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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les classes moyennes, pas au-dessus de la crise

by Antoine Rolland

The middle classes are not immune to the crisis

Translated Wednesday 23 May 2012, by Helen Robertshaw and reviewed by Derek Hanson

Contrary to popular belief, this social category, the middle class, is suffering as a result of the economic situation. In terms of employment and salaries, it is edging closer and closer to the working classes.

Did the crisis bypass the middle classes? For Louis Chauvel, a researcher at the French Economic Observatory (OFCE), the answer is no. “The middle classes are no longer shielded from the ill effects of the crisis”, he states in his latest publication.

The first argument put forward is “the decline in salary status” since the end of the “Trente Glorieuses”, France’s 30-year boom period after the Second World War. The average annual salary after tax didn’t change between 1970 and 2010. Moreover, the gap in purchasing power between middle-ranking professions – including technicians, nurses and primary school teachers – and blue-collar workers has really shrunk. Whereas their purchasing power was more than 120% higher than that of the working classes in 1970, it was only 47% higher in 2009.

Therefore, “the intermediate middle classes are not a social group immune to the difficulties experienced by the modest social categories, because they are edging closer and closer to them with respect to salary”, writes the sociologist. They are therefore prone to the same difficulties.

Housing is an example. Faced with the rise in property prices, the intermediate middle classes have had to take on debts spanning a greater number of years in order to buy a house. This therefore signals “increasing risk-taking”, according to Louis Chauvel’s analysis. Moreover, this has created a real split within the middle classes, between those who are forced to borrow and those whose parents have capital.

While their purchasing power has not changed, the risk of unemployment among the middle classes has, on the other hand, been steadily increasing. While “security about the future” was once the main characteristic of the middle classes, job losses now affect even executives and intellectual professionals, according to the figures from an American research centre. We are seeing an “ebbing away” of the protection they used to enjoy.

This anxiety “does not merely stem from an unfounded fear, but from tangible facts”, concludes Louis Chauvel. Thus, “the discourse of maintaining this privileged status” which denies “the existence of a drop in status, notably in academic terms, of job insecurity, unemployment, wage stagnation, and of course the housing crisis, to which they are now exposed (…) could even take away their ability to express their real suffering”.

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