It’s just that standards are rising. James Hanley explains:
[I]f you are content with the standard of living of the 19th century’s middle class, you could probably do that while working half time right now [and] you can live a 1950s middle class lifestyle while working part-time at contemporary American wages…
The problem is that absolutely nobody wants to live like we did in the 1950s. Our standards today are a lot higher. Many of the things the middle class loves the most today — smart phones, color HDTV, movies on demand, the sweet, sweet Internet — just weren’t available at any price back then. But some comparisons are still possible:
[A]s the country becomes wealthier, it doesn’t seem to become easier to live a middle class life. And it seems to me that this is because the material standard of living that defines the middle class today is higher than that which defined the middle class in past generations. For example, in the 1950s, a middle class lifestyle meant a window air conditioner and some fans to move the air around; today it means central air conditioning. Back then a single car family was middle class; today most middle class families are two car families. A single television set was sufficient to be middle class back then; today–even though televisions are much cheaper–most middle class families have multiple televisions, many pay extra for a television that’s much larger than what their (grand)parents had, and most pay extra–sometimes a lot extra–for cable or satellite (i.e., once upon a time three free channels was middle class; now 100 pay channels is middle class). They didn’t pay for microwaves and computers (and internet access) in the 1950s, while we do now. We also eat out a lot more today than they did back then. One of the biggest changes is the size of American homes. In the 1950s, the average home size was just under 1,000 square feet; today it’s over 2,300 square feet. As importantly, a house back then most often had a single bathroom; now homes regularly have 2 1/2 baths or more.
How much is leisure time worth to you? Revealed preference suggests we’re stupidly eager to work our asses off for things that we don’t have much time to enjoy. This could very well be a problem, but it’s a problem distinct from the disappearance of the middle class.
Would a person with a 1,000-square foot home, no cell phone, no microwave, no computer, one television, and one bathroom even be called middle class today? What if he only worked three days a week? Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Books are cheap. So are walks in the park, yoga, and the hobby of home cooking, because the costs of food are sunk in any case. Become a vegetarian and you save even more. One can always mend one’s clothes instead of throwing them out. A person living like this would be living a very different lifestyle from the typical middle-class person today, but he could also be happier. It’s not for me to say.
Most of you, however, would not be happier. I suspect as much based on how I see you living right now. As they say, you pays your money and you takes your choice.
Hanley’s got numbers to back up his claims. I admit I haven’t checked them myself, but I’m sure our readers will be eager to help.