The Death of the Middle Class, and the American Dream

There are all types of expats in East Asia: freshly minted university graduates taking a gap year, salary men sent overseas by their companies, backpackers masquerading as English teachers, writers, and refugees. Occasionally you hear about or stumble across garden variety baddies; drunks, criminals on the lam, perverts, extortionists, and smugglers but scarier still are the ever increasing number of Americans coming to East Asia in search of opportunity; university graduates who can’t find gainful employment in their home country not because they’re lazy, lack skills or are unmotivated but because the jobs and opportunities simply don’t exist.

Their stories all share a few commonalities; graduating, struggling to find a job, accepting a position as a server, bartender, pizza delivery specialist, construction worker, or door to door bathroom fixtures and fittings salesperson. After struggling, in many cases unsuccessfully, for a few years to keep up with rent, bills and student loan payments they crack and start considering alternatives to their bleak existence of living off of pizza crust and condiment soup; homesteading and living off the land, knocking over a bank, a one time large drug deal, assassin for hire, riding the rails as an old timey hobo, or teaching English abroad. The people I’ve met all chose the last option; becoming English teachers in Asia, fleeing the land of opportunity to find more opportunity.

It’s shocking to see so many bright, talented college graduates in exile and it makes me wonder if this is the nail in the coffin, the final death rattle of the American Dream. The percentage of households earning a Middle Class income has been steadily declining since the 1970’s, between 1970 and 2009 median home prices have increased 97%, public university tuition 80%, and rent and utilities 41%. One in five Americans is now on food stamps. There are a plethora of charts, graphs, and raw data that show the decline of the Middle Class but even if not one existed it’s readily apparent in everyday life. There’s a rising frustration among the younger generations of the Middle Class. Buried under a mountain of debt and underemployed they see that reaching anything close to the standard of living enjoyed by their parents is rapidly becoming impossible. There will be no house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, sprawling yard, two car garage, and swimming pool. There will be no 2.5 children or midlife crisis sports car. The trappings of Middle Classdom are evaporating before their eyes. There simply isn’t room for all of us in the middle and so record numbers of twenty and thirty-somethings are forced to turn in their Middle Class membership cards.

There is hope in a new class, the Unlanded Gentry. In the not so distant past there existed men of leisure who spent their days doing what their hearts desired; from reading, writing, and publishing to horse racing and card sharping. They were known as the landed gentry, a privileged few who fuelled their pursuits and idleness through the labor of peasants who lived on their estates. Their land, and hence their positions, gave them the power to be free and pursue whatever they deemed to be the good life. A defining characteristic of the landed gentry was their lack of occupation. They made their living collecting rent, either in the form of a percentage of the harvest or cash, from tenet farmers who lived on their land. To make the transition from the merchant class, which was considered ungentlemanly and uncouth, it was necessary for a financially successful merchant not only to own a country estate but to sever ties with the trade that made him wealthy in order to cleanse him of his undesirable past. As the industrial revolution gained steam it soon gave way to a new form of elite, the industrialists, who no longer wished, or needed, to sever ties with their commerce. The paradigm began to shift and how much land you controlled no longer necessarily dictated how much monetary capital, or credit, you had at your disposal.

Today holding land is no longer necessitous in order to generate capital but has maintained its value as a symbol of status and wealth. One of the fundamental ideologies of , and arguably a prerequisite for entering, the middle class today is the ownership of a home and the property it rests upon. It seems as though people are still striving to cleanse themselves from the stink of the streets , or merchant class, and become members of the landed gentry. It’s common knowledge the size of your house, how much land you own, and what type of carriage you drive are all outward representations of what class you belong to but the problem is these are holdovers from an antiquated system of valuation.

Most in Middle Classdom don’t have the time to pursue their interests and passions as the landed gentry landed gentry did. Debt to their land and home have to be repaid and this requires hours of toil, many times causing Middle Classers to become slaves to the symbols which were supposed to represent their freedom to live lives of leisure, ie the big estate and the land. Could it be that exclusion from the Middle Class is a blessing in disguise, which allows one to cut the fetters and chains of status symbols and antiquated systems of valuation?  Is owning a home an asset or a liability?  There are many furnished apartments all over the globe that can be had at the fraction of the cost of a mortgage.

With technology today one can set up and conduct a business from almost anywhere in the world and with the burden of owning a house and status symbols removed one has more time and capital to dedicate to the pursuit of passions. We have the ability to become people of leisure if we so choose.  The Middle Class is shrinking but a large number of us have a chance to become people of leisure, the masters of our own destinies. We can generate our own income with a few clicks of a mouse.  We don’t have to be tied to our land as a source of income and we need not be slaves to our property. As the Middle Class shrinks we are left with few options; we can turn in our Middle Class membership cards and become part of the unskilled labor force living hand to mouth believing that if we work long and hard enough we’re going to get that Ferrari someday or we can join the growing class of the Unlanded Gentry.

Columnist Joshua Lorenzo Newett is a novelist, entrepreneur, and English professor at The Korean Naval Academy in Jinhae, South Korea. Saving Bill Murray, his second novel, was recently published here.

American Dream home image courtesy of Shutterstock

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