The Future Of America's Working Class


Watford, England, sits at the end of a spur on the London tube's Metropolitan line, a somewhat dreary city of some 80,000 rising amid the pleasant green Hertfordshire countryside. Although not utterly destitute like parts of south or east London, its shabby High Street reflects a now-diminished British dream of class mobility. It also stands as a potential warning to the U.S., where working-class, blue-collar white Americans have been among the biggest losers in the country's deep, persistent recession.

As you walk through Watford, midday drinkers linger outside the One Bell pub near the center of town. Many of these might be considered "yobs," a term applied to youthful, largely white, working-class youths, many of whom work only occasionally or not at all. In the British press yobs are frequently linked to petty crime and violent behavior--including a recent stabbing outside another Watford pub, and soccer-related hooliganism.

In Britain alcoholism among the disaffected youth has reached epidemic proportions. Britain now suffers among the highest rates of alcohol consumption in the advanced industrial world, and unlike in most countries, boozing is on the upswing.

Some in the media, particularly on the left, decry unflattering descriptions of Britain's young white working class as "demonizing a whole generation." But many others see yobism as the natural product of decades of neglect from the country's three main political parties.

In Britain today white, working-class children now seem to do worse in school than immigrants. A 2003 Home Office study found white men more likely to admit breaking the law than racial minorities; they are also more likely to take dangerous drugs. London School of Economics scholar Dick Hobbs, who grew in a hardscabble section of east London, traces yobism in large part to the decline of blue-collar opportunities throughout Britain. "The social capital that was there went [away]," he suggests. "And so did the power of the labor force. People lost their confidence and never got it back."

Over the past decade, job gains in Britain, like those in the United States, have been concentrated at the top and bottom of the wage profile. The growth in real earnings for blue-collar professions--industry, warehousing and construction--have generally lagged those of white-collar workers.

Tony Blair's "cool Britannia,"epitomized by hedge fund managers, Russian oligarchs and media stars, offered little to the working and middle classes. Despite its proletarian roots, New Labour, as London Mayor Boris Johnson acidly notes, has presided over that which has become the most socially immobile society in Europe.

This occurred despite a huge expansion of Britain's welfare state, which now accounts for nearly one-third of government spending. For one thing the expansion of the welfare state apparatus may have done more for high-skilled professionals, who ended up nearly twice as likely to benefit from public employment than the average worker. Nearly one-fifth of young people ages 16 to 24 were out of education, work or training in 1997; after a decade of economic growth that proportion remained the same.

Some people, such as The Times' Camilla Cavendish, even blame the expanding welfare state for helping to create an overlooked generation of "useless, jobless men--the social blight of our age." These males generally do not include immigrants, who by some estimates took more than 70% of the jobs created between 1997 and 2007 in the U.K.

Immigrants, notes Steve Norris, a former member of Parliament from northeastern London and onetime chairman of the Conservative Party, tend to be more economically active than working-class white Britons, who often fear employment might cut into their benefits. "It is mainly U.K. citizens who sit at home watching daytime television complaining about immigrants doing their jobs," asserts Norris, a native of Liverpool.

The results can be seen in places like Watford and throughout large, unfashionable swaths of Essex, south and east London, as well as in perpetually depressed Scotland, the Midlands and north country. Rising housing prices, driven in part by "green" restrictions on new suburban developments, have further depressed the prospects for upward mobility. The gap between the average London house and the ability of a Londoner to afford it now stands among the highest in the advanced world.

Indeed, according to the most recent survey by, it takes nearly 7.1 years at the median income to afford a median family home in greater London. Prices in the inner-ring communities often are even higher. According to estimates by the Centre for Social Justice, unaffordability for first-time London home buyers doubled between 1997 and 2007. This has led to a surge in waiting lists for "social housing"; soon there are expected by to be some 2 million households--5 million people--on the waiting list for such housing.

With better-paid jobs disappearing and the prospects for home ownership diminished, the traditional culture of hard work has been replaced increasingly by what Dick Hobbs describes as the "violent potential and instrumental physicality." Urban progress, he notes, has been confused with the apparent vitality of a rollicking night scene: "There are parts of London where the pubs are the only economy."

London, notes the LSE's Tony Travers, is becoming "a First World core surrounded by what seems to be going from a second to a Third World population." This bifurcation appears to be a reversion back to the class conflicts that initially drove so many to traditionally more mobile societies, such as the U.S., Australia and Canada.

Over the past decade, according to a survey by IPSOS Mori, the percentage of people who identify with a particular class has grown from 31% to 38%. Looking into the future, IPSOS Mori concludes, "social class may become more rather than less salient to people's future."

Britain's present situation should represent a warning about America's future as well. Of course there have always been pockets of white poverty in the U.S., particularly in places like Appalachia, but generally the country has been shaped by a belief in class mobility.

But the current recession, and the lack of effective political response addressing the working class' needs, threatens to reverse this trend.

More recently middle- and working-class family incomes, stagnant since the 1970s, have been further depressed by a downturn that has been particularly brutal to the warehousing, construction and manufacturing economies. White unemployment has now edged to 9%, higher among those with less than a college education. And poverty is actually rising among whites more rapidly than among blacks, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

You can see the repeat here of some of the factors paralleling the development of British yobism: longer-term unemployment; the growing threat of meth labs in hard-hit cities and small towns; and, most particularly, a 20% unemployment rate for workers under age 25. Amazingly barely one in three white teenagers, according to a recent Hamilton College poll, thinks his standard of living will be better than his parents'.

It's no surprise then that Democrats are losing support among working-class whites, much like the now-destitute British Labour Party. But the potential yobization of the American working class represents far more than a political issue. It threatens the very essence of what has made the U.S. unique and different from its mother country.

This article originally appeared in

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo by MonkeyBoy69

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Trade Unions

Incredibly "trade union" appears nowhere in this analysis of working class social/political power, or in the comments that follow. It's like reading a car review and a debate about said review with no mention of "engine."


Where do I begin with this nonsense? Your article on “yobs” is especially enlightening. Don’t know why. The US work force, the middle class is headed that way? Is that even accurate? There will be all these YOBS sitting around, drinking and not working. We are headed this way because of what? Of course no where is there any mention of any word “union”. If you mention that a union is positive you are a commie. If you mention that a union is negative you are a national socialist. American corporations are shipping jobs overseas. All this is being aided and abetted by congress. It started under Regan, continued with Clinton and both Bushes. Obama will not change it either. They don’t want a middle class. The English don’t make anything anymore. No one works, crime runs rampant and of course there is the “I word” or as we call it the immigrant word. Everything is blamed on “them” if you are English. That translates to us blaming everything on immigrants in the USA and tacit approval of all that nonsense. The basic reality is that just between 2000 and 2003 we lost 400,000 to 600,000 professional service jobs. This is due to the trade deficient, currency conditions, oil, and a whole list of over economic things. We use the Chinese to finance our deficient all the while politicos will tell you that it is your fault the deficient is so high because of the “unfunded mandates” like the FICA and social security that they take out of your paycheck each week. At the same time it is perfectly legal for a US company to earn money in the United States, transfer the money into off shore bank accounts and claim none of it on their taxes. In addition they can pay their CEO’s from the same off shore accounts. Congress makes it all legal. They are trying to close the loop holes, but we will see. Go to the following sites:

http://www.offshore-companies. offshore-banking/ / /

They will tell you how to do it.

American workers are more productive, work longer hours, at less pay comparatively than any other country in the world. That is with all the evil unions running around and with all the perceived problems with the education system.


Not only at above sites you will find more information how they do it.
Also here you find interesting information:


A yob is, quite literally, a backwards boy

The impoverishment of Youth

It wasn't at any point, the creation of a capitalist system that has caused the further impoverishment of the US and Britain's youth. Fierce competition among displaced older workers in both economies has pushed aside younger workers regardless of their qualifications or intelligence. Underlying stereotypical currents that suggest young people are "lazy" and full of "entitlement" also perpetuates the hardships they face. Unemployment rates of 20 somethings is at a historical high, largely due to the remaining bottleneck of baby bloomers remaining in the workforce, however it was the credit based economy that the baby bloomers created that has doomed a young person from becoming financially established.

America is destine to become the worlds next caste system, initiated by the sudden disappearance of jobs capable of sustaining even a modest existence. As remaining wealth is shifted to third world manufacturing and IT markets, our next generations are destined to be overworked, impoverished servants of the elite class, driving what remaining service sector remains.

I Agree

I totally agree with you. That America is destine to become the worlds next caste system, initiated by the sudden disappearance of jobs capable of sustaining even a modest existence.
Things To Do Advisor

The influence of the

The influence of the structure of our economies has come up in a number of comments here. It is worth pursuing because it should give a clearer picture of what will work and what won't towards improving social structure.

The US and British economies are capital intensive: productivity is purchased via investments in technology; technology reduces demand for low-skill labor; capital is accumulated for re-investment in competitive businesses. Naturally, the money is in financial services and technology, and the "big" money is recirculated into the economy via the service industry. As the amount of labor "dumped" due to manufacture relocation or technological advance is increased, the labor market in services goes the way of manufacturing. Gradually, a working (and non-working) underclass is created. It has two bases: 1) Is the inability of the members of the class to make the quick adaptation required of them. The difficulty of altering the values and capacities of people in a relatively short period of time cannot be assigned simply to the category of education. The job market has to respond to the capacities of the people entering it for change to truly occur. 2) A non-progressive increase in the cost of living (I am not using "progressive" here to refer to the political outlook of that name). The example of housing in the UK was apropos of that. In the US it would be health care (everyone has to have it, but the costs of insurance are "spread" without respect to capacity to pay). Health care has becomes the US's issue-of-note precisely because of this: health care ignores local cost of living, household capacity to pay, while responding (since the US health care market is relatively laissez faire) quite acutely to the growth of the top twenty percent of the population's ability to absorb the cost of high quality health care (I suspect this also influences the poor response of the medical education establishment to the market's evident demand for more doctors; not to mention the ballooning cost of medications in which R&D and regulatory costs end up being loaded into the prices of the products that reach the end of the pipeline).

This, I think, speaks to the socio-economic "bifurcation" mentioned in some of the comments.

But... I think it's also important that we recognize that there is a simple issue of investment in our societies that belongs here as well. The societies that underly investment in technological and economic advance should themselves by objects of serious-minded investment. Otherwise, 'advance' is just another word for exploitation.

I agree that the US is on

I agree that the US is on the same path. And it would be difficult to argue that this has much to do with the welfare state, as some have suggested. The welfare state is "small potatoes" compared to the massive movement of jobs and change in the composition of domestic job opportunities. Our underclass is on welfare in some places, but in many it is not: it is a working underclass, with two wage-earners per household, many working multiple jobs in order to, among other things, pay for health insurance (which now costs more than rent if you have to cover it yourself -- even with a subsidy).

This underclass isn't a bunch of children from Hamlin dancing behind the Pied Piper of Social Services, it is composed of the left-behinders. These people are victims of rapid economic change, inattention, and, frequently, poor parenting: they lack the means, the capacities, and the inspiration to succeed in the modern, globalized economies in which they live. They have lost hope. Encouraging them to work sounds nice, but that only means that they will have no time to really improve their situation and to take care for the next generation -- the problem is not only not solved, it is carried over into the future with a vengeance. And protectionism is simply a postponement. Sooner or later, the work force has to be modernized, or the working class is condemend to the ranks of the left-behinders: fodder for religious fundamentalism and irrational right-wing populism.

What needs to be done? The working class cannot be allowed to languish. They need inspiration, education, opportunity, and time (i.e. money -- subsidies, insurance...). It is naive, wishful thinking to imagine that people can have hope for improvement while wasting their time in out-of-date occupations and neglecting the care of their children.

Not only do individuals have a duty to improve their families' situation and to contribute to society, society has a duty to facilitate and not impede their ability to do so. Globalism has exacted a cost on the working class. Those of us who benefitted from globalization are obliged to pay those costs and not arrogantly and negligently assign the costs underlying our own profits to the people who can least afford to pay.

Mr. Kotkin's comment about housing costs is an interesting one. In the US we do not have such onerous green regulations -- at least, where they exist, they are local ordinances. Housing costs are, indeed, high, particularly if one is looking only at the cost-bloated single-family home market (but we could always stop wanting single-family homes or refuse to accept the products of our grossly inefficient home construction industry), but housing is a less significant cost now than health care. I think that the US situation, with its variation in housing regulations and costs, forces us to ask why variation in housing costs has not been a greater engine for prosperity for the white underclass?

An intelligent article and

An intelligent article and there are a lot of truths in it. But please, the description "perpetually depressed Scotland" is just not true. There ARE areas in the West of Scotland which are just as destitute as some of the worst parts of the south east of England, but the rest of Scotland, which is almost as large a country as England, is thriving with its oil, whisky, banking, tourist and IT industries. And americans should bear well in mind that Scotland is NOT a region of the UK, it is a separate country with its own capital city and government.
Turning now to yobism. This in the UK is definitely fuelled by alcohol but the worst cases of it are found in the centres of towns on Friday and Saturday nights after heavy drinking by mainly affluent young people in work. Most of the recipients of welfare benefits couldn't afford to drink in the city centre bars at night and the pubs during the day. So I believe there is a very low correlation between yobism and welfare benefits. Yobism is just an unfortunate cultural blot which the UK has had to live with for a long time.
However, I do believe that there is a high correlation between numbers on welfare benefits, aka unemployed, and petty, and even serious crime, no matter what UK governments might say. There is little doubt that idle hands make the devil's work.
The Thatcher revolution with its mistaken mantra that a services job is every bit as important as a manufacturing job helped to kill off hundreds of thousands of good interesting jobs as apprentices in UK manufacturing industry. The alternative now? A job in a call centre or packing shelves in a supermarket? Who can blame unemployed youths baulking at that. And as for educating them further. What is the point? They will only be more discontented when they find there are no jobs for their new skills.

Yobism and Dalrymple

Thank you CosmoProvincial for the intelligent post.

Er, but about Yobs and Theodore Dalrymple...
Is the welfare state the root of all evil? Teddy Dalrymple says that it is, and very eloquently. This does not make it so.

Has Dr Dalrymple notice that European nations with significantly more extensive welfare states than Britain's--Italy, Germany, Scandinavia--have less violence and less drunken disorder?
If the welfare state indeed was the cause of social disintegration, one would have expected these societies to have broken down long ago. But they have not. It is the UK where Yobism thrives. The United States, with a much smaller welfare state than the UK, has a still higher rates of violent crime.

This is not to say that a bigger the welfare state leads automatically to less violent crime, less moronic public behavior on a Friday night. But the correlation is striking, and must be accounted for.

Dalyrmple's cris de coeurs can be good fun, but they are bereft of any real thought or analysis, just the ranting of a harried member of the helping professions letting off steam. Like junk food, Dalyrymple's writings may provide some instant gratification, but they are devoid of real value.