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Power has Shifted From the Middle Class - Now What? Power has Shifted From the Middle Class - Now What?

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Power has Shifted From the Middle Class - Now What?

May 21, 2012
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Jake Rosenfeld meets me during a sun break on a windy May afternoon, on the steps of the library at the University of Washington, where he is a sociologist. We grab a coffee and, and while in line, talk about how budget cuts have frozen his salary, jacked up tuition, and sent the university abroad recruiting foreign undergrads who can pay a subsidizing-freight tuition.

We settle at an outside table and watch students mill about the quad. "This feels idyllic," Rosenfeld says, especially compared to his hometown of St. Louis, or to any other of the "dying river cities" he is so fond of. "Seattle doesn't seem like a place I'd worry about."

But, as I write in a Restoration Calls narrative about the dangers of widening inequality, Rosenfeld does worry about Seattle - and the country. 

In his research, he has tracked large and worrying trends in the U.S. labor market. One is the decline of the "job for life," like the one his grandfather had at DuPont after leaving the Navy. That's created an "enormous power shift" from workers to employees, he says. It used to be that companies would overpay you in your youth, when you were learning; underpay you in your prime, when you were most productive; and overpay you again as you neared retirement and slowed down a touch. In the end, it evened out. 

Now, companies just want to grab you in your prime, for the same bargain rates. Productivity and wages have become decoupled - where once they rose in tandem, now productivity is rising and median wages have stalled. "You see it even at Boeing," Rosenfeld says, invoking the traditional economic jet engine of the Puget Sound area. "And if you see it at Boeing, it's gone."


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