The Decade in Which Everything Was Great But Felt Terrible

Member of Anonymous movement wearing Guy Fawkes mask
Elizabeth Shafiroff / Reuters

If I had to pick the story that best captured the economy of the 2010s, it might be the tale of CamperForce: a group of elderly nomads, living in vans and RVs, spending their twilight years temping at Amazon fulfillment centers.

There’s a positive spin to the story. Some people want the structure and community that work can provide well into retirement age. They may want the freedom and mobility that comes with “van life”. Or the flexibility of temp gigs. But many members of CamperForce were grandparents who had been evicted from their homes during the housing collapse and were struggling to stay out of poverty. It’s a modern-day, AARP twist on The Grapes of Wrath.  

Or maybe the most representative story is that of the former graduate student who ended up as a warehouse janitor. Or of the thousands of people who have gone online to beg for money to help them stay afloat through a life-threatening illness.

These kinds of stories felt most real and urgent and indelible to me this past decade, a decade without a single month of recession, when the United States grew to its wealthiest point ever—and when the middle class shrank, longevity fell, and it became clear that a whole generation was falling behind. The central economic dynamic of the 2010s was that no matter how well the market was doing, no matter how long the expansion lasted, no matter how much the economy grew, families still struggled. It was a decade that strained America’s idea of what economic growth could do, and should do, because it did so little for so many.

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There was a queasy, strained, contradictory, tragicomic feeling to financial life in this decade. Blame it on “late capitalism.” Occupy activists and lefty publications like Jacobin recently popularized the term, borrowed from academia. Marxists used it to denote the globalized, industrialized economies of the postwar period. Literary critics like Fredric Jameson used it to describe postmodernism in economic form, the collapse of high and low, the commodification of everything. It is now a catchall lament for an economy that delivered a record-smashing bull market for the wealthy and the second lost decade in a row for working families.

Looking at the headline numbers, the decade went so well. The Great Recession officially ended in mid-2009, just after President Barack Obama took office, and the economy has not stopped growing since, expanding through the Eurozone crisis and the taper tantrum and the debt-ceiling crisis and manufacturing downturn of 2016. The current expansion is now the longest in modern American history, extending for 10 and a half years and counting. The S&P 500 has tripled in value over the past decade. Corporate profits just keep climbing. American businesses are sitting on a $2 trillion pile of cash.

But scratch the surface, and there is ample weakness. Annual GDP growth continued its long-term secular decline in the 2010s, meaning that the economy piddled along instead of really booming. Productivity growth—the crucial determinant of rising living standards in the long term—was abysmal. The country’s output grew mostly because its workers did more work, not because businesses became more effective and efficient and ingenious.

In many ways, the American economy became more sclerotic. Corporate concentration increased, with more industry sectors dominated by a small handful of firms. All the stories about the furious innovation coming from Silicon Valley and other tech-dominated regions aside, the start-up economy continued its long, slow collapse. The number of IPOs has fallen, and there are now half as many publicly listed businesses as there were in the late 1990s. Our cultural obsession with start-ups peaked at a time when companies under a year old were half as common as they were 40 years ago.

In household terms: The rich had it great, growing richer than they have ever been and accounting for a greater share of American wealth than at any other point since the Gilded Age. The gaps between the 10 percent, the 1 percent, and the 0.1 percent grew. The difference between doctors and hedge-fund managers widened, just as the difference between doctors and janitors did. But everybody in the top 20 percent, roughly speaking, thrived in the 2010s—most of all, the richest of the rich. The country got its first centibillionaires.

At the same time, the Great Expansion did not do much for working families. Wages are at last growing quickly at the bottom end, after years of slack demand holding down earnings. Still, it would take years and years of that kind of growth to chip away at the country’s inequality and to improve the standing of the country’s hourly employees relative to all workers. Research by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California, Berkeley, shows that the top 1 percent of families captured half of all real income growth between 2009 and 2017. The incomes of the top 1 percent have grown nearly four times as fast as those of the bottom 99 percent since the Great Recession ended. Inequality is now a 50-year story.

Middle-income families also faced a cost-of-living crisis. Most acutely on the coasts, but in metro regions across the country as well, a failure to build in dense urban neighborhoods spurred an egregious housing shortage that led to ballooning rents and long commutes. Millions of young families who tried to save for a home were unable to purchase one, sapped by the toxic combination of high rents and a lack of stock. Throw in sky-high child-care prices, spiraling out-of-pocket health-care fees, and heavy educational-debt loads, and the 2010s crushed a whole generation as it entered its prime earning years. The Millennials are on track to be the first generation in contemporary history to end up poorer than their parents—unless Gen X beats them to it.

The hyper-revving of the engine of mass-market consumerism arguably made life seem easier for some families. Free shipping, fierce competition among mega-retailers, the rise of online shopping, and money-losing delivery start-ups: These trends assuredly made “stuff” cheaper and more accessible for millions of customers, particularly relatively rich ones in urban areas.

But lower-income consumers have faced higher rates of inflation than upper-income consumers. Retailers pivoted to the one-percenters and left the 99 percenters behind, and who could blame them? Businesses go where the money is. The cost of services—elder care, preschool, veterinary care, dentistry, a college degree—sucked up every penny working-class families had, and more. Cheap baby clothes are nice, but publicly financed day care would be nicer.

The 2010s were a decade that left families fragile, unequal, and divided. These years made clear, if it wasn’t already, that the system is rigged for big businesses and the already-rich. They demonstrated that even a very good economy does not necessarily work for the middle class. The 2010s showed how bad everything could feel when everything was going great. This decade, we made it to late capitalism. We became late capitalism. We are late capitalism.