Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Where are they now?

You come across them in books written in the 1900s and the first half of the last century. People who were not, perhaps, technically rich and yet, in some ways, were rich beyond the wildest imaginings of most people in the western/industrialized world today.

In book after book we meet characters who "live off a modest competence," who "inherited a tidy sum" from a maiden aunt or bachelor uncle, men who retired in the prime of life from some branch of the services and live comfortably on their pension plus the money left them by an elderly relative and the women who can just manage to sustain appearances if they pool the dividends from the money they inherited from their father's small estate together with their mother (who has a life-interest in her deceased husband's pension.)

Seldom would any of them do what would be recognized today as work. The women might work as a secretary to a "great man" of letters or even as a companion but to work in shop or as a secretary to a businessman was out of the question. The men might work as agents on the estate of a monied landowner. All of them resented the idea of jobs and all seemed to fear (quite justifiably) that by working for a living they might lose some of their class status.

They would be invited to dine with those who were truly wealthy for although they belonged to a different monetary class they were members of the same social class. The conversation around the table would often turn to the ruinous effect of taxation, the frightening drop in dividends and the almost extortionate insistence of members of the working class of being paid wages that reflected both their work and the cost of living.

Almost inevitably at some point in the conversation one of the characters would state that these changes were going to destroy their way of life.

They were right.

We certainly have millionaires today. Indeed we have billionaires. But we do not have a substantially large class of people who maintain what we would consider a middle class lifestyle without holding down a job. Changes in the economic system wiped them out.

For the last half a century we have continued to have a middle class but this group of people depended on income generated from jobs rather than from dividends. These were people who worked all their life, saved assiduously and if they were lucky could look forward to living in retirement much the way that vanished long ago middle class did.

I wonder if in another fifty years the literate public will look back on our job dependent middle class much as we do on the rentier middle class of England before and between the World Wars. Perhaps in fifty years there will simply be the rich and poor and very little in between.

1 comment:

  1. That does seem to be the way we're going, doesn't it? Maybe this whole "middle-class" thing is a historical aberration, and the natural condition of human society is the rich aristocracy and the poor workers. Maybe with a tiny professional class, doctors and lawyers and priests, to do the work that the very rich can't be bothered to do for themselves.

    That's depressing.

    You know who I wonder where they are? I wonder where are the doctors in those novels who'd tell tired, stressed middle-aged women that they needed to go abroad for their health. Or take a sea voyage, or something.

    And then I wonder where are the insurance companies who'd pay for such a thing, because I haven't got the dividends to finance it myself.


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