The struggling middle class – working hard or hardly working?

by Grace

It may seem simplistic, but perhaps an attitude adjustment would improve the outlook for our uncertain economic future.

Charles Blow wrote about the The Morose Middle Classciting several polls showing Americans are worried about a shrinking middle class.

According to the poll, Americans see a middle class with less opportunity to get ahead, less job security and less disposable income than the middle class of previous generations.

I have some recent posts on this theme of a hollowed out middle class, with Megan McArdle citing technology and trade as main culprits.  And although “education is not a solution by itself”, most of us still believe in its value for at least keeping us out of poverty.

Most of those polled believe that higher education is the key to staying in the middle class, but many worry about its prohibitive cost and inaccessibility.

What about a willingness to work hard?

There is no denying that soaring costs have created a formidable barrier to higher education.  But beyond soaring college costs, technology, and trade, it might be argued that weakened stamina for hard work is even more to blame for our economic woes.

The Atlantic gives us a story about John, a young man who feels like he’s “working really hard, but he’s not getting ahead”.

20130702.COCWorkingHard1

Is he working really hard?  The details of John’s story failed to convince me.

  • He was an unmotivated high school student, graduating with a C-average.
  • His parents encouraged him to attend college, and paid for it.
  • But he dropped out after two years, struggling with math and science.
  • He is now 29 years old, working as a preschool teacher making $11 an hour — about $23,000 a year.
  • He lives in a “cluttered” house, owned by his parents and rented to him at a discount.
  • He “wants’ to go back to school and “thinks” about getting a second job.
  • He sometimes gets angry, but also admits he “kind of” blames himself.

Various factors influence economic success.

“Economic mobility is not predetermined,” says Erin Currier, project manager of Pew’s Economic Mobility Project, “but our research has shown that a host of drivers and factors can influence a person’s chances of moving up or falling down.” These determinants fall into three categories: social capital (who you know and where you live); financial capital (your savings and access to credit); and human capital (your education).

John’s parents have tried to help him with social capital (John rebuffed his dad’s offers to help him find a job at the railroad) and financial capital (the house with discounted rent, although no help with tuition). What he needs is more human capital. For that, his parents can’t help much, except to offer encouragement. “He’s smart enough to go to college,” Greg says. Beth adds: “We still want better for him, we really do. But we don’t know what to do.”

From a comment to this story:

… I’ve never met a kid in college who actually “worked hard” (shown up every day, did the work, went to office hours, etc.) and still failed. I’ve met dozens of kids who did none of those things, but then complained when they failed the tests.

It appears John lacks more than “human capital”.  What about persistence and a willingness to work hard?

This is what working hard looks like:
The other day I met a young man at a car rental place.  He was quite engaging, and chatted about his work life.  Washing cars and shuttling customers at the rental company is his second job.  His main job is driving a UPS truck for 42 hours a week.  In total, he works about 70-80 hours a week.  He said he hardly had time to see his girlfriend, but she understood.  He was making good money.  I didn’t learn if he was planning to attend college, and I cannot predict how this young man will fare in the increasingly competitive workforce of the future.  But I am convinced he really is “working hard”, and that his chances of future success are higher than those of John, the college dropout profiled in The Atlantic.

5 Comments to “The struggling middle class – working hard or hardly working?”

  1. Is that photo of John, or his dad? That doesn’t look like a 29 year old! If it is him, perhaps the real problem is drugs?

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  2. I think that there are a couple of complications to this story. John;s problem is probably more his lack of ambition, and perhaps other problems that the article is not touching on. Even back in the glory days of the middle class, he may not have made it. And quite frankly, with a C average in high school, he should have been steered towards a trade program or the military rather than college.

    The second example you mention though, is sadder. I bet that if you revisited this guy 10 years from now, he will still be driving that UPS truck. They used to be union, though. Isn’t that still the case? Some of my students in the 90’s were UPS people, and it was definitely unionized then. UPS also paid for college for its employees back then. I wonder if that is still true? If so, then your example may find a way to dig out.

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  3. Yeah, that’s Jon in the picture. I found it interesting that the photo gave off a crucifixion vibe, but that was probably just me.

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  4. Yes, John seems to lack ambition, and perhaps he was wrongly steered toward college. Or maybe his K-12 education was lacking.

    I found my second example much more hopeful. This guy has ambition, a willingness to work hard, and a girlfriend – all good indicators in my view. John seems to lack all of these. Whether the car rental guy goes to college or not, I can see him applying himself to some productive endeavor. And if he marries a college-educated woman, he could create a middle-class life for himself. I see a much brighter future for him than for John.

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  5. No, I saw the crucifixtion thing too. You aren’t strange!

    OK, then I think John’s problem is meth. He looks like a meth addict, and he is living in an area where it is common.

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