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 demographia.com, 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 Forbes.com.
Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com 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.
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