Faculty + Staff

Faculty Research Lecturer: American middle class in crisis

Law professor Katherine Stone will discuss her work April 16 in the 116th Faculty Research Lecture

Katherine Stone
Many middle-class Americans grew up certain they would achieve the same or higher level of success than their parents had: by going to college, working many years for one employer and retiring with a pension.
But starting as early as the 1970s, that tradition started to erode, said Katherine V.W. Stone, the Arjay and Frances Fearing Miller Professor of Law, who will deliver the 116th Faculty Research Lecture entitled "Rupture and Invention: The Changing Nature of Employment, the Vanishing Middle Class, and the Implications for Social Policy." The lecture, which is hosted by the UCLA Academic Senate for the campus community, will take place Wednesday, April 16, at 5 p.m. in Schoenberg Hall.
"I really want people to see that this isn’t just a small change, or that it’s going to reverse," said Stone, "The reality today is not long-term attachment, but short-term, episodic employment and other relationships to the job market, be it part-time work or as an independent contractor or an entrepreneur.
"This is a dramatic change in our working lives, but the government and employers haven’t responded to it," Stone added.
Job tenure declined between 1983 and 2010 for employees over the age of 35, with the most significant declines among men who are older than 45 years old, Stone noted. For the past 25 years, temporary jobs have grown faster than full-time employment.
Furthermore, between 1995 and 2005, a growing number of mid-career employees didn’t have regular jobs and worked as contract employees, said Stone, who cited Department of Labor statistics.
The rise of technology jobs, a decline in manufacturing sector jobs and globalization that began in the late 1980s to early 1990s, has contributed to a decline in middle-class jobs, Stone said.
For instance, many manufacturing jobs relied on what was called a "job ladder," training people for the next, higher-paying job. But that practice has disappeared as many manufacturing jobs went abroad.
In addition, technology companies are constantly changing and looking for workers with new skills.
"Younger workers don’t necessarily want a long-term, stable job either," Stone said, adding that young people now expect to have several jobs and careers over their lifetime. "They want and feel that it will be gratifying or exciting to develop their own possibilities and move around."
Nevertheless, the implications for the future of middle-class stability can’t be ignored, Stone said.
"There are proposals out there to address problems of inequality or persistent unemployment by providing more training for people or raising the minimum wage," she said. "Those are all good ideas, but my argument is that the changes in the labor market are more fundamental so that there needs to be a change in the whole context of our social policy.
"So it’s a bigger change than simply raising the minimum wage," she added. "That’s not going to be enough to really preserve the middle class in this time of transition."
For instance, most states pay unemployment benefits if a person is not working full-time; the payments usually last six months or a year.
But Stone asks: What happens if a worker’s hours are cut or they become unemployed and require new job training that takes longer than a year?
In some countries, such as Germany , unemployed persons can collect unemployment if their work hours are cut significantly.  In Denmark, employees who lose their jobs can also receive unemployment benefits for up to four years if they are in school for job retraining.
"If that were the case in the U.S., more people would be able to weather ups and downs in the economy," Stone said. "So I’m talking about how we might reshape existing institutions to help deal with the dangers of people being completely out of work and falling into long-term unemployment."
Another example is the nation’s education system, which is currently designed to educate a person through college. But when a person is trained to work in a certain field and then loses a job in that career, it’s difficult to get retrained.
"Our education system stops when people finish college, but we need to do more," Stone said. "Whether that means having a whole new kind of institution — a kind of lifetime learning, career enhancement institution — or whether existing community colleges and universities can take on that role, that is what we need to discuss."
A native of Washington, D.C., Stone studied law at Harvard. She practiced labor law for five years in New York and said she found law practice exciting. But while in law school, she had already decided that she wanted to help train future lawyers.
"In law school I saw that law was applied social theory.  It involved thinking about how society can, should and is organized and put those ideas into practice," she said. "It was a hard decision to leave the practice, but once I did, I didn’t look back."
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