First is the changed behavior of big companies. Since the early 1980s, they’ve increasingly retreated from career jobs, as political scientist Eva Bertram notes in a report for Third Way, a think tank. Companies fired workers more readily. In 1983, the median job tenure — the time with one employer — of men 55 to 64 was 15 years; by 2010, it was 10 years.
Second is a loss of faith in the government’s economic management. For years, public policies seemed to neutralize eroding private job security by minimizing recessions. The Great Recession demolished this comforting notion.
Robert J. Samuelson
Samuelson writes a weekly column on economics.
Our Martian visitors would discover that America’s mass abundance is mixed with mass anxiety. There’s a broadly shared sense of vulnerability, which helps explain why discontent is not confined to the distressed. It also accounts for the view that the Great Recession and its aftershocks, unlike previous post-World War II slumps, constitute “an assault on the middle class.” Perhaps continued recovery and more jobs will erase present doubts, though I suspect that any reversal will, at best, be partial because the recession’s psychological effects are pervasive.
Americans are defining prosperity down, to paraphrase the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. They are aligning attitudes with experience. The consequences are profound for our economy and politics. Judging themselves more exposed to business cycles, Americans have become more hesitant and precautionary in their spending. These worries and the resulting restraint are both a cause and consequence of the weak recovery.
Politics increasingly involves scapegoating — who “lost” prosperity? — and a search for greater public protections against rising private insecurities. Obamacare is perhaps an unintended prototype of this quest, illustrating how difficult it can be. The experience in Europe, with more public protections and a darker economic outlook, teaches a similar lesson. The prosperity paradox is this: America has plenty of it, but not enough to sooth social conflict and allay economic anxiety.
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