Are We Unraveling?


Is the fabric of society unraveling? That’s been a fear expressed throughout our history, and sometimes it has even been true (the Civil War comes to mind ). But our divisions have always healed over time. I would go so far as to say that nothing defines America more than its ability to absorb minority views, cultures, practices and peoples (a two-way street of acculturation by which outsiders are absorbed while the mainstream expands). 

But I sense there is something else going on right now. I confess that after spending 30 years of debunking fears of unraveling in my writings and speeches, today I am not so sanguine. What’s different? What’s changed?

Are we “one shock away from a full-blown crisis?” I dare say we are already there. But have we not overcome many grand crises over our history? What’s different this time? I fear we are losing three of our national characteristics: resiliency, dynamism, and social/cultural cohesion.

Declining Resiliency

Our economy and society are both based on the ability, proven time and again, to overcome hardships and bounce back from misfortune. Resiliency turns out to be a better approach to economic and social well-being than trying to avoid all risks. But that ethic is declining. Part of the problem is we are prevented from practicing it by legislators, regulators, lawyers, environmentalists, activists of all kinds – the entire edifice of nanny state , busybody America.

Declining Dynamism

Historically, the nation’s dynamism – its ability and proclivity to innovate – has brought economic inclusion by creating numerous jobs. It has also brought real prosperity – engaging, challenging jobs and careers of self-realization and self-discovery. But dynamism has been in decline for a decade. So write Edmund Phelps and Leo Tilman in the Harvard Business Review.

There are several culprits for this decline: a stifling patent system; a focus among public companies on quarterly results, rather than long-term value creation; and a financial system that for a generation has focused its talent and resources not on funding business innovation but on proprietary trading, regulatory arbitrage and arcane financial engineering.

Declining Social Cohesion

In a recent lecture at the American Enterprise Institute, Charles Murray gave a preview of his forthcoming book, “Coming Apart at the Seams.” His thesis: America has never been a classless society, but over the last half century the United States has developed new lower and upper classes that diverge on core behaviors and values to an unprecedented degree. The divergence of America into these separate classes is different in kind from anything America has ever known, maintains Murray, and if it continues, will end “the American way of life.”

What has Murray so troubled are disconcerting trends in the white working class, for if things are bad in the lower middle class, things can’t be good in the country as a whole. Looking at America’s four essential Founding virtues (Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religiosity), Murray finds widening gaps between the upper-middle and working classes:

Marriage: In 1960, 88% of the upper-middle class was married, versus 83% of the working class, a negligible 5% gap. Today, 83% of the upper-middle class is married, but among the working class, marriage has collapsed: only 48% are married. That’s a revolutionary change, as is the percentage of children born to working class single women (from 6% to nearly 50% in the last 50 years).

Industriousness: The percentage of working class males not in the workforce went from 5% in 1968 to 12% in 2008. Among those with jobs, the percentage working less than 40 hours a week increased from 13% in 1960 to 21% in 2008.

Religiosity: The percentage of Americans saying they have no religion increased from 4% in 1972 to 21% in 2010. A substantial majority of the upper-middle class (58%) retains some meaningful form of religious involvement, whereas a substantial majority of the working class (61%) does not.

Honesty: The great increases in crime and incarceration over the past decades have overwhelmingly victimized working class communities, while hardly touching upper-middle class communities.

A New Lower Class

In addition to the decay of the Founding virtues in the working class, Murray finds a new lower class emerging: people who are becoming increasingly detached from society. He measures the magnitude of the problem by considering three sets of people that cause difficulties for a free society: men who can’t make even a minimal living, single women raising minor children, and social isolates, people with no connections to family, church or any local activities. Such people are very rare in upper-middle class populations (around 5%), but are becoming very common in the working class, having grown from 10% of that group in 1960 to fully 35% today, representing a difference in degree so large as to constitute a difference in kind from anything the nation has ever seen.

How do these numbers translate into real life in real communities? They translate into an unraveling of daily life in small ways and large.

A New Upper Class

In The Bell Curve (1994), Murray made the case that the nation was experiencing a fundamental change in the nature of its elites. All of the trends identified there have proven out:

  • The increasing market value for brains
  • A college system that gets almost all talented youth into college and sorts the very smartest into a handful of elite colleges
  • The increasing degree to which the most able marry the most able, and pass on not only their financial success to their children but their abilities as well

This has led to an increasing isolation of the upper class from the rest of the country as it develops a distinctive culture of its own.

So, are we unraveling?

Everyone knows the movie Caddyshack. Indeed, for millions of us guys between the ages of 30 to 75, it’s considered a classic. Caddyshack was filmed in 1979, and released in 1980. Why did it resonate, and why does it still? Maybe because we all know the feeling that was expressed in the film’s marketing tag: “Some people just don’t belong.” And we have all worked lousy, low-paying jobs in which we had to suck up to people with money. I caddied every summer of my high school years in the 1960s. It was not unusual in those days, just as it is unheard of now, for teenagers to have such jobs (I also, at one time or another, delivered papers, drove a delivery truck, distributed telephone directories, painted outdoors, worked on a farm, and  a factory assembly line, as well as  other jobs I can’t even remember.) But here’s the thing: we did not resent, envy or hate the rich people – hell, we hoped to be rich some day ourselves. Instead, we actually found some  absurd humor in the American condition. Of course we didn’t belong among the priviledged – yet – but we resolved to act differently when and if we got there!

We rubbed shoulders with the rich and privileged all the time everywhere: in school ( the public schools), in town, at the playground for pick-up games (!), at the frozen pond, at Little League games, at places of worship, at the shops, stores and markets, at the movies, etc. It was natural (and by the way, we would walk, run, or ride our beat-up bicycles). We used to consider ourselves as different parts of one American society. We respected the authority of adults, whatever their station. There were many points I could have gone wrong in life when young, but there was always a responsible adult standing in the way, and pointing in the other direction: a parent, teacher, coach, cop, rabbi, priest, or neighbor. They weren’t afraid to get involved, unlike today, where the fear of lawsuits or of being seen as judgmental has stunted this wholly voluntary communal behavior.

Are there countervailing factors? Sure. Perhaps the biggest is that we have overcome threats to social cohesion before. But if our current situation is truly unprecedented, then as the warning goes, past performance is no guarantee of future success. Where might these trends go? I think we may be separating into two economies, societies, and cultures  into one that is highly productive and functional and one that is less so.

Dr. Roger Selbert is a trend analyst, researcher, writer and speaker. Growth Strategies is his newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends. Roger is economic analyst, North American representative and Principal for the US Consumer Demand Index, a monthly survey of American households’ buying intentions.

Photo by BerlinMoritz

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