Death of the Yuppie Dream

The rise and fall of the professional-managerial class.

Barbara and John Ehrenreich

The relationship between the emerging PMC and the traditional working class was, from the start, riven with tensions. (Image of young professionals from Shutterstock.)

Reprint­ed and con­densed with per­mis­sion from Rosa Lux­em­burg Stiftung — New York Office.

Should we mourn the fate of the Professional Managerial Class or rejoice that there is one less smug, self-styled, elite to stand in the way of a more egalitarian future?

Every would-be pop­ulist in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics pur­ports to defend the mid­dle class,” although there is no agree­ment on what it is. Just in the last cou­ple of years, the mid­dle class” has var­i­ous­ly been defined as every­body, every­body minus the 15 per­cent liv­ing below the fed­er­al pover­ty lev­el; or every­body minus the very rich­est Amer­i­cans. Mitt Rom­ney famous­ly exclud­ed those in the low end” but includ­ed him­self (2010 income $21.6 mil­lion) along with 80 to 90 per­cent” of Amer­i­cans. The Depart­ment of Com­merce has giv­en up on income-based def­i­n­i­tions, announc­ing in a 2010 report that mid­dle class fam­i­lies” are defined by their aspi­ra­tions more than their income […]. Mid­dle class fam­i­lies aspire to home own­er­ship, a car, col­lege edu­ca­tion for their chil­dren, health and retire­ment secu­ri­ty and occa­sion­al fam­i­ly vaca­tions” — which excludes almost no one.

Class itself is a mud­dled con­cept, per­haps espe­cial­ly in Amer­i­ca, where any allu­sion to the dif­fer­ent inter­ests of dif­fer­ent occu­pa­tion­al and income groups is like­ly to attract the charge of class war­fare.” If class requires some sort of con­scious­ness,” or capac­i­ty for con­cert­ed action, then a mid­dle class” con­ceived of as a sort of default class — what you are left with after you sub­tract the rich and the poor — is not very interesting.

But there is anoth­er, poten­tial­ly more pro­duc­tive, inter­pre­ta­tion of what has been going on in the mid-income range. In 1977, we first pro­posed the exis­tence of a pro­fes­sion­al-man­age­r­i­al class,” dis­tinct from both the work­ing class,” from the old” mid­dle class of small busi­ness own­ers, as well as from the wealthy class of owners.

The ori­gins of the pro­fes­sion­al-man­age­r­i­al class

The notion of the PMC” was an effort to explain the large­ly mid­dle class” roots of the New Left in the six­ties and the ten­sions that were emerg­ing between that group and the old work­ing class in the sev­en­ties, cul­mi­nat­ing in the polit­i­cal back­lash that led to the elec­tion of Rea­gan. The right embraced a car­i­ca­ture of this notion of a new class,” propos­ing that col­lege-edu­cat­ed pro­fes­sion­als — espe­cial­ly lawyers, pro­fes­sors, jour­nal­ists, and artists — make up a pow­er-hun­gry lib­er­al elite” bent on impos­ing its ver­sion of social­ism on every­one else.

The PMC grew rapid­ly. From 1870 to 1910 alone, while the whole pop­u­la­tion of the Unit­ed States increased two and one-third times and the old mid­dle class of busi­ness entre­pre­neurs and inde­pen­dent pro­fes­sion­als dou­bled, the num­ber of peo­ple in what could be seen as PMC jobs grew almost eight­fold. And in the years that fol­lowed, that growth only accel­er­at­ed. Although a vari­ety of prac­ti­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal obsta­cles pre­vent mak­ing any pre­cise analy­sis, we esti­mate that as late as 1930, peo­ple in PMC occu­pa­tions still made up less than 1 per­cent of total employ­ment. By 1972, about 24 per­cent of Amer­i­can jobs were in PMC occu­pa­tions. By 1983 the num­ber had risen to 28 per­cent and by 2006, just before the Great Reces­sion, to 35 percent.

The rela­tion­ship between the emerg­ing PMC and the tra­di­tion­al work­ing class was, from the start, riv­en with ten­sions. It was the occu­pa­tion­al role of man­agers and engi­neers, along with many oth­er pro­fes­sion­als, to man­age, reg­u­late, and con­trol the life of the work­ing class. They designed the divi­sion of labor and the machines that con­trolled work­ers’ minute-by-minute exis­tence on the fac­to­ry floor, manip­u­lat­ed their desire for com­modi­ties and their opin­ions, social­ized their chil­dren, and even medi­at­ed their rela­tion­ship with their own bodies.

At the same time though, the role of the PMC as ratio­nal­iz­ers” of soci­ety often placed them in direct con­flict with the cap­i­tal­ist class. Like the work­ers, the PMC were them­selves employ­ees and sub­or­di­nate to the own­ers, but since what was tru­ly ratio­nal” in the pro­duc­tive process was not always iden­ti­cal to what was most imme­di­ate­ly prof­itable, the PMC often sought auton­o­my and free­dom from their own bosses.

By the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, jobs for the PMC were pro­lif­er­at­ing. Pub­lic edu­ca­tion was expand­ing, the mod­ern uni­ver­si­ty came into being, local gov­ern­ments expand­ed in size and role, char­i­ta­ble agen­cies merged, news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion soared, tra­di­tion­al forms of recre­ation gave way to the pop­u­lar cul­ture, enter­tain­ment and sports indus­tries, etc. — and all of these devel­op­ments cre­at­ed jobs for high­ly edu­cat­ed pro­fes­sion­als, includ­ing jour­nal­ists, social work­ers, pro­fes­sors, doc­tors, lawyers, and enter­tain­ers” (artists and writ­ers among others).

Some of these occu­pa­tions man­aged to retain a mea­sure of auton­o­my and, with it, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of oppo­si­tion to busi­ness dom­i­na­tion. The so-called lib­er­al pro­fes­sions,” par­tic­u­lar­ly med­i­cine and law, remained large­ly out­side the cor­po­rate frame­work until well past the mid­dle of the 20th cen­tu­ry. Most doc­tors, many nurs­es, and the major­i­ty of lawyers worked in inde­pen­dent (pri­vate) practices.

In the 1960s, for the first time since the Pro­gres­sive Era, a large seg­ment of the PMC had the self-con­fi­dence to take on a crit­i­cal, even oppo­si­tion­al, polit­i­cal role. Jobs were plen­ti­ful, a col­lege edu­ca­tion did not yet lead to a life­time of debt, and mate­ri­al­ism was briefly out of style. Col­lege stu­dents quick­ly moved on from sup­port­ing the civ­il rights move­ment in the South and oppos­ing the war in Viet­nam to con­fronting the raw fact of cor­po­rate pow­er through­out Amer­i­can soci­ety — from the pro-war incli­na­tions of the weapons indus­try to the gov­er­nance of the uni­ver­si­ty. The revolt soon spread beyond stu­dents. By the end of the six­ties, almost all of the lib­er­al pro­fes­sions had rad­i­cal cau­cus­es,” demand­ing that access to the pro­fes­sions be opened up to those tra­di­tion­al­ly exclud­ed (such as women and minori­ties), and that the ser­vice ethics the pro­fes­sions claimed to uphold actu­al­ly be applied in practice.

The cap­i­tal­ist offensive

Begin­ning in the sev­en­ties, the cap­i­tal­ist class deci­sive­ly re-assert­ed itself. The ensu­ing cap­i­tal­ist offen­sive was so geo­graph­i­cal­ly wide­spread and thor­ough­go­ing that it intro­duced what many left­wing the­o­rists today describe as a new form of cap­i­tal­ism, neolib­er­al­ism.”

The new man­age­ment strat­e­gy was to raise prof­its by sin­gle-mind­ed­ly reduc­ing labor costs, most direct­ly by sim­ply mov­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing off­shore to find cheap­er labor. Those work­ers who remained employed in the Unit­ed States faced a series of ini­tia­tives designed to dis­ci­pline and con­trol them ever more tight­ly: inten­si­fied super­vi­sion in the work­place, drug tests to elim­i­nate slack­ers, and increas­ing­ly pro­fes­sion­al­ized efforts to pre­vent union­iza­tion. Cuts in the wel­fare state also had a dis­ci­plin­ing func­tion, mak­ing it hard­er for work­ers to imag­ine sur­viv­ing job loss. 

Most of these anti-labor mea­sures also had an effect, direct­ly or indi­rect­ly, on ele­ments of the PMC. Gov­ern­ment spend­ing cuts hurt the job prospects of social work­ers, teach­ers, and oth­ers in the help­ing pro­fes­sions,” while the dec­i­ma­tion of the U.S.-based indus­tri­al work­ing class reduced the need for mid-lev­el pro­fes­sion­al man­agers, who found them­selves increas­ing­ly tar­get­ed for down­siz­ing. But there was a spe­cial ani­mus against the lib­er­al pro­fes­sions, sur­passed only by neolib­er­al hos­til­i­ty to what con­ser­v­a­tives described as the under­class.” Crush­ing this lib­er­al elite — by defund­ing the left” or attack­ing lib­er­al-lean­ing non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tions — became a major neolib­er­al project.

Of course, not all the forces under­min­ing the lib­er­al pro­fes­sions since the 1980s can be traced to con­scious neolib­er­al poli­cies. Tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, ris­ing demand for ser­vices, and ruth­less prof­it-tak­ing all con­tributed to an increas­ing­ly chal­leng­ing envi­ron­ment for the lib­er­al pro­fes­sions, includ­ing the cre­ative ones.” 

The Inter­net is often blamed for the plight of jour­nal­ists, writ­ers, and edi­tors, but eco­nom­ic change pre­ced­ed tech­no­log­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Jour­nal­ism jobs began to dis­ap­pear as cor­po­ra­tions, respond­ing in part to Wall Street investors, tried to squeeze high­er prof­it mar­gins out of news­pa­pers and TV news pro­grams. The effects of these changes on the tra­di­tion­al­ly cre­ative pro­fes­sions have been dire. Staff writ­ers, edi­tors, pho­tog­ra­phers, announc­ers, and the like faced mas­sive lay­offs (more than 25% of news­room staff alone since 2001), increased work­loads, salary cuts, and buy-outs.

Then, in just the last dozen years, the PMC began to suf­fer the fate of the indus­tri­al class in the 1980s: replace­ment by cheap for­eign labor. It came as a shock to many when, in the 2000s, busi­ness­es began to avail them­selves of new high speed trans­mis­sion tech­nolo­gies to out­source pro­fes­sion­al functions.

By the time of the finan­cial melt­down and deep reces­sion of the post-2008 peri­od, the pain inflict­ed by neolib­er­al poli­cies, both pub­lic and cor­po­rate, extend­ed well beyond the old indus­tri­al work­ing class and into core seg­ments of the PMC. Unem­ployed and under­em­ployed pro­fes­sion­al work­ers — from IT to jour­nal­ism, acad­e­mia, and even­tu­al­ly law — became a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the social land­scape. Young peo­ple did not lose faith in the val­ue of an edu­ca­tion, but they learned quick­ly that it makes more sense to study finance rather than physics or com­mu­ni­ca­tions” rather than lit­er­a­ture. The old PMC dream of a soci­ety rule by impar­tial experts” gave way to the real­i­ty of inescapable cor­po­rate domination.

But the PMC was not only a vic­tim of more pow­er­ful groups. It had also fall­en into a trap of its own mak­ing. The pro­longed, expen­sive, and spe­cial­ized edu­ca­tion required for pro­fes­sion­al employ­ment had always been a chal­lenge to PMC fam­i­lies — as well, of course, as an often-insu­per­a­ble bar­ri­er to the work­ing class. High­er degrees and licens­es are no longer a guar­an­tee of PMC sta­tus. Hence the icon­ic fig­ure of the Occu­py Wall Street move­ment: the col­lege grad­u­ate with tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in stu­dent loan debts and a job pay­ing about $10 a hour, or no job at all.

Whith­er class consciousness?

So in the hun­dred years since its emer­gence, the PMC has not man­aged to hold its own as a class. At its wealth­i­er end, skilled pro­fes­sion­als con­tin­ue to jump ship for more lucra­tive posts in direct ser­vice to cap­i­tal: Sci­en­tists give up their research to become quants” on Wall Street; physi­cians can dou­ble their incomes by find­ing work as invest­ment ana­lysts for the finance indus­try or by set­ting up concierge” prac­tices serv­ing the wealthy. At the less for­tu­nate end of the spec­trum, jour­nal­ists and PhDs in soci­ol­o­gy or lit­er­a­ture spi­ral down into the retail work­force. In between, health work­ers and lawyers and pro­fes­sors find their work lives more and more hemmed in and reg­u­lat­ed by cor­po­ra­tion-like enter­pris­es. The cen­ter has not held. Con­ceived as the mid­dle class” and as the sup­posed repos­i­to­ry of civic virtue and occu­pa­tion­al ded­i­ca­tion, the PMC lies in ruins. 

More pro­found­ly, the PMC’s orig­i­nal dream — of a soci­ety ruled by rea­son and led by pub­lic-spir­it­ed pro­fes­sion­als — has been dis­cred­it­ed. Glob­al­ly, the social­ist soci­eties that seemed to come clos­est to this goal either degen­er­at­ed into heav­i­ly mil­i­ta­rized dic­ta­tor­ships or, more recent­ly, into author­i­tar­i­an cap­i­tal­ist states. With­in the US, the grotesque fail­ure of social­ism in Chi­na and the Sovi­et Union became a pro­pa­gan­da weapon in the neolib­er­al war against the pub­lic sec­tor in its most innocu­ous forms and a core argu­ment for the pri­va­ti­za­tion of just about everything.

But the PMC has also man­aged to dis­cred­it itself as an advo­cate for the com­mon good. Con­sid­er our gleam­ing tow­ers of med­ical research and high-tech­nol­o­gy care — all too often abut­ting urban neigh­bor­hoods char­ac­ter­ized by extreme pover­ty and fore­short­ened life spans. 

Should we mourn the fate of the PMC or rejoice that there is one less smug, self-styled, elite to stand in the way of a more egal­i­tar­i­an future? On the one hand, the PMC has played a major role in the oppres­sion and dis­em­pow­er­ing of the old work­ing class. It has offered lit­tle resis­tance to (and, in fact, sup­plied the man­pow­er for) the right’s cam­paign against any mea­sure that might ease the lives of the poor and the work­ing class.

On the oth­er hand, the PMC has at times been a lib­er­al” force, defend­ing the val­ues of schol­ar­ship and human ser­vice in the face of the relent­less pur­suit of prof­it. In this respect, its role in the last cen­tu­ry bears some anal­o­gy to the role of monas­ter­ies in medieval Europe, which kept lit­er­a­cy and at least some form of inquiry alive while the bar­bar­ians raged outside.

As we face the deep­en­ing ruin brought on by neolib­er­al aggres­sion, the ques­tion may be: Who, among the sur­vivors, will uphold those val­ues today? And, more pro­found­ly, is there any way to sal­vage the dream of rea­son — or at least the idea of a soci­ety in which rea­son­able­ness can occa­sion­al­ly pre­vail — from the accre­tion of elit­ism it acquired from the PMC?

Any renew­al of oppo­si­tion­al spir­it among the Pro­fes­sion­al-Man­age­r­i­al Class, or what remains of it, needs to start from an aware­ness that what has hap­pened to the pro­fes­sion­al mid­dle class has long since hap­pened to the blue col­lar work­ing class. The debt-rid­den unem­ployed and under­em­ployed col­lege grad­u­ates, the rev­enue-starved teach­ers, the over­worked and under­paid ser­vice pro­fes­sion­als, even the occa­sion­al whis­tle-blow­ing sci­en­tist or engi­neer — all face the same kind of sit­u­a­tion that con­front­ed skilled craft-work­ers in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry and all Amer­i­can indus­tri­al work­ers in the late 20th century.

In the com­ing years, we expect to see the rem­nants of the PMC increas­ing­ly mak­ing com­mon cause with the rem­nants of the tra­di­tion­al work­ing class for, at a min­i­mum, rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the polit­i­cal process. This is the project that the Occu­py move­ment ini­ti­at­ed and spread, for a time any­way, worldwide.

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Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich, a jour­nal­ist and author, first wrote for In These Times in 1977. Her recent books include Bright-sided: How Pos­i­tive Think­ing is Under­min­ing Amer­i­ca and Nick­el and Dimed: On (Not) Get­ting by in Amer­i­ca.

John Ehren­re­ich is pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­o­gy at the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York, Col­lege at Old West­bury. He wrote The Human­i­tar­i­an Com­pan­ion: A Guide for Inter­na­tion­al Aid, Devel­op­ment, and Human Rights Work­ers.

They co-authored the essay The Pro­fes­sion­al-Man­age­r­i­al Class” in the March-April 1977 issue of Rad­i­cal Amer­i­ca.

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