The End of the “Provide For Me” Era

In the 1880s and earlier, before the industrial revolution, there really was no middle class. In fact, I would argue that the middle class really didn’t emerge until after World War II. Before that there was just one class, albeit split between those with money and those without, those who could feed themselves and those who relied on others. These two groups aren’t connected by the way. Those with money often relied on others to feed them while those without, often farmers, managed to feed their families just fine. But what was clear during these earlier time periods is that those who “made it” took care of their own [1].

The industrial revolution changed that. Many people went to work for someone else and a middle class emerged, particularly in the mid to late 20th century. Thanks to organized labor unskilled workers could make a living in factories all over the country.

But we all know where we are now. Many factory jobs have left these shores for foreign countries and middle class wages have officially been stagnant for almost 30 years. The golf between the better-off and the struggling has expanded and it isn’t clear that this will close any time soon.

Many people have theories of how to close this gap. Short of wealth-redistribution, I’m not certain it is possible. But I didn’t write to talk politics. What I am wondering is if this middle class era was really an anomaly in world history? I am wondering if this era of relying on others for your work and wage was a short-lived by-product of the industrial era? And now that the industrial era is fading, I’m wondering if we are returning to a provide-for-yourself economy?

Bryce Roberts alluded to these questions a week or so ago in his post Rise of the Independents. In it he facets that we are entering a “golden era” of indie companies, an era when it is financially feasible to chart your own course and work on big or small projects of your making. Later, in a subsequent post, he clarifies his thinking: “The point I wanted to make was that we’re at a critical inflection point for entrepreneurship. The company man and his accompanying gold watch and pension are a relic that I, nor my kids, will see again in our lifetimes.”

Times change and we all need to adopt. Maybe, just maybe, the sooner we each realize we have to make our own way in this world the sooner we can get the country back on track.

[1] Obviously there was some period serious problems during this era of American history. Blacks had no place in the country and while they had earned their rights after the Civil War they were still in essence slaves and indentured servants. Women, too, had no place outside the home.