Middle-class life in the other industrial countries suddenly provides a piercingly sharp commentary for Americans. Until the early 1970s, the United States seemed so much richer than any other society that comparisons had, at best, limited interest. But that has profoundly changed. In the past few days, this newspaper has been publishing portraits of middle-class families, and the way they handle their money, in France, Britain, Japan and Germany. In three of those countries, the wealth per capita is now, for any practical purpose, at the American level. While Britain lags behind, the difference is not quite so great as the conventional measures suggest.
The thing that strikes the American eye is the extraordinary financial security that protects and envelops the educated European or Japanese in mid-career. For them, the crucial competition was much earlier, when they were moving through their brutally selective school and university systems. But once the schools have established one's status, it is not much disputed from that point onward.
People there run less risk of being fired, or merged out of a job, than their American counterparts. They generally have better health insurance and pension protection. But it is also true that this kind of protection heavily discourages the American style of restlessness that leads people to switch jobs, or to move to another city, or perhaps even to try an altogether different career. The justification of the American custom of continuous competition, and taking personal risks, is not the one that most Americans have supposed. It is not necessary for an efficient and highly productive economy. Germany and Japan offer adequate evidence to that point. Perhaps it will turn out that, in a world of very large organizations, security produces higher economic performance than the fear of losing a job.
Prices for most things tend to be higher in Europe and Japan, but there are also, less visibly, benefits and perquisites to offset them. There is the company car for the Briton who has reached a certain rung of the ladder, and sometimes a subsidized apartment for the Japanese. Paying for the children's college education does not burden families in Japan or most of Europe. The state allows far fewer children there to enter the universities -- and you will notice that it is the state's decision -- but for those accepted, tuition is free. Some of these comparisons cut both ways. While paying tuition is no joy, there aren't many American parents who would willingly depart from a broadly decentralized educational system adapted to many kinds of youngsters following a great variety of interests.
In the past, most Americans have probably assumed that, as Europe and Japan got richer, their societies would become more like this country's. Things aren't turning out that way. But clearly, as the levels of wealth become similar, the different ways of spending it become more revealing and more instructive.