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.