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Barbara and John Ehrenreich: The Real Story Behind the Crash and Burn of America's Managerial Class

How the rise and fall of the professional-managerial class has impacted the last hundred years.

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.

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