The middle is a dangerous place to be

IMG_1642According to a Goldilocks logic, the middle is a good place to be. It’s the Via Media between two extremes.  It’s the place politicians [used to] fashion compromise.  It’s the place most of us look for balance. Typically, the middle is a place of safety.

Or at least it used to be.  My first glimpse of this when someone told me, years ago, about “glocal.”  This is a portmanteau made up of “global” and “local.”  What falls out is the middle, the spaces between the whole of the world and one’s immediate community.  In a strange twist, we became more cosmopolitan and more provincial at the same moment.

The death of the middle is especially evident in the world of movies. We have block busters on high.  They have budgets of one or more hundreds of millions. We have a great tribe of indies below. The budget here is typically tens of thousands, effectively whatever the filmmaker can squeeze out of their own and their parents’ credit cards. In the middle, the pickings are scarce. Judd Apatow mostly. Not, as they say, that there is anything wrong with that.

The death of the middle is also evident in the world of music.  Here is Derek Thompson on where we stand.

The top 1 percent of bands and solo artists now earn 77 percent of all revenue from recorded music, media researchers report. And even though the amount of digital music sold has surged, the 10 best-selling tracks command 82 percent more of the market than they did a decade ago. The advent of do-it-yourself artists in the digital age may have grown music’s long tail, but its fat head keeps getting fatter.

But today while reading an very interesting essay by David Autor, I came across this chilling passage.  There is, it turns out, a hole in the employment market as well.

“the structure of job opportunities in the United States has sharply polarized over the past two decades, with expanding job opportunities in both high-skill, high-wage occupations and low-skill, low- wage occupations, coupled with contracting opportunities in middle-wage, middle-skill white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Concretely, employment and earnings are rising in both high- education professional, technical, and managerial occupations and, since the late 1980s, in low-education food service, personal care, and protective service occupations. Conversely, job opportunities are declining in both middle-skill, white- collar clerical, administrative, and sales occupations and in middle-skill, blue-collar production, craft, and operative occupations.”

Are these missing middles related?  I leave that to readers.

Autor, David. 2010. “The Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market Implications for Employment and Earnings.” Center for American Progress: The Hamilton Project. http://economics.mit.edu/files/5554.

image: I took this photo in London this fall.  I like the way the lamp standard divides the Victorian beauty on the right and the modernist beauty on the left.  A razor thin middle.

post script: the paragraph from Derek Thompson was added several hours after the post went up.

2 thoughts on “The middle is a dangerous place to be”

  1. Technology fuels the middle gap for jobs more than anything else. Robots and software have replaced highly skilled laborers as well as middle skilled white collar workers. As AI matures, this trend will continue. The middle gap for films might have similar underpinnings but I don’t know enough about the film production processes to know for sure. I speculate that the large scale “render farms” needed for special effects are only accessible to the top budgets and that ordinary computers and high quality video have made it possible to edit a film with a much smaller budget.

    What I would like to know is where the movement for more leisure time that existed in the early and mid-nineteen hundreds forked toward the current world of longer work weeks and less leisure time. What has fueled the idea that “full-employment” is the only goal rather than “fully occupied in meaningful ways.”

  2. Very interesting.
    I’ve always said that network effects take us beyond a simple power law.
    I think this is the beginning of a much bigger story.

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