Class and Status in the 21st Century

18th century hunting party

Society has undergone a process of democratization. Whereas once one’s parents’ occupation, and one’s own, as well as corresponding tastes, speech, dress and mannerisms could designate one as ‘blue collar’, ‘middle class’ or ‘upper-middle’, the economy has undergone such a restructuring that it’s longer possible to reliably estimate a person’s background and lifestyle having only observed one or two of these markers.

Take for example, the working class. The poorest people today are certainly not those who work in skilled trades, factories, roads, mines, nursing or construction – outside of some declining manufacturing, these are generally considered to be fairly ‘safe’ and well paying industries. A visit to the Perth Qantas Club lounge will show you enough orange vested workers with soiled boots throwing back VB’s and having a jolly old time before they get hauled back out to the desert. The poor of today are the ‘welfare classes’; those who subsist on a diet of crime and handouts. The inversion has gone so far that many traditionally ‘blue collar’ occupations pay far more than corresponding ‘white collar’  equivalents. The rising tide of clerical positions in the workforce that may have been ‘white collar’ in appearance but in fact shared many more characteristics with their blue collar brethren have gone some way to eliminating the blue/white divide.

In fact, due to this ‘democratization’, the modern progressive workplace can be more dangerous than the mines we’re told to study hard to escape from, what with their ‘sexual harassment’ lawsuits, ‘diversity training’, ‘affirmative action’ and the tyranny of PC newspeak. For a young man with modest career aspirations – ~100k and a steady job, the corporate world is no longer the best place. In fact, I know an electrician – (affectionately referred to by other tradesmen  as a ‘sparkie’), who is on call for the large turbines used in coal mining. He makes $90k a year  mostly just to be ready, and gets called out on average four times a year –  for a total of less than a few weeks.

The other big shift has occurred at the high tail (top end) of the distribution. I posit that in the past century, the wealth of the top 1% initially shrunk from its heights at the turn of the century and into the 20’s; The Great Gatsby era was an era of great social inequality. In the post WWII era, increased immigration (bigger markets), declining union power, female workforce participation and technological advancement tilted the playing field. Professionals and Managers became the figures to aspire to, and came to represent an ever increasing ‘middle’ class.

There is an important distinction between the distribution of wealth and class identity. Whilst today there is a 1% that controls far more wealth than they did in the mid 20th century, class divisions have decreased culturally and financially between working and middle classes. Like the colonial landowners, banking families and industrialists of the early 20th century, the modern 1% doesn’t have a lot in common with doctors and lawyers.

It was much easier to identify a member of your own class; in many ways they functioned more like castes. On that note, I failed to mention race. Particularly successful recent immigrant groups – namely east Asians and Indians –  instill in their children a ravenous hunger for and middle class acceptance. Hence they are over-represented in university enrollments in useful degrees. . Parents who tell their children to ‘follow their dreams’  are naively applying a philosophy that could be afforded in the 60’s and 70’s when they went to college in a low-competition environment. Nowadays, as discussed in my previous post ‘The Education-Industrial Complex’, useless degrees are a serious liability that will it make it harder to get a head-start on life (to put it mildly).

Traditionally, minority groups were  mostly involved in unskilled labour and small businesses. Now that they are filtering through the professions, middle class identity is becoming more and more fractured. Does a white native professional have more in common with his Chinese colleague or his plumber? What are the factors that create group identity, and what is its future in light of these changes?

The democratization of medicine is the next domino to fall. This is a topic worthy of its own post – which I will write – but to put it briefly, the medical professions are undergoing a profound shift. Led by hospitals, there is a move away from the authority of specialist colleges and associations, towards what has been called ‘scientific-bureaucratic’ medicine. Likely due to reasons of economy (and consolidation of control by administrators), decision making is moving towards a model of ‘inter-professional healthcare’, where an administrator decides on treatment, and the various stages of treatment are doled out to the professionals. Removing the autonomy of health care workers – what can be called ‘democratization’ will invariably lead to a lack of prestige and authority in their everyday lives. In short, the professions will be reduced in their status and more likely resemble the trades.

Comment below any thoughts or reflections on how you feel things are changing.





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