Not Keeping Up With Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class

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And parenting as a pursuit is becoming more time-consuming, and therefore even more costly. A time-diary survey found that mothers employed outside the home spent the same amount of time on parenting duties as stay-at-home mothers did in the s. The cost of that unpaid labor? What does this say about parenting as an expressly modern phenomenon? It says that middle-class parents have been persuaded to invest all they have in the service of keeping their kids in the ever-shrinking middle class or providing them with an increasingly slim shot at social or economic mobility.

Modern parents take responsibility for the success of their children. This seems, on a sentimental level, desirable but has unintended effects. Parents are strained for time and convinced that they can manufacture success even as the odds tilt further and further against them. Raising kids became parenting thanks to a series of cultural and economic shifts which lead to the parenting industrial complex. In the early part of the 20th century, childhood changed drastically for kids in America. They contributed either by working in the home or as wage-earners.

Many children took on child-care duties to relieve the pressure on their mothers.

Why Fewer Americans Outearn Their Parents

But as the century progressed, middle-class childhoods became longer and less about physical labor. This removed them from the household economy, increasing the burden on mothers — many of whom had lost built-in child care. This increased the cost of unpaid labor in the home, but primarily for women.

Soon mothers were being encouraged to raise children based on research rather than maternal instincts or inter-generational knowledge passed from grandmothers. This increased maternal anxiety. Child-rearing books became popular, Parents Magazine was launched in the s, and business started getting into the game too. The book given to new mothers in the hospital and extolled physician and expert advice on everything from holding a baby to protecting it from diseases.

Of course, along with this advice was the claim that doctors recommended Ivory soap. Marketing, expert advice, and paternal anxiety over how to raise kids were becoming entwined. Up through the years immediately following World War II, the primary parent was, by and large, mothers. And, to a large degree, it was. Not that women got to control the balance. This was the era of the family income.

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At the time, organized labor was the rule. Union membership hit an all-time high in America and workers could use their collective bargaining rights to shame employers into a family wage.

Editorial Reviews

At the height of the family wage, 35 percent of working Americans were represented by a union. Today that number is around 10 percent and falling precipitously. Make no mistake, motherhood was becoming an increasingly hard and anxious endeavor, but for a huge population of middle-class families, motherhood was a vocation. This can be seen in the literature of the time. There were a handful of significant changes that triggered the shift. For one thing, forces of globalization and deregulation hobbled manufacturing. Low-paid, non-union, service industry jobs began to dominate the employment market for individuals with high school educations.

Importance of the ‘upper’ cut

By the mids wages for those with only a high school diploma began a slow and steady decline, while those with college degrees saw their wages climb. The top 20 percent of earners saw income increase 97 percent between and leaving behind middle-class workers , who saw moderate income growth of just 40 percent.

As the economy changed, women went back to work. Much of the return was spurred on by women seeking independence, but many families felt it was necessary to have both parents earning in order to stay afloat. The problem? Dual-income families earn more than single-income families by up to 75 percent , but they have 25 percent less money to spend than single-income families.

As work hours grow for parents, employers wind up paying less for more. Parents work constantly. Some of that labor is paid. But, in essence, middle-class parents get a pay cut. At the same time, government spending on programs to benefit children was outpaced by massive increases in spending on adult programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security.

While the share of spending for kids has increased as a percentage of gross domestic product, that growth is minimal and sporadic. And shrinkage is coming. It is also broadly irrelevant because of climbing higher education costs. In the post-war years, college was cheap. The government was in the business of offering grants, rather than loans, and state funding ensured tuition remained affordable. But as state budgets began to shrink, there was less money for public universities which passed the cost on to students.

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When compared to the rate of inflation in the cost of living since the late s, the rate of inflation in tuition is four times higher. That represents a tuition increase of nearly four percent every year.

At the same time, the government began pushing loans rather than grants. Students had to take on massive amounts of debt in order to get a higher education that would lead to higher wages. But higher costs and more applicants made college more expensive and more competitive, closing off a path to success for the middle class.


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Parents might have urged kids to forego college, seeing a bad deal, but as college prices climbed the importance of secondary education became impossible to dispute. During the years of the family wage, income inequality between the top earners and bottom earners was at a historic low. This book is for you. Nan Mooney.

Drawing on more than a hundred interviews with diverse families across America, Nan Mooney explores the financial struggles of today's professional middle class, delving into their sense of economic security and their plans for and fears about the future. Mooney shows how profoundly middle class expectations and realities have shifted: college tuition has increased 35 percent in the past five years; only 18 percent of middle class families have three months' income saved, and 90 percent of those filing for bankruptcy are middle class.

Despite this sobering reality, Mooney offers proactive and concrete ideas on how individuals and society can stop this downward spiral. She advocates improving government-backed education, healthcare, and childcare programs as well as drawing on successful models from individual states and other countries.