February 12, 2013

Death of a Yuppie Dream: The Rise and Fall of the Professional-Managerial Class

Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich

Saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, unemployed or working part-time for not much more than minimum wage: the struggling recent college graduate has—thanks to Occupy Wall Street—become a new iconic figure on the American cultural landscape. To many it seems that an implicit promise has been broken: work hard, get an education and you will ascend to the middle class.

Middle class is a famously flexible term in the United States, but here it seems to mean something close to what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich first labeled the “professional-managerial class” (PMC) in 1977. This class of college-educated professionals is distinct from— and often at odds with—both the traditional working class and the old middle class of small business owners, not to mention wealthy business owners. Organized into largely autonomous professions defined by specialized knowledge and ethical standards, members of the PMC at times—from the Progressive Era to the New Left—were instrumental in mobilizing for progressive causes.

Today, the PMC as a distinct class seems to be endangered. At the top end, exorbitant compensation and bonuses have turned managers into corporate owners. At the bottom, journalists have been laid off, recent PhDs have gone to work as part-time, temporary adjuncts rather than tenure-track professors, and those now iconic recent graduates have taken to the streets. In the middle, lawyers and doctors are more and more likely to work for corporations rather than in private practices. Once independent professionals, they are now employees.

In this study, Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich deploy an all-too-rare example of class analysis as they revisit the concept of the professional-managerial class. Against the background of this new class’ historical evolution since the late 19th century and its rise in the 20th, the authors focus on the more recent development of the PMC. In the 1970s, this class seemed ascendant. An increasing percentage of the workforce held professional jobs, and many members of the PMC had found a distinct political voice in the New Left. Since 1980, however, things have looked less rosy. As capital attacked the autonomy of the liberal professions, the rightwing media tapped into working-class resentment of the “liberal elite.” More recently, while college educated workers, despite the impact of the Great Recession, have continued to do relatively well as a demographic category, the PMC as a class capable of acting in its own interest seems to be an increasingly irrelevant product of the 20th century.

Historically, members of the PMC have designed and managed capital’s systems of social control, oftentimes treating working-class people with a mixture of paternalism and hostility. As advocates for rational management of the workplace and society, however, the PMC has sometimes also acted as a buffer against the profit motive as the sole meaningful force in society. Today, members of the PMC face a choice. Will they cling to an elitist conception of their own superiority and attempt to defend their own increasingly tenuous privileges, or will they act in solidarity with other working people and help craft a politics capable of creating a better world for all?

For further information on the transformation of the health care, legal, and journalistic professions: Background Notes: The Recent History of the Professional Managerial Class by John Ehrenreich und Barbara Ehrenreich.