The looming financial crisis and middle class engagement

Selling Apples (Flickr photo by SirPoseyalKnight)

Selling Apples (Flickr photo by SirPoseyalKnight)

David Brooks, in “The Formerly Middle Class” (NYT, 11/18/08) writes:

“[T]hey [the new middle class] will suffer a drop in social capital. In times of recession, people spend more time at home. But this will be the first steep recession since the revolution in household formation. Nesting amongst an extended family rich in social capital is very different from nesting in a one-person household that is isolated from family and community bonds. People in the lower middle class have much higher divorce rates and many fewer community ties. For them, cocooning is more likely to be a perilous psychological spiral.

In this recession, maybe even more than other ones, the last ones to join the middle class will be the first ones out. And it won’t only be material deprivations that bites. It will be the loss of a social identity, the loss of social networks, the loss of the little status symbols that suggest an elevated place in the social order. These reversals are bound to produce alienation and a political response. If you want to know where the next big social movements will come from, I’d say the formerly middle class.”

I agree with David Brooks’ first fear.  That said, since social networks have always been the backbone of social movements (from abolition to civil rights to women’s suffrage) it’s hard to fathom how this isolated ex-middle class constituency is going to build a movement out of vaporware.  But with time on their hand, and the Internet at their disposal, maybe this will be the test of whether Internet tools (from Meetup to Facebook to virally circulated YouTube recruiting efforts) can be put to use to engage these displaced Americans and give collective voice to their frustrations.

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3 responses to “The looming financial crisis and middle class engagement

  1. Thanks for the post, I missed the initial David Brooks piece so appreciate the recap and your insights on it. We were just talking at our board meeting last night about how technology might be part of the solution to some of our challenges these days, in terms of connecting people to one another and to local resources.

  2. How about a social capital stimulus plan? If people with complementary skills and resources could find each other more easily at the local and interpersonal level, then we could create new viable businesses, start-ups, and jobs in America.

    “Joe the plumber” won’t be outsourced and he can fix a toilet by himself; however, many Americans need or want partners to implement their ideas and dreams. The founding of Google, Apple Computer, and Microsoft by teams of people points to the underutilized model of collaboration as an economically viable way to help sustain American innovation.

    It would be nice if people had better ways to network than parties or conferences, with their costs and distractions, and websites that can’t think like a matchmaker.

    If government, educational institutions, technology organizations, unions, chambers of commerce, and innovative matchmakers develop better ways to put skilled people together, America will be more productive. Universities would especially benefit in the long run if they could team up students and/or alumni from various majors.

  3. [I know this is a really old post, but couldn't resist]

    I must respectfully disagree. The belief that social capital will decrease neglects the fact that a shared experience among members of a class will undoubtedly bring them together. This may take place in the form of going to local parks instead of theme parks, taking public transportation instead of a car, or… brace yourself now… getting frustrated enough to become involved in community government. You’re absolutely right this is where the next political movement will come from, but it will be created because of the displaced social capital, not the complete absence of it.

    We cannot overlook the importance of a shared experience in creating social capital, and thus I suspect those in the “new middle class” will migrate towards each other and develop social capital of their own. Instead of loss of identity, I believe this will create new identities (which may be more socially rewarding) that may very well carry them into the next decades.

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