Monday, January 31, 2011

Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class by Jefferson Cowie

While many most of us are keenly aware of the sometimes painful realities of class in our everyday lives, and open and honest discussion of the nature of this country's socioeconomic class structure remains perhaps the most taboo subject in American politics.

From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, the fruits of economic growth were broadly shared across class lines. There were still noticeable gaps between the very wealthy and everyone else, but as long as the economy kept growing, working and middle class people could expect their living standards to increase steadily - in the words of President John F. Kennedy, a rising tide lifted all boats. Many Americans look back on this period with a deep sense of nostalgia for a time in which anything seemed possible, defined by the existence of a broad middle class that could expect its children and grandchildren to lead ever better lives. As the title of a popular TV show from the 1980s put it, these were The Wonder Years.

But the wonder years did not last forever. Since the early 1970s the incomes of working and middle class people have stagnated or declined while the upper classes and the super rich have increased their shares dramatically. From 1980 - 2005, over 80 percent of income growth in the U.S. went to the top 1% of the population. The ongoing economic slump has made these trends worse. By 2009, income inequality in the U.S. reached the highest levels ever recorded: the top 20% of the population took home half of all income while those living below the poverty line took home only 3.4%. The number of people living in poverty and the number of people without health insurance increased dramatically. The prevailing mood seems defined not by a sense of boundless optimism, but rather a profound anxiety about the future.

How did we ever get to this point? And why don't politicians and the media seem to ever talk seriously about the sorry state of the working class in this country? Historian Jefferson Cowie gets at the root of these questions in his valuable new book Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class, which we will be discussing on Brooklyn Book Talk this month. By chronicling the unraveling of the New Deal order and the unionized working class that supported it, Cowie unearths the meaning of a much-maligned decade in which the world that we live in today was created.

As you wait for your copy of the book, check out the author's Stayin' Alive blog, where he comments on politics, class, and culture. Also, I recommend listening to the author's recent appearance on the excellent Behind the News radio show hosted by Doug Henwood. The Cowie interview begins at 30:15, but the whole hour-long program is excellent and well worth listening to:

Behind the News with Doug Henwood - January 15, 2011 at 10:00am

Click to listen (or download)


One of the main threads of Cowie's book is a consideration of how representations of the working class in the popular culture of the period both reflected and shaped the political and economic trends of the decade. So in addition to more "serious" talk, get ready for plenty of YouTube clips of Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard, Johnny Paycheck, Devo, Saturday Night Fever, Norma Rae, Blue Collar, Rocky, All in the Family, and other great cultural products from the period.

In my next post, we will talk about two important questions that will help to underpin our discussion of the book: what exactly do we mean by "class," and how do we define the working class?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A lot of economists and historians have pointed out that the decline of the economic power of the middle class may have caused a lot of economic stagnation over the past thirty years. I think that one possible answer to shoring up what's left of the middle class is education. We need to rethink how that is delivered over the entire lifetime of the individual and not just have it front-loaded into the first twenty or thirty years of life. That will require a significant shift in consciousness. People have to accept that lifelong learning is a necessity to cope with the constantly changing global economy.