Divided We Fall

In his new book, Coming Apart, American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray argues that the United States is cleaving as never before.

Murray divides Americans by income into two groups—the top 20% and the bottom 30%, and presents a host of data to make the case that, more and more, these castes are culturally isolated from each other. They watch different TV shows, eat different foods and live in different clusters. The top live old-fashioned middle-class lives, while the bottom live unstable, atomized lives.

“The truth is, members of the upper tribe . . . have low divorce rates, arduous work ethics and strict codes to regulate their kids,” David Brooks wrote recently in the New York Times, as he summarized Murray’s book. Meantime, members of the “lower tribe” are plagued by high rates of divorce, single parenthood and joblessness. (To eliminate race as a complicating factor, Murray confines his study to white Americans.)

Murray, a libertarian, sees reduced government as a solution. Regardless of whether one agrees with such a remedy, however, the problem remains. How does the U.S. regain cohesion and offer dignity to the bottom 30%?

Peter Drucker, as we’ve noted, greatly valued the habits of middle-class American life, but he considered its preservation to be a significant challenge—especially at a time when the labor force has split into two main cohorts: knowledge workers and service workers.

Photo credit: Pink Sherbert Photography

“The rapid increase in the productivity of the workers making and moving things overcame the 19th century’s nightmare of ‘class conflict,’” Drucker wrote (as he explored a theme we’ve taken up before). “Now, a rapid increase in the productivity of service workers is required to avert the danger of a new ‘class conflict’ between” them and their knowledge-worker cousins.

“Knowledge workers and service workers are not ‘classes’ in the traditional sense,” Drucker added. “The line between the two is porous. In the same family, there are likely to be service workers and knowledge workers who have advanced education. But there is a danger that . . . society will become a class society unless service workers attain both income and dignity. This requires productivity. But it also requires opportunities for advancement and recognition.”

Is the United States segmenting into two castes? If so, what can be done about it?