An American Proletariat?

Historically, Americans have been reluctant to call themselves anything but “working class” or “middle class” (unless they’re lucky enough to be part of the “filthy rich class”).

But an increasing number—still small, but growing—are now calling themselves “lower class.” As the Los Angeles Times reported this week, a record 8.4% of Americans put themselves in that category last year—more than at any other time in the four decades that the question has been asked on the General Social Survey.

Meanwhile, writing this week in the New York Times, columnist Eduardo Porter looked at 25 years of economic stagnation for the middle class and concluded that the numbers are even worse than they look: Americans have experienced an erosion in standards of living when it comes to being able to afford education, healthcare and housing. Porter suggested it might be necessary to “define the middle class down a couple of notches.”

When Peter Drucker considered the “lower class,” the word he usually employed was “proletariat”—a term obviously borrowed from Karl Marx. And it was a term that described a marginalization and lack of dignity that he considered antithetical to a healthy society.

Photo by Lewis Hine
Photo by Lewis Hine

The absence of the proletarian is perhaps the most striking difference between America and Europe,” Drucker wrote in his 1950 book The New Society. This held true even during the worst years of the Great Depression, not to mention the prosperous decades following World War II.

But Drucker became less sanguine about America’s class divisions in his later years. As well-paid manufacturing jobs disappeared and the service sector grew, educated knowledge workers were becoming the winners, and low-skill service workers were becoming the losers. In Managing for the Future, published in 1992, Drucker warned of “an increasing gulf between the two groups” and the risk, should trends continue, that service workers would “become alienated, increasingly bitter, increasingly see themselves as a class apart.”

As we’ve discussed before, Drucker viewed the central crisis as one of insufficient service-work productivity. Manufacturing productivity surged in the 20th century. But with service work in the 21st century, the challenge remains. All the while, the stakes seem to be increasing. As Drucker noted in The New Society, “An industrial society loses its social cohesion if the worker is a proletarian.”

Is a “proletariat” forming in the United States—and, if so, what needs to change?