I read "Fear of Falling" out of curiosity. Can a book published in 1989 about the American middle class still be relevant? Sadly -- for reasons that will be detailed below -- it still can be. The middle class in 2004 is still as selfish, self-seeking, and elitist as it was when Ehrenreich wrote this book. There are quaint features to the book. The author speaks indignantly of business executives earning $1 million per year -- a big salary in 1989, but chump change for the CEO of 2004.
Ehrenreich defines the middle class as the professional and managerial workers -- the doctors, lawyers, professors, and mid-level executives -- of our society. In 2004, members of the professional middle class would have incomes of at least $60,000 up to about $250,000 per year. They would comprise nearly one half of the American population. Over the middle class would be the rich, two or three percent of the population, and below would be the lower or working classes, comprising about one half of the population.
Ehrenreich provides a mini-history of the professional middle class from 1960 up till the late 1980s. What one sees over these three decades is increasing distance between the middle and the lower classes -- plus increasing disinterest in addressing problems of poverty and social injustice in the U.S. The middle class "is too driven by its own ambitions, too compromised by its own elite status, and too removed from those whose sufferings cry out most loudly for redress." She attributes the middle class's anxiety to "fear of falling" into the nether-world of Walmart workers and trailer park living. Her (vague) prescription for wholesome social change is expanded educational opportunity and removing "artificial barriers."
The trends Ehrenreich identifies in 1989 have not only continued but intensified. The distance between rich and poor, socially and economically, has increased. The professional middle class has lost much of what social conscience it once had and movement toward an equalitarian society, discernible in 1960, has been reversed. Is that a bad thing? I think so.