Globalization and the End of the Labor Aristocracy, Part 4

Posted on by

Yves here. More and more news stories and academic studies confirm not simply that the middle class in the US has been shrinking and having its standard of living stagnate (at best). They are also showing that things have been decaying for longer than the pundits admitted. Consider what the Washington Post reports today, based on a new NEBR study:

America is getting richer every year. The American worker is not.

Far from it: On average, workers born in 1942 earned as much or more over their careers than workers born in any year since, according to new research — and workers on the job today shouldn’t expect to catch up with their predecessors in their remaining years of employment….

While economists have been concerned about recent data on earnings, the new paper suggests that ordinary Americans have been dealing with serious economic problems for much longer than may be widely recognized.

The new paper includes some “astonishing numbers,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who was not involved in the research. “The stagnation of living standards began so much earlier than people think,” he said…

For instance, the typical 27-year-old man’s annual earnings in 2013 were 31 percent less than those of a typical 27-year-old man in 1969. The data suggest that today’s young men are unlikely to make up for that decline by earning more in the future.

By Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics and Chairperson at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. This is Part 3 of a four-part article, published in the March/April 2017 special “Costs of Empire” issue of Dollars & Sense magazine. Parts 1, 2 and 3 are available here. here, and here, respectively. Cross posted from Triple Crisis

A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute, “Poorer than Their Parents? Flat or falling incomes in advanced economies” (July 2016) shows how the past decade has brought significantly worse economic outcomes for many people in the developed world.

Falling Incomes

In 25 advanced economies, 65-70% of households (540-580 million people) “were in segments of the income distribution whose real incomes were flat or had fallen” between 2005 and 2014. By contrast, between 1993 and 2005, “less than 2 percent, or fewer than ten million people, experienced this phenomenon.”

In Italy, a whopping 97% of the population had stagnant or declining market incomes between 2005 and 2014. The equivalent figures were 81% for the United States and 70% for the United Kingdom.

The worst affected were “young people with low educational attainment and women, single mothers in particular.” Today’s younger generation in the advanced countries is “literally at risk of ending up poorer than their parents,” and in any case already faces much more insecure working conditions.

Shifting Income Shares

The McKinsey report noted that “from 1970 to 2014, with the exception of a spike during the 1973–74 oil crisis, the average wage share fell by 5 percentage points in the six countries studied in depth” (United States, United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden); in the “most extreme case, the United Kingdom, by 13 percentage points.”

These declines occurred “despite rising productivity, suggesting a disconnect between productivity and incomes.” Productivity gains were either grabbed by employers or passed on in the form of lower prices to maintain competitiveness.

Declining wage shares are widely seen as results of globalization and technological changes, but state policies and institutional relations in the labor market matter. According to the McKinsey report. “Swedish labor policies such as contracts that protect both wage rates and hours worked” resulted in ordinary workers receiving a larger share of income.

Countries that have encouraged the growth of part-time and temporary contracts experienced bigger declines in wage shares. According to European Union data, more than 40% of EU workers between 15 and 25 years have insecure and low-paying contracts. The proportion is more than half for the 18 countries in the Eurozone, 58% in France, and 65% in Spain.

The other side of the coin is the rising profit shares in many of these rich countries. In the United States, for example, “after-tax profits of U.S. firms measured as a share of the national income even exceeded the 10.1 percent level last reached in 1929.”

Policy Matters

Government tax and transfer policies can change the final disposable income of households. Across the 25 countries studied in the McKinsey report, only 20-25% of the population experienced flat or falling disposable incomes. In the United States, government taxes and transfers turned a “decline in market incomes for 81 percent of all income segments … into an increase in disposable income for nearly all households.”

Government policies to intervene in labor markets also make a difference. In Sweden, the government “intervened to preserve jobs, market incomes fell or were flat for only 20 percent, while disposable income advanced for almost everyone.”

In most of the countries examined in the study, government policies were not sufficient to prevent stagnant or declining incomes for a significant proportion of the population.

Effects on Attitudes

The deteriorating material reality is reflected in popular perceptions. A 2015 survey of British, French, and U.S. citizens confirmed this, as approximately 40% “felt that their economic positions had deteriorated.”

The people who felt worse-off, and those who did not expect the situation to improve for the next generation, “expressed negative opinions about trade and immigration.”

More than half of this group agreed with the statement, “The influx of foreign goods and services is leading to domestic job losses.” They were twice as likely as other respondents to agree with the statement, “Legal immigrants are ruining the culture and cohesiveness in our society.”

The survey also found that “those who were not advancing and not hopeful about the future” were, in France, more likely to support political parties such as the far-right Front National and, in Britain, to support Brexit.

Effects on Politics

Decades of neoliberal economic policies have hollowed out communities in depressed areas and eliminated any attractive employment opportunities for youth. Ironically, in the United States this favored the political rise of Donald Trump, who is himself emblematic of the plutocracy.

Similar tendencies are also clearly evident in Europe. Rising anti-EU sentiment has been wrongly attributed only to policies allowing in more migrants. The hostile response to immigration is part of a broader dissatisfaction related to the design and operation of the EU. For years now, it has been clear that the EU has failed as an economic project. This stems from the very design of the economic integration—flawed, for example, in the enforcement of monetary integration without banking union or a fiscal federation that would have helped deal with imbalances between EU countries—as well as from the particular neoliberal economic policies that it has forced its members to pursue.

This has been especially evident in the adoption of austerity policies across the member countries, remarkably even among those that do not have large current-account or fiscal deficits. As a result, growth in the EU has been sclerotic at best since 2004, and even the so-called “recovery” after 2012 has been barely noticeable. Even this lacklustre performance has been highly differentiated, with Germany emerging as the clear winner from the formation of the Eurozone. Even large economies like France, Italy, and Spain experienced deteriorating per capita incomes relative to Germany from 2009 onwards. This, combined with fears of German domination, probably added to the resentment of the EU that is now being expressed in both right-wing and left-wing movements across Europe.

The union’s misguided emphasis on neoliberal policies and fiscal austerity packages has also contributed to the persistence of high rates of unemployment, which are higher than they were more than a decade ago. The “new normal” therefore shows little improvement from the period just after the Great Recession—the capitalist world economy may no longer be teetering on the edge of a cliff, but that is because it has instead sunk into a mire.

It is sad but not entirely surprising that the globalization of the workforce has not created a greater sense of international solidarity, but rather undermined it. Quite obviously, progressive solutions cannot be found within the existing dominant economic paradigm. But reversions to past ideals of socialism may not be all that effective either. Rather, this new situation requires new and more relevant economic models of socialism to be developed, if they are to capture the popular imagination.

Such models must transcend the traditional socialist paradigm’s emphasis on centralized government control over an undifferentiated mass of workers. They must incorporate more explicit emphasis on the rights and concerns of women, ethnic minorities, tribal communities, and other marginalised groups, as well as recognition of ecological constraints and the social necessity to respect nature. The fundamental premises of the socialist project, however, remain as valid as ever: The unequal, exploitative and oppressive nature of capitalism; the capacity of human beings to change society and thereby alter their own futures; and the necessity of collective organisation to do so.

NOTE: Parts of this article appeared in “The Creation of the New Imperialism: The Institutional Architecture,” Monthly Review, July 2015.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Thuto

    While incomes in the developed world are flat, the outcomes globalization has imposed on labour in the developing world are even more dire. Lets face it, the global south is effectively a labour reserve pool that is used by trans-national corporations as a de facto income growth suppresant in the global north. This dynamic is particurlarly pernicious for global south workers because they enter labour markets at or near subsistence level wages, with upward income mobility nearly impossible as ill informed developing country governments, in their naive quest to create investor friendly environments, bargain away any protections that could ensure said upward income mobility. Furthermore, these trans-national corporations are running a globalized exploitation racket where developing nations are pitted against one another in a race to see who can enslave their labour force more fervently in service of global capital. This of course has the effect of, at best, depressing incomes in developed economies, and at worst, completely eliminating large swathes of jobs in many developed economy sectors…

  2. JTMcPhee

    I’d offer that the corporate entities that pretty much rule us are more completely described as post- and supra-national than simply transnational. Creatures birthed like Aliens that ate their way out of the mothers that spawned them. Given life by legalisms born out of nation-states and other grafters of “franchise” and “legitimacy,” now ingesting and digesting their parents and lesser siblings.

    Also, that there’s just too many people living off a declining carrying capacity of the planet. And what is with the notion that we all have some kind or reasonable expectation to be “richer” than our parents? Is that not part of the algo-rhythms that are killing us mopes, wracked with dreams of sugarplum carboconsumption and hyped with fevered visions of “innovation” and “progress” based on “disruption” and monetization? And thus willing (on the part of those who are aware of the vague shape of the Bezzle and hope to gain from it, against the well-being of our fellows) or are so oppressed and oblivious and Bernays-ized not to see it at all.

    Immunity, impunity, invulnerability, the hallmarks of the looters. “Upward income mobility” except for the very few that by birth or other lucky happenstance can manipulate their way into the self-feeding gyre of wealth accumulation and attendant power, is an awful example of unobtainium dangled at the end of the carrot-stick…

  3. John Wright

    The article points to the elephant in the room when it closes with “as well as recognition of ecological constraints and the social necessity to respect nature.”

    One can suggest that TPTB may recognize that climate change/ecological damage is quite real and continuing apace.

    They know they have a “denominator/divisor” problem with respect to a growing world wide population and resource allocation.

    TPTB are hoovering up all they can for their future use.

    Austerity policies and encouragement of subsistence level wages delay the ecological day of reckoning as WW consumption is lower as a consequence.

  4. Susan the other

    as Wolfgang Schäuble and many others have said, We can’t all trade our way out of this mess. If we carry that insight one step further it becomes, We can’t all manufacture our way out of this mess. The problem with trying to invent an inclusive economy is that we don’t know how to do so without industry and industry will soon end life on this planet. If the oceans collapse, it’s over. So instead of using a mild form of identity politics and a new social contract for sharing the gains of capitalism/socialism we will have to confine ourselves to making and using/recycling what we need and nothing more. No surplus. No trade. No finance based on debt servicing. And in an overpopulated world that means no labor policies as we once knew them. For lack of imagination we are looking at a New Communism. What else?

  5. David Barrera

    From Yves: “On average, workers born in 1942 earned as much or more over their careers than workers born in any year since, according to new research”
    1942 makes Schumpeter come to mind. His book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy is the most celebrated Marxism’s bashing to date. Schumpeter’s reading of Marx or Marxism does not qualify as unfair; his was a non-reading activity. Here is an excerpt from Schumpeter, the visionary (my emphasis added)
    “For the RELATIVE SHARE OF WAGES AND SALARIES IN TOTAL INCOME varies but little from year to year and is remarkably constant over time-it certainly does not reveal any tendency to fall”

  6. diptherio

    The new paper includes some “astonishing numbers,” said Gary Burtless, an economist at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who was not involved in the research. “The stagnation of living standards began so much earlier than people think,”

    Who are these “people” to whom he refers? Some of us have known that since waaaaay before these numbers came out.

  7. Pelham

    I wonder whether living standards have suffered much more than is typically documented. The stuff that we’re forced to buy — housing, medical care, education — are all way up and, I suspect, make up a much larger share of the inflation-measuring typical basket of household goods.

    And other items take a big and probably under-measured chunk of income as well. I’ve lost track of how many cellphones I’ve had to buy over the past 10 years, even though I hate them and try to keep my consumption of these toxic little marvels to a minimum (unfortunately, I’m required to have a smartphone for work).

  8. McWatt

    On the flip side, from an owners perspective, I was able to hire 36 people in 1983 on a given business gross income and today I struggle to employ 2 on that same gross.

Comments are closed.