Reading the September copy of The Atlantic, an American magazine I hadn’t previously attended to, I am struck by the common challenges of Britain, the USA and Germany. If, as we frequently read, emerging democratic countries mark their progress economically and politically by a growing middle class, how should such established democracies maintain their own middle classes?
In an interesting article by one Don Peck entitled ‘Can the middle class be saved?’, a range of statistics are examined that indicate the decline of the middle classes in the USA. As in the UK, the rich are riding out what Peck calls the ‘Great Recession’ and doing OK out of it; the middle class is being squeezed; the category of the poor is increasing. Citigroup studies from as far back as 2005 speak of ‘the rich and the rest’.
The article covers a range of analyses and offers suggestions for growing the middle classes – some of which sound very familiar. The most interesting for a non-economist like me have to do with education. You have to read the whole article to get the whole picture, but Peck is clear that American schools need to get away from the target culture in which achievement is gauged purely by tests which then determine the teaching goals in schools. He states that: “Among the more pernicious aspects of the meritocracy as we now understand it in the United States is the equation of merit with test-taking success, and the corresponding belief that those who struggle in the classroom should expect to achieve little outside it. Progress along the meritocratic path has become measurable from a very early age. This is narrow way of looking at human potential, and it badly underserves a large portion of the population.”
Later he goes on to observe: “‘Vocational training’ programs have a bad name in the United States, in part because many people assume they close off the possibility of higher education. But, in fact, career-academy students go on to earn a postsecondary credential at the same rate as other high-school students. What’s more, they develop firmer roots in the job market, whether or not they go on to college or community college. One recent major study showed that on average, men who attended career academies were earning significantly more than those who attended regular high schools, both four and eight years after graduation. They were also 33 percent more likely to be married and 36 percent less likely to be absentee fathers.”
Does this say anything to us about longer-term investment needs in the UK in order to turn around the sort of young people who we recently saw expressing their lack of investment in their own society (with all the familiar consequences in relation to employment, family stability, etc.)?
I have always deplored the move begun thirty years ago to homogenise higher education by allowing every institution to become a university and, therefore, removing the honourable distinction between academic and ‘vocational’ educational paths. Polytechnics were important and distinctive institutions and differed in aim and culture from universities. This only helped the demise of dignity in practical professions and manual labour. Apprenticeships began to disappear in the push for instant qualification.
In countries like Germany the distinction has been maintained. If we were able to invest in the recovery of this distinction in the UK, we might create a longer-term culture and mentality – incentive, even – for young people to be valued for what they can do and not according to criteria which do not do justice to everyone.
Those statistics regarding consequent marital and family stability bear some reflection.
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