The rise of contingent and eroded work is the result of a corporate strategy. Reducing the number of steady, dependent employees and replacing them with temporary workers or contractors relieves business leaders from having to offer expensive benefits and boosts profits. Work might still be boring, and now it can’t be counted on.
Uncertainty comes from other sources, too.
Many white-collar workers, including loan officers, customer-service representatives, and paralegals, live in the sights of artificial-intelligence engineers. So do pilots, journalists, and lawyers. Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs are at risk in the current wave of computerization.
Read: Wages are low and workers are scarce. Wait, what?
Insecure work has been matched by insecurity in family life, as well. In mid-century, white-collar parents wanted their children to make stable lives that looked like their own, and their children were able to do it, too; today, that’s much more difficult.
A college education for the kids has long been at the core of respectability, but now it comes at a historically novel social and psychological cost. Because college is so expensive, students shoulder debts that follow them through their 20s, shaping their decisions about where to work, what to buy, and when to marry. Parents, meanwhile, find that the cost of college consumes savings and redirects funds that might have been socked away for retirement.
Although middle-age Americans have always carried the most debt, relying on home loans and credit-card charges to build their family, now they must also take out loans to meet their children’s tuition responsibilities. As students hit the ceiling on their federal borrowing, parents are stepping in to fill the gap. Household debt is graying, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York has found. Borrowers in their later years—between the ages of 50 and 80— have propelled consumer debt to its new heights.
Aspiring to stability and respectability today means not only navigating the landscape of eroded and contingent work, but managing debts. Trying to give children a shot, parents take on financial burdens that can destabilize their own future security.
Class has always been partly about income, but debt is now an equal component of the middle-class story, leading to a central paradox of aspirational lives: Striving for stability and respectability means inhabiting insecurity both socially and psychologically. Economic metrics alone can tell only a shallow story, but at the very least, debt should join income in any attempt at definition.
The deeper story lies beyond these metrics, however. The middle class is tricky to define today because the secure jobs and stable home lives that supplied its historical definition are now gone for most Americans.
Under these conditions, it may no longer even make sense to talk about the “middle class” at all. New concepts may be necessary to describe the social stratification in America’s polarized society.