves as the provost at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Newman, who has researched and written about the effects of social mobility since the early 1980s, characterizes the kind of shame that Gabler describes as a fundamental component—and natural consequence—of the national narrative.

In his story, Gabler concedes that, no matter how illogical and uninformed his financial decisions might have been, he remained seduced by a superseding assumption that he “would always overcome any adversity, should it arrive.” “This is the genius and the Achilles’ heel of American culture,” Newman says. “We do have a strong belief in self-determination and agency, even when our expectations fly in the face of reality.”

Newman highlights the growing struggles of wage-earners whose education and experience “led them to think they were more secure than those they read about, who are obviously vulnerable because they don’t have any of those attributes.” Struggling white-collar workers and managers, she says, especially stood out in her research for how likely they were to believe they were the authors of their own fate. “And if your destiny isn’t working out very well,” she says, “you only have yourself to blame,” in their telling.

On top of that, part of what makes financial fragility so distressing in the United States is that citizens aren’t afforded the regimen of protections offered by Europe’s wealthier governments. That’s true whether Americans think so or not: An earlier Pew comparison from 2011 highlights how American disdain for government involvement in society far exceeds the levels of disdain witnessed in Europe.

That’s not to say it’s all two-hour siestas for European workers—Newman points to social isolation among the young (and not-so-young) unemployed masses in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. But there is still a difference. “These are social democracies that come to the rescue of people in trouble or are just more generous even if they’re not in trouble,” says Newman. “So the kind of suffering that will happen in a society like that is not one of material deprivation nearly as much as what we call in the trade ‘social exclusion.’”

Occasionally, a culture’s default stance on individual autonomy can change wildly. Newman observes the anomaly of the British, whose views on work and individualism are closer to Americans’ than those of many residents of countries with robust social safety nets. She attributes some of that change to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who sought to disabuse England of the assumption that one’s position at birth largely determines his or her fate. “That’s been more of a typically European set of assumptions,” she says, “which in turn fueled support for labor parties, because if you can’t affect your fate by rocketing up the class structure, then you’re looking for collective organizations to affect everyone in your position.”

“Americans,” Newman adds,  “have never been comfortable with that way of thinking.”