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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Some truth here but not the whole story

There is a lot of truth in this article, but some of it is misleading and plain wrong. I am one of the " white working class" English you talk about (yes, we can read and we are not all "yobs"). I live in in the "perpetually depressed," "backwater" of Manchester in the north of England. Actually, it's not that bad, and I'm quite sure there are cities in the US with a much higher crime and murder rate (see: Detroit, Baltimore) or homelessness problem (see: San Francisco).

The two things which you have got absolutely right: firstly, when manufacturing was wiped out (starting in the 1980s, thanks in part to Thatcher's anti-working class policies), it did indeed lead to a massive rise of "yobs", unemployment and a general lack of civility. The second thing which is true is the alcohol culture, which really multiplied in the 1990s and has continued throughout the 2000s. It really is a blight on the whole population, whether one lives in a small town or a big city. There is a culture of macho violence that permeates everywhere and cities at night have hoards of shouting lads with scores of screaming girls going from one chain bar to the next. It isn't pretty. I would like to add though that the middle-classes also drink far too much, whether in the pub or a nightly bottle of wine in the home.

Therefore I thank you Joel for writing this article which brings some unpalatable truths to attention and something which the British press has largely ignored. This has been going on for the past 30 years. And your article is in contrast to many American commentators I've read on the web who believe British cities are full of Muslims on welfare. Like you said in the article, most immigrants work hard and generally cause a lot less trouble than the white underclass.

However, your focus should have been on the government-directed economic policies of the past 30 years rather than wholly blaming the welfare state. When maufacturing started to disappear from this country the govt. line was: "let the factory fail, after all it's a free market." Contrast this with the recent multi-billion pound bailout of the banking and financial service sector, which ordinary working people are now going to have to pay back in taxes for the next couple of decades. When a recession affected the bankers and stockbrokers, suddenly the "free market" disappeared and state intervention was the order of the day. This speaks volumes about where govt. priorities lay.

This is a classic case of being anti-welfare only when it affects the poor. Yet when the rich or corporations need welfare, then it is happily dished out to the tune of billions.

Absolutely correct. This

Absolutely correct. This nonsense of blaming The Welfare State for the problem of the growing underclass is based on a ridiculous assumption that human beings are so plastic in their capacities that they can be expected to respond to every change, however traumatic or rapid... and if they don't, it's because of some imaginary failing, like a Welfare State that just sucked the virtue out of them by making life too easy. But out virtues are themselves a product of the most stubborn aspect of human nature: our desire to have things remain the same. One would think conservatives would understand that... but I guess that's another reason why we have hypocrisy.

Dalrymple, as you note, is one of the most superficial practitioners of this strange blindness. For an article which is so evidently sincere in its desire to get at the truth, mentioning Dalrymple certainly lent not credibility.

Some more thoughts

Thanks John for the well-argued posts, I have to say there is little I can disagree with from what you have wrote.

And the poster writing about Dalrymple is spot-on too: I actually quite enjoy reading him and think that some of the points he makes are quite interesting, but he gets it wrong when he thinks that welfare is the biggest problem. Like someone else pointed out, nearly every northern European country has a much more generous welfare system than Britain but they don't have the same social problems.

Another point is that Britain is the country which has followed the "American model" more than any other nation in Europe. Sometimes we "go further" than the US: for example, nearly all state schools here are soon going to be under the governance of private organisations, many of them profit-making corporations (some of them from America). Our postal service is also going to be privatised. Other European countries who have not followed this model so slavishly have not experienced the same crime levels or social problems that we in the UK have. Please bear in mind I am not blaming America for this, it is the decisions of UK politicians who are responsible. But the point is, whatever the problems are, it isn't because there isn't enough 'capitalism' in the UK. We are a very similar economy to the US, often with identical brands and stores available (McD/Subway/KFC etc. in every town in the land).

Joel uses Watford as an example of the decline of Britain. I think he has chosen Watford principally because it was the "last stop on the Tube." Most people would definitely not consider Watford as a terrible place to live. If he had travelled further he would have found the "perpetually depressed" northern England quite surprising. Yes, there is a lot of relative poverty on the outskirts, but Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Nottingham are very vibrant, modern cities that certainly give London a run for its money. By necessity, becuase of the transition from industrial to post-industrial places, these cities have in the past decade experienced a renaissance, albeit based mainly around retail, restaurants, call centres and financial services. But quality of life can be very good in these places, and often better than London, because they're less crowded and transport is much easier and less stressful.

Like John, I agree that it is disingenuous to blame the underclass for this crisis: it is not they who decided that their source of jobs was systematically wiped out or that houses would become unaffordable or that the only economy left was based around shopping and drinking. It is a complex issue, based around globalisation (where factory jobs are basically in China or India rather than Britain), and the main focus of the political elites being on the middle-classes.

British yobism

Well written "Cosmopolitan provincial". You have hit the nails right on the head.

A response from London

This article addresses a genuine set of problems in the UK, but at least from the point of view of this Brit living in one of London's outer suburbs, it didn't really ring true.

A few points:

1/ Yobism, as you call it, isn't new, or associated specifically with the white working class and its supposed neglect, or with people who are unemployed. It's at least as old a term as I am (55 years). For instance, condemnation of yobs and yobbish behaviour was widespread in the 1960s, when employment was at its height.

2/ Your characterization of Watford is very odd. According to the Borough Council, the proportion of people claiming the Jobseekers' Allowance welfare benefit (ie, those who are unemployed and looking for work) was 2.5% in January 2010-- hardly an epidemic, and well below the national average of 3.4%. Nor do you mention that Watford has a large Muslim population, and it's a fairly safe bet that unemployment is higher in that group.

3/ You claim that parts of south and east London are "utterly destitute." Really? I live in south east London, and this doesn't strike me as an accurate description of any part of this region. There certainly are parts of the UK that are pretty destitute, mostly the same kind of ex-industrial areas, often in the North, that are also pretty destitute in the US. There is poverty and deprivation and unemployment in south and east London, but utter destitution there is not.

4/ Your article implies that high alcohol consumption is a consequence of disaffected youthfulness/unemployment. It isn't. Excessive drinking is a problem in Britain, but it affects all classes and all age groups, as the recent government campaign against middle-class drinking illustrates. It's a cultural issue, not a class issue.

None of which is to say that there isn't a problem of white working class disaffection-- there is, and a lack of well-paid blue collar work is clearly one reason for that. But the main reason, which you don't mention, is very high and largely uncontrolled levels of inward migration, which, rightly or wrongly, is much resented by white working class people.

The Future of America's Working Class

In this article Joel Kotkin hits probably the major problem facing American Society.

I wish he had suggested some solutions to the problem.

There are several that come to my mind. You can think of dozens more.

First: Welfare and unemployment benefits are a necessity to some extent, but something should be required from the recipient in exchange to prevent workers from preferring no-work welfare to finding a low paying job requiring hard work.

Participation in an automated education program could be required of people drawing such public support. There should be and perhaps are "open source" and thus free computer tutors. The Plato system was started many years ago by the defense department and is now a commercial system used by many school systems to teach students in "in school" suspension without using a teacher. Three days of work improving one's education on a computer that keeps detailed records in exchange for the payments would get people off welfare quicker than pay for doing nothing. It would also make it more difficult to draw welfare or unemployment and simultaneously work in the cash economy. If not that try street cleaning or planting and tending flowers in public parks. Anything productive would be better than something for nothing.

Second: Make all wages tax deductible to the payer. All wages paid by business are tax deductible, but if an individual hires a sitter for an elderly parent they must use after-tax dollars. Hire a person to clean your house and you pay in after-tax dollars. Much of such pay is in the cash economy whether that is legal or not. Making such labor payments tax deductible to the payer who reports the wages and pays the employer's portion of the Social Security tax would put a great damper on the cash economy and thus a damper on double dipping. It would also minimize illegal tax evasion by the employer and employee which breeds disrespect for law in general.

Third: If we want a meritocracy -- a society where everyone can succeed -- eliminate tuition in public colleges and universities for student who do well. Many bright but poor children know college is beyond their means and give up. Give them a realistic chance to succeed or fail. If they fail deep down they will know it was their fault. If they succeed it benefits us all.

Jim Fuqua

The effect of technology

I think you have a substantial contribution here, Jim, but there is one thing that should be added: the effect of manufacturing technology on the economy. I'm afraid this problem is often ignored, despite the tremendous body of evidence to demonstrate it plays a larger role in bifurcation than does government regulation, the welfare state, or growth management.

Put simply, the cost of living in advanced society has gone up--we have more technology requiring more energy to operate. At the same time, the value of human labor has gone down, leading to an expanding gap between the high-skilled workers that program and operate advanced manufacturing technology and low-skilled workers who have been replaced in part by that technology.

Where I think your ideas here have a lot of value is in increasing the overall education level of the society by enabling more people to become high-skilled workers who operate the technology. I don't know yet if this can resolve the bifurcation over the long run, but it's a powerful idea.

Speaking of which, do you have much experience with the system in the Netherlands? My understanding (though admittedly limited) is that the country finances education for graduates, but only provides loans for those who do not finish their education. In other words, you pay student loans only if you don't get an education--similar to your third idea. If you do wind up writing an article on this, I'd encourage you to look into that. It might add some real-world context to the conversation.

Additionally, it's obvious we need some kind of restructuring of the tax system to lower the burden of hiring workers locally: in most industrialized countries, consumption is taxed and income is not. Here, the tax on income increases the price of labor while the cost of imported capital improvement is cheap. I'm not confident changing the tax system alone will resolve the bifurcation, but it might help reverse the United States's trend toward a low-skilled service-based economy, a transition that doesn't appear to be economically sustainable.

Yes, the idea of having

Yes, the idea of having everyone become more educated and well-versed in highly skilled jobs seems like a good one. But the problem is that this doesn't really work to the extent one would imagine. I assume the idea is that if everyone were more educated, then everyone would make more money and thus this gap between rich and poor could be limited.

I'll use myself as an example. I went to college, moved to California and now work in the heart of Silicon Valley where some of the world's largest and best-known corporations exist. I make what is considered by national and even regional standards to be a very good salary and so too does my Wife- who also works in Silicon Valley. Now- one would think we would be living it up and living comfortably. We do to an extent but if we were to buy even a very modest house within a 100 mile radius of where we live, we would barely be making ends meet. The average house around here is still hovering around the $500,000-$700,000 mark.

Part of the reason for this is because the Bay Area has a large concentration of highly skilled and often well-paid professionals. Most of whom are squished into a small area with over 6 million total people throughout the metro area. Part of the problem ( as mentioned on this site) is due to limited land use restrictions. But I also think the fact that so many highly skilled workers living in an area plays a big factor too. Since more people are on the same level, there is more competition for housing. Throw in limited amounts of restricted land and this pushes people over the edge and they will take increasingly risky financial chances on making big purchases like for mortgages and so forth.

As I previously mentioned, I am somewhat glad I live in the US where there are many other lower cost cities throughout the country. They tend to be lower cost because they lack the sheer volume of major corporations who hire highly skilled workers and they also have lax land use laws and regulations. Sure- almost any city- even Detroit- is going to have exclusive neighborhoods and choice bits for the wealthy. But this is very much unlike the Bay Area where this exclusivity is spread far and wide.

In summary more education and skills are good. But if everyone were to be educated on the same level then the US would more closely resemble what is happening in the Bay Area and we would all be competing with each other and ultimately diminishing our purchasing power.

Referring to some comments below, esp. those by Wilson and Fuqua

Referring to some comments below, esp. those by Wilson and Fuqua:

Personally, I think too much emphasis is put on land-use restrictions. After all, other municipalities could use market forces to punish cities whose restrictions make their residents and businesses vulnerable to being recruited by other cities where conditions are more amenable.

There are rigidities in the movement of businesses/jobs that make problems like those faced by lower-income people in the Bay Area possible -- business clustering, the preferences of higher-wage workers, infrastructure, start-up costs, geographical position, recruiting advantages, etc... If these things were not present, the Bay Area would be forced to change. In short: cities can have the land-use policies that their situations allow. Maybe things are different in the UK? Do they have restrictive policies imposed at the national level?

It is also worth noting that restrictive policies often have a benign effect on property values (e.g. creating and protecting the city's brand name, nursing a scarcity along, etc...). There are many examples of this in the US (Central Park, setbacks on waterfront, wetlands...), some of which are exclusively "social" in character and don't benefit any pecuniary interest group in particular (wetland building restrictions), but most of the time they do (they're just so old and familiar we don't notice them anymore). In short, land-use restrictions usually reflect the balance between land-holding and commercial interests. More baldly stated: policy is a reflection of pecuniary interest. And if there is a market for policy, shouldn't policy be considered as benign and self-correcting as any other facet of the market?


Forgot to add my comment on Mr. Fuqua's ideas. I also thought this was on the mark. Meritocracy is the true goal, and that should be explicit in any debate on social policy.