America’s middle class has been shrinking, mostly because of people dropping down into lower socio-economic strata, according to the New York Times today. What does this mean for education?
To start with, the data are very interesting. For example, the middle class used to shrink because some of its members ascended to the upper strata. That changed starting around 2000:
Moreover, there’s a demographic component by age:
In recent years, the fastest-growing component of the new middle class has been households headed by people 65 and older. Today’s seniors have better retirement benefits than previous generations. Also, older Americans are increasingly working past traditional retirement age. More than eight million, or 19 percent, were in the labor force in 2013, nearly twice as many as in 2000.
There are other important findings in the piece, including details of geography (Rust Belt still matters) and family structure (two-income families win out).
How does this connect to education? There are many ways, and I’d like to phrase them as questions.
- To what extent is education to blame?
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i.e., does the current structure of American education help drive the decline of the middle class?
- If a major purpose of higher education was once to prepare graduates for life in the middle class, what happens now? (A state university provost told me his institution used to focus on preparing graduates to be middle managers. He wasn’t sure what their mission had become of late.
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- If many college and university graduates fail to rise economically as high as the middle class, can we justify our current price and funding system?
- If more seniors are enjoying a middle class existence and younger folks are having a harder time than ever getting to that experience, will we see ageist movements appear?
- If we decide that this economic transformation is not education’s fault, what, then, is the responsibility of educators? Break that down: what should we do in schools, and what should we do elsewhere?
- This new socio-economic class structure powerfully shapes the K-12 world. How should colleges and universities respond?
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These aren’t easy questions.
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