Last Sunday afternoon I met up with clients in Minneapolis; between the three of us we passed through four major US airports (Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare). All were quiet compared with an average travel day, much less the normal Sunday after Thanksgiving. Arriving midday at Midway security, I got in line behind just two individuals.

The reason for such quiet airports, I was told later, was that airlines had offered few if any discounted fares this Thanksgiving.

For a while now US airlines have been cutting back on the number of flights, and you have to wonder whether leisure air travel is reverting to a rich person’s pastime. When passenger air travel was first introduced it was a luxury; only in the 1960s and 70s did it become experienced by a wide swath of the middle class.

There is no guarantee that future generations will enjoy such access. Here is another piece of evidence pointing to diminishing prospects for the middle class.

Last summer I spoke with a group of about 20 jobseekers and decided to test a hunch. I asked a show of hands for how many had ever considered various types of work as a:

– Cost accountant
– Utility line repair and maintenance technician
– Process engineer
– Mechanic (car, truck, industrial equipment, maintenance)
– Computer programmer
– Drafter (computer-aided design, building systems, etc.)

Only one person raised her hand, and only at the mention of half of these typically middle-class jobs. For the other occupations no hands at all were raised.

Then I asked for a show of hands on how many had ever thought of these activities:

– Raising money for a cause in which you believe
– Working with disadvantaged youth to guide and encourage them
– Working as an artist

Five or six hands went up at the mention of each of these tonier undertakings.

Now here’s the kicker. I threw in a few of what might be called servant’s jobs:

– Personal chef
– Children’s governess
– Pet care or pet grooming specialist

And yes, in each case several hands went up. The noblesse oblige activities and the servants’ jobs had gotten a much higher response than the middle class jobs.

The hunch was, of course, that among the reasons for middle class decline is that the appeal of traditionally middle class occupations has itself waned. Replacing them are occupations which spend wealth, rather than generate it.

Obviously there are many factors behind the erosion of the middle class. Beyond partisan and ideological talking points, here’s something more to consider.

Charles Orlowek
Chicago, December 3, 2011