Editor's Note: This contribution was made by Minyan Bob Adams and is being published for the benefit of the Minyanville community. Bob is the author of the very popular, Global Decoupling Underway.
There's an upside to being in "advanced middle age" and having been raised in a small town that was always a few years behind the city, socially and economically. I can actually remember when the term "working class" wasn't just Marxist terminology. I can remember when blue-collar workers actually wore shirts with blue collars and white-collar workers wore shirts with white collars. I can remember when a plumber would strive to get his kid into college so he could get a "good job" that didn't involve manual labor; one that paid a good salary too.
I also remember the transition. The dramatic economic growth of the 1950's changed everything. Newspapers told us plumbers were making as much or more than many so-called "professionals". They started showing up at our middle-class homes with something other than a blue collar. Their kids routinely took their seats in college freshman classes. Good lord, plumbers even started showing up on the golf course, the former bastion of the upper class!
It was the arrival of the Great American Middle Class. We stopped using "working class" in normal conversation. The stigma of manual labor faded. It was hailed as a great victory for the free enterprise system and it was. The transition was impressive.
Now I watch us as we pass through the same transition in reverse.
I've spent almost the entirety of my last 41 years working on a variety of assignments outside the United States. I was part of the globalization process before anyone called it "globalization." I remember when people would have laughed if you called Thailand an "emerging market." The changes I have seen are absolutely stunning.
This morning, I watched the video at The Wall Street Journal and Marketwatch on the new Bollywood. I like the old Bollywood, but that's another story. It was just one of many reminders that there are hundreds of millions of people moving from the working class to the middle class once again, but not in the old economies of North America and Europe.
We are indeed experiencing the arrival of a global community, not by design, but as the result of the natural course of human events. This transition is huge and it will take years before we fully recognize and appreciate it; hindsight is always clearer than foresight. Yet I can tell you from decades of direct professional and personal experience that it's well underway. The road ahead will have its serious bumps, but the road is there and we're traveling on it. I'm good with that.
I've watched the upper classes in various nations draw closer together. Having finally settled on English as the global language for business, members of that class discovered in the last decade of the 20th century they had more in common with each other than they did with the majority of their own nation's people. Today there is a global upper class. It's so obvious that it's hardly worth commenting on.
Likewise, I'm watching something very similar occurring among increasing numbers of the middle class. They travel outside their home nation more than ever (a critical factor), the Internet is just part of their lives, they invest in everything from stock funds to real estate in countries they would never have considered not that many years ago. Some are investing their lives by moving. It's astonishing to see so many North Americans and Europeans living in nations they couldn't have been convinced to even visit a decade or two ago. It's one more aspect of the growth of globalization.
I visit the U.S. frequently, but I live in Panama. My organization works with Canadians, Americans, and Europeans interested in moving here. There numbers have been growing for several years, but, somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps, the recent problems in the financial community and the depressed real estate markets in the U.S. and elsewhere have not dampened their interest. The number of inquiries has more than doubled from the same period a year ago and the pace is accelerating. There are many other signs of change. I note the U.S. government preparing to facilitate absentee voting for an estimated six million Americans overseas, and not all overseas Americans vote.
Over these past four decades, I've had the opportunity to talk to a lot of Americans on the subject of working and living in "poor" nations. Until this decade, the overwhelming majority were not even vaguely interested in doing this themselves. That was then. Although I still meet plenty of people in the U.S. who are bemused, surprised, even shocked that I live outside the U.S., there is a second group of Americans who don't bat an eyelash, but start asking questions on their own behalf. The two groups are so different in their outlook that I sometimes feel I'm talking to two different nationalities.
I'm left with questions. Is the Great American Middle Class breaking up? Are some of its members joining a global middle class? Are the others slipping back into a global working class? I think so. How are the latter going to deal emotionally with being working class again?
Like all great transitions, the upside for some of us will be the downside for others. We'll just have to wait for hindsight to know who is who.
Causes Robert Adams Supports
Nature Conservancy, Audubon Society of Panama