Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Decline of middle class. Sour grapes. Middle class was hard to enter in Bellingham anyway

Finding what people call a "real job" has not been easy for several decades here in Bellingham, WA. Perceived livability of this city means competition for "professional type" jobs has been fierce be it university faculty, or whatever. People with vast truckloads of credentials have eyed job openings for years ready to move into Bellingham from all over the world.

Now, many other parts of the country are joining Bellingham's tight market conditions for middle class jobs. It's kind of like the rest of the country can say, "we are Bellingham now."

Still, a lot of local people have survived and even thrived over the years with somewhat different expectations than the traditional "American dream." Innovations based on sustainable living and things like bicycle culture can keep expenses down while social connectedness is high. Some call Bellingham the last holdout of the hippies, but there are actually lots of counterculture currents in other parts of the country as well as the world.

On the surface, it looks like the middle class has been strong in Bellingham. With at least 3 major institutions of higher learning there has been a large percentage of the local workforce employed in state type jobs at places like Western Washington University. Also a lot of people choose to retire here, so they often still own homes and have incomes from employment in the other regions where they lived before retirement.

Our local private sector has not been as strong at creating family wage jobs as private sector employment has been in, say major metropolitan markets like Seattle. Still there is some mix of manufacturing, consulting and medical employment. As with a lot of places, Bellingham has lost several large manufacturing employers, such as Georgia Pacific Pulp and Paper mill. A few new manufacturing outfits have started up, but like in much of the country, those jobs are often outsourced or automated.

The rest of USA seems to be catching up with Bellingham's precarious middle class as economic conditions keep changing. It can be depressing, but it also means this country is going through a transition. We're in a paradigm shift that none of us really seem to understand that well.

Many forces are working against the statuesque of middle class America these days. Cuts in government spending are high on the list. Also the middle class is weakened by tax policies that have been tipping away from "sliding scale income tax." Tax policies are tipping more toward favoring the wealthy.

While these things seem more obvious as time goes on, people still tend to vote Republican much of the time. Hard to imagine, since Republicans are usually cold to the concept of "graduated income tax."

Still, there's more to this than just the politics. We are definitely in a transition that neither Republicans or Democrats can manage. Technology and automation creates some new opportunities, but it also eliminates the need for lots of formerly middle class jobs. For instance, people can now book travel online rather than using the services of a travel agent; thus meaning less jobs for travel agents. There are thousands of examples of this all across the economy.

Some folks might vote Republican as a case of "sour grapes." They say, "if we're struggling in the private sector, why do state employees still get such good benefits?"

Other factors hurting the middle class are environmental issues. People often don't like to see virgin lands bulldozed for new subdivisions of middle class homes, yet as population grows, new folks need places to live.

Automobiles are a great convenience, but global warming and peak oil has been lapping at car culture for years. I even remember a book that came out in the 1970s with the title "Death of the Automobile."

Middle class homes and cars are getting harder to come by.

No doubt we need to do things a lot differently as paradigm shifts continue into the future. While changes can be rough, there is a lot of innovation in lifestyles, business practices and government. There's lots of innovation here in Bellingham as well as in other places.

Many pioneers are finding ways to create sustainable culture and economics. Finding ways that sit well with the environment. Also finding ways to benefit from new technologies while still being able to pay the bills. It's all a challenge. A brighter, tho different, future is still possible.

Below posted in 2009.

700 applicants for a custodial position in Bellingham

Made the news in Ohio, but it's not unusual.

Much of the time, here in Bellingham, WA. it seems like custodial positions at the university or school district can draw a hundred applicants at least. Especially as they pay a bit more than most custodial positions in the private sector.

Benefits and health insurance also.

State jobs.

Custodial work is not bad work. Can be fairly hassle free and low stress. Of course depends on situation.

All through the 1980s and beyond, I remember years when custodial positions at Western Washington University would draw huge piles of applications.

The school district and city would be similar.

Much of our local economy is what they call a "service economy."

Retailing, restaurants, lawn mowing.

Lots of waiters, waitresses and store clerks. Many of the jobs have been part time and not paying much more than minimum wage.

Of course, if one has low overhead, life doesn't have to be so bad.

Good health, free time, flexibility and then people say they leave Bellingham when it's time to look for a "real job."

The places I have worked have only had a few full time jobs and large staffs of part time workers.

Much of the local work force is students who work their job schedule around class schedules. Classes come first. After one graduates, life comes first and the job comes second. There are not that many jobs which are super inspiring.

State jobs tend to be more likely to have benefits and full time hours.

Welcome to the new economy.

Bellingham has been there for a long time.

It pays to have "low overhead," but many of the houses in this area are quite large and expensive.

There's a disconnect.

Seems like many of the homeowners are retirees who got into owning in other areas and times.

Local workers are often renters.

Then there are the much sought after state jobs.

Our economy kind of revolves around education and retirement.

Some say it's the result of not being friendly to industry. Yes, much of the industrial base has deteriorated and gone overseas.

Volunteer sector is the most dynamic and exciting part of our city's economy. In spite of recession, one still finds vibrancy at various gathering spots. Political meetings, discussion groups, folk music, dancing, festivals.

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