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  (Curtis Lantinga)


(Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

Why is the middle class so anxious? Add to ...

Canadians are in a funk. Things are better than ever, but people are feeling worse. “The trend lines are disturbing,” EKOS pollster Frank Graves wrote recently, reporting that public pessimism is deepening. “… Only around 10 per cent of Canadians and Americans think the next generation will enjoy a better quality of life.”

Well, maybe they will or maybe they won’t. Meantime, this generation is doing pretty well. Despite recessions, globalization and the inexorable rise of the robots, most of us never had it so good. In 2011, the median real income for Canadian two-parent families with two earners was $100,000 – $13,000 higher than in 2000. The annual average unemployment rate is down to 7 per cent. Despite the soaring cost of housing, nearly 70 per cent of us have an ownership stake in our own homes.

So what’s our problem?

Here are a few, ranging from the concrete to the abstract. Start with the fact that the world is changing extremely quickly. Entire industries are disappearing before our very eyes. Yesterday’s giants are today’s bankruptcies. The next one may be yours.

This is nothing new, but it’s scary. Improvements to technology have been throwing people out of work since the 1700s. In 1900, more than 40 per cent of Americans worked in agriculture. By 2000, the number was 2 per cent. Somehow, all those jobs were absorbed into the broader economy. Manufacturing has also been in decline for decades, but those jobs have been replaced by new ones in medicine, health care, food service, hospitality and finance. For what it’s worth, most economists are optimistic that this will continue to happen.

Yet the end-of-progress narrative has gripped us by the throat. Income mobility has declined! (It hasn’t.) Inequality has soared! (True, but only at the very top.) The pie is shrinking! (It’s growing, though not particularly fast.) Our kids will never have it as good as we did.

Actually, I think our kids have a pretty fair shot at it. What probably won’t happen is another unprecedented explosion in prosperity of the type we experienced between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s. Millions of people moved from the working class to the middle class in a single generation, and many of their kids did even better. The average middle-class house of 1956 (like the one I grew up in – 900 square feet, one bathroom, tiny kitchen, no clothes dryer) seems laughably primitive today.

In any case, why are we so attached to the notion that every generation should materially surpass the last? How many bathrooms do you really need? If your 28-year old can only afford a condo, is that so very bad?

We also have rose-coloured rear-view mirrors. We think that life was so much more secure back in the old days, when industries were stable and people had jobs for life. But that’s nonsense. Most families I know, including my own, suffered serious setbacks at some time along the way – illness, injury, divorce, business failure, crushing money problems. It’s hard to think of any that cruised through life unscathed. As for mobility, it’s always worked both ways. For every ladder, there’s a chute.

Then there’s the American effect. We’re anxious because they are, even though Americans have a lot more to be anxious about. Here are two things: health care (whose costs are astronomical) and education (ditto). We have much less to worry about there. We can all get good health care when we need it, and Canadian higher education is a relative bargain. The third common financial worry is retirement, and even there, we’re doing relatively well.

The truth is, middle-class anxiety is nothing new. It just takes different forms. When I was living in that tiny house, we worried that the communists would bury us. By the time the 1960s came, we were worried about nuclear annihilation. And people always worried that they were falling behind. No matter how well they were doing, someone else was always doing better and something bad could happen any time.

Anxiety is the defining trait of the middle class. It’s highly functional, and probably crucial to our survival.

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