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Middle-Class Betrayal? Why Working Hard Is No Longer Enough in America

Millions of Americans are finding that the job paths they assumed would lead them to middle-class lives no longer promise economic stability.
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What frustrates Hanna Newberg about her life right now isn’t just that she’s working as a waitress at a chain restaurant or renting a small apartment in western Massachusetts. The problem, Newberg says, is that she did everything she was told she was supposed to do -- went to college, went to graduate school -- and still, she’s waiting tables.

Newberg, 26, is like millions of young Americans who are finding that the paths they assumed would lead them to middle-class lives -- the paths many of their parents took -- no longer promise economic stability. The long wake of the recession has exposed an American economy that has been restructured over the last three decades. As a result, many jobs that once made it possible to reach the middle class are less reliable.

Newberg grew up in a home where her father’s paycheck was modest but consistent. Steve Newberg, 60, a tall lanky man with long pulled back hair, has been a postal worker since two years before Hanna, the older of his two daughters, was born. Steve’s wife, Robin Newberg, 54, had worked as an elementary school teacher and then left to raise their children in their well-kept home in a quiet semi-rural street in Granby, Connecticut.

On Steve’s post office salary -- now just over $27 an hour, padded with extra money he makes running sound systems for events -- the Newbergs paid the mortgage on their home and even saved a little. “I was able to really provide everything that we needed,” Steve said. “It wasn't a lot but we had what we needed.”

But the kind of good-paying blue-collar union job that Steve has held for years is harder to find for the next generation.

When Hanna graduated from high school, she applied to Southern Connecticut State University. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree and promptly went to graduate school in library science, an area she thought was practical, so she could become a school librarian. “It’s the kind of job I sort of thought was a responsible thing to go after,” she said. “I was excited about it.”

Up until that point, Steve says, “It was all working as it was supposed to” for his children, including Hanna. His own father found middle-class stability out of the lasting post-World War II boom and its programs like the GI Bill. He passed the wealth he accumulated as a middle manager at a Connecticut insurance firm on to Steve and Robin as help with a down payment and an inheritance. In turn, Steve worked to pass it on to his own kids, too.

Middle-class opportunities?

Hanna graduated with relatively little student debt because Steve used the inheritance to pay tuition. Middle-class life bequeathed middle-class opportunities.

Degree in hand, Hanna began applying for jobs. She landed one, as a library assistant in a Tucson, Arizona, public middle school. But the job paid less than $10 an hour.

Worse, she was the only person working in the school library. “I basically did the job of a librarian for that pay,” she said. “I had to watch all the kids, and do all the circulation, clean it myself and keep it organized. I was the librarian.”

“We see Ph.D.s from Harvard teaching as adjuncts, factory workers making minimum wage when they might have made middle-class wages before.”

Because she earned so little, Hanna got a second job scooping cones at an ice-cream shop to pay rent and bills. “I worked all the time,” she said. “When I think about a school librarian, I don’t think about someone making that little money.”

She decided that she needed to move back to Connecticut, closer to family.

Now working at the chain restaurant, Hanna has a job, which is better than many of her contemporaries can say. The unemployment and underemployment rate for young workers is always higher than it is for older workers -- that was true before, during, and after the recession. And many of her friends are carrying tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt.

But even with more education, working 18-to-34 year old adults are earning less than they did 15 years ago. Since 2000, real wages for people in that age group have fallen by a full 10 percent, according to Census data. Lower pay is not just a by-product of the most recent economic downturn. As corporate profits and productivity have increased in recent decades, wages for most workers have not kept pace. That means a shift in what kind of life workers can afford.

“Jobs that once seemed a sure bet, may not be anymore,” said Josh Clinton, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who worked with NBC News to analyze class perceptions. “We see Ph.D.s from Harvard teaching as adjuncts, factory workers making minimum wage when they might have made middle-class wages before.”

Steve Newberg’s younger daughter, 24-year-old Christine, is in a similar position to Hanna. She studied elementary education in college in Vermont and expected to land a job as a teacher. Instead, she works in private daycare and earns $11 an hour. “I’m living pretty much paycheck to paycheck,” Christine said.

Image: Steve Newberg
Steve Newberg outside the post office where he works in Farmington, Conn.John Brecher / NBC News

Steve, a member of the postal workers union, has a clear sense that the situation his kids are in is a result of long-term economic shifts. But that does not mean he’s any less rattled by the consequences.

“For the most part, they did what everyone was saying they need to do for a career path,” Steve said of his daughters. “The worry is that they are not going to be able to get to the point that we were able to get to. If they want to buy a home, to make a similar standard of living, I’m not sure they can, not without working two jobs.”

Hanna thinks less about the macroeconomics of her life. She's not angry about where she's landed; she says sometimes she even likes her job, which pays her enough to fuel the Honda Fit she drives and for the rent on her apartment, which she shares with her cat. But sometimes she vacillates between wondering if she did something wrong or made bad choices, and feeling betrayed by a set of institutions that were supposed to help her along.

"The working class feels a very strong sense of betrayal."

“Sometimes I think if I were to graduate high school over again, I’d get an associate degree and work in an office rather than go to school for six years and wait tables,” she said one recent afternoon during a work break. “I thought I’d be able to do work I liked that also supported me. It’s not like I get up excited to go to work.”

'What if I did something different?'

Jennifer Silva, a sociologist at Bucknell University who studies changing class identities among millennials, says the sense that things didn't work as they were supposed is common among struggling young Americans.

“What I have seen in my interviews is that the working class feels a very strong sense of betrayal,” she said. “Betrayed by the institutions that should help them get ahead. They feel betrayed by school because they think it should have helped, and they were told it would, and they feel betrayed by work.”

“Work is not something that you can count on into the future, and for young people that means it’s not something to base a sense of self on,” Silva said.

Hanna sometimes wonders if she should have made other choices, studied another subject in school, maybe. “I think, what if I did something different?” But, while she's optimistic, not gloomy in her disposition, she says she’s anxious about what the new American economy will mean for her life years from now. “I don’t have any money saved up, and I’m nervous about that.”

The data on trends do little to assuage her anxieties. On the one hand, 25-to-34 year old Americans are more educated than any previous generation. Nearly two-thirds have at least some college education, according to a congressional report. Twenty years ago, just 52 percent of Americans in that age group could say the same.

But while it remains true that college is one of the clearest routes to employment at decent pay, it’s far from a sure path. According to the Council of Economic Advisers, college graduates who turned 23 in the mid-90s saw wages rise by 50 percent over the next five years. Those who turned 23 in the midst of the economic recession saw wages increase by about half as much. Lower earnings in early working lives can be economically hobbling in the long term.

For Steve Newberg, this all amounts to a matter-of-fact observation about passing on downward mobility to his children. “It’s a worry that this is the end of the line for that middle-class story,” he said.

This story is part of a series: "Class In America: Who Do You Think You Are?" Read the series here.