The Cultural Contradictions That Have Crippled the Great American Middle Class

The decline of middle-class capital is partly self-inflicted.

Conventional explorations of why the middle class is shrinking focus on economic issues such as the decline of unions and manufacturing, the increasing premiums paid to the highest-paid workers and the rising costs of higher education and healthcare.

All of these factors have a role, but few comment on the non-economic factors, specifically the values that underpin the accumulation of capital that is the one essential project of middle-class households.

Daniel Bell’s landmark 1976 book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism held that“capitalism–and the culture it creates–harbors the seeds of its own downfall by creating a need among successful people for personal gratification–a need that corrodes the work ethic that led to their success in the first place.” The Cultural Contradic... Bell, Daniel Best Price: $6.49 Buy New $12.15 (as of 11:15 EST - Details)

I would phrase this in the language of values and capital:

The primary cultural contradiction of the Great American Middle Class is the disconnect between the values needed to build capital and those of gratification via debt-based consumption.

Accumulating capital–not just financial capital but human and social capital– requires a distinct set of values and soft skills:

1. Sacrifice of current consumption in favor of accumulating capital to be invested.

2. Thrift: repairing broken items, buying used replacements, waiting for deep discounts, etc.

3. Personal integrity and trustworthiness above all else. One’s word is one’s bond.

4. Self-discipline/self-control in service of long-term goals and the other values.

5. Humility: there is always more to learn; pride goeth before a fall. Get a Job, Build a Rea... Smith, Charles Hugh Best Price: null Buy New $6.95 (as of 04:50 EST - Details)

6. Lifelong learning: human capital is skills and experience. Adding skills and experience takes work, focus, accountability–what I call the eight essential skills in my book Get a Job, Build a Real Career and Defy a Bewildering Economy.

7. Accumulating the social capital of emotional intelligence and trustworthy collaborators.

8. Setting and achieving long-term goals: saving enough money to buy a home or investment property with a 50% down payment, saving enough to pay for college in cash (with the student working part-time in the academic term and full time in summers), etc.

9. The desire to own productive assets rather than unproductive bling such as luxury vehicles or a fancy home.

10. Work-family-leisure balance: avoid burnout and maintain strong family/friends ties.

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