Monday, September 19, 2011

Thoughts on "Pinched"

Pinched, by Don Peck, makes me jealous as a writer. (Michael Lewis and Adam Gopnik have that effect, too.) It’s a discussion of the cultural impact of the Great Recession in the United States, with a particular focus on the middle class, but its major contribution is its discussion of masculinity and class.

Peck notes that the Great Recession is best understood as the culmination of a series of longstanding trends. Automation and offshoring, for example, didn’t start in 2008, even if they picked up steam then. The productivity gains made possible through technology and offshoring have come largely at the expense of the former middle and working classes, and have been almost entirely to the benefit of a small elite.

That’s pretty well-established stuff. Peck’s contribution in the middle of the book is his portrayal of the impact of those changes on everyday life.

He points out that divorce rates dropped when the economy crashed, noting that divorce is expensive. But marriage rates dropped even more. The disparate impact of the Great Recession by gender -- it hit male-dominated industries first and hardest -- has rendered great numbers of men effectively unmarriageable. Men who don’t have steady jobs with decent incomes tend not to marry, since women won’t consider them. They’ll have children with them, but they won’t marry them, so in some geographic areas early single motherhood has simply become a cultural norm.

In married couples in which the man has lost his job, relationship strains are often severe. While the culture has adapted with remarkable speed to women in the workforce, it’s still having trouble with men being outside it. The men don’t know what to do with themselves, and the women want as little to do with them as possible. Peck notes that the percentage of working-age men in the paid workforce is the lowest now since the government started keeping records in 1948.

Worse, Peck notes that sustained unemployment is both psychologically and economically corrosive. In many states, employers openly discriminate against the unemployed, creating a vicious catch-22 for applicants. Over time, sustained unemployment frequently leads to skill obsolescence, social isolation, and even substance abuse. What may have started as an unreasonable prejudice gradually becomes self-justifying, as the unemployed slowly become the unemployable.

As economic fault lines become cultural fault lines, a geographic division slowly emerges. The cities with the highest concentrations of people with graduate degrees -- New York, Boston, San Francisco -- also tend to be female-heavy. People with credentials move to where the opportunities are, and people with credentials are disproportionately female. Men without options get left behind.

Class becomes geography, which reinforces class. Peck:

The increasing segregation of American communities by affluence and educational attainment has doubtless reinforced the divergence in the personal habits and lifestyle of Americans who lack a college degree and those who have one. In highly educated communities, families are largely intact, educational ideals strong, connections between effort and reward clear, and good role models abundant. None of these things is a given anymore in communities where college-degree attainment is low. The natural leaders and role models of such communities -- the meritocratic winners who do well in school, go off to selective colleges, and get their degrees -- generally leave them for good in their early twenties. (p. 136)

Peck goes on to cite Christopher Lasch on the difference between meritocracy and fairness. Assuming that we open all careers to talent, what does that mean for those without talent? And to the extent that ‘talent’ is a function of the richness -- in every sense -- of one’s background, in what sense does ‘merit’ make any sense at all?

Peck asks the painfully obvious question. Why don’t more men adapt to the new economy? If education is the way to arm yourself, why hasn’t the percentage of men with college degrees budged since 1980? Why do guys continue to cluster into shrinking fields like manufacturing, and snub available options that would make them more marketable to both employers and women?

(Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer much of an answer to this one. But it’s absolutely the right question.)

Most of the employment growth that has occurred has been in the female-dominated “eds and meds.” I can attest that the community college world is female-dominated, and women are making great inroads at the more prestigious levels of academia as well. Eds and meds have real value, but they’re both pretty much confined to domestic production -- they don’t export much -- and they’re largely immune to productivity increases, meaning they’re getting more expensive in real terms. As employment shifts from export-oriented industries with high productivity growth to domestic-consumption industries with low productivity growth, it’s easy to see a real problem developing.

Peck concludes with some pretty anodyne policy recommendations that really don’t do justice to the issues he has outlined. (You could lop the last chapter off and not really miss it.) The tyranny of the happy ending claims another victim. But looking at the cultural impact of the Great Recession through a specifically gendered lens offers real value. It’s scary in the way that truth can be, and worthwhile in the way that truth is.