Coping mechanism No. 1: Women move into paid work. Starting in the late 1970s, and escalating in the 1980s and 1990s, women went into paid work in greater and greater numbers. For the relatively small sliver of women with four-year college degrees, this was the natural consequence of wider educational opportunities and new laws against gender discrimination that opened professions to well-educated women. But the vast majority of women who migrated into paid work did so in order to prop up family incomes as households were hit by the stagnant or declining wages of male workers.
This transition of women into paid work has been one of the most important social and economic changes to occur over the last four decades. In 1966, 20 percent of mothers with young children worked outside the home. By the late 1990s, the proportion had risen to 60 percent. For married women with children under the age of 6, the transformation has been even more dramatic — from 12 percent in the 1960s to 55 percent by the late 1990s.
Coping mechanism No. 2: Everyone works longer hours. By the mid 2000s it was not uncommon for men to work more than 60 hours a week and women to work more than 50. A growing number of people took on two or three jobs. All told, by the 2000s, the typical American worker worked more than 2,200 hours a year — 350 hours more than the average European worked, more hours even than the typically industrious Japanese put in. It was many more hours than the typical American middle-class family had worked in 1979 — 500 hours longer, a full 12 weeks more.
Coping mechanism No. 3: Draw down savings and borrow to the hilt. After exhausting the first two coping mechanisms, the only way Americans could keep consuming as before was to save less and go deeper into debt. During the Great Prosperity the American middle class saved about 9 percent of their after-tax incomes each year. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, that portion had been whittled down to about 7 percent. The savings rate then dropped to 6 percent in 1994, and on down to 3 percent in 1999. By 2008, Americans saved nothing. Meanwhile, household debt exploded. By 2007, the typical American owed 138 percent of their after-tax income.
The Challenge for the Future
All three coping mechanisms have been exhausted. The fundamental economic challenge ahead is to restore the vast American middle class.
That requires resurrecting the basic bargain linking wages to overall gains, and providing the middle class a share of economic gains sufficient to allow them to purchase more of what the economy can produce. As we should have learned from the Great Prosperity — the 30 years after World War II when America grew because most Americans shared in the nation’s prosperity — we cannot have a growing and vibrant economy without a growing and vibrant middle class.
(This is excerpted from my testimony to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, on May 12. It is also drawn from my recent book, Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.)