Like previous recessions, Peck writes, this one has mostly accelerated changes already under way:
Declining industries and companies fail, spurring workers and capital toward rising sectors; declining cities and regions shrink faster, leaving blight; workers whose roles have been partly usurped by technology are pushed out en masse and never asked to return.
The waning of American manufacturing, the loss of well-paid union jobs, and the advance of information technology requiring new skills are all old news. But Peck goes further, arguing that the recession’s tangible aftershocks will affect everything from marriage rates and gender roles to lifetime earnings:
Nearly four years after it began, the Great Recession is still reshaping the character and future prospects of a generation of young adults—and those of the children behind them as well. It is leaving an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men—and on blue-collar culture. It is changing the nature of modern marriage, and, in some communities, crippling marriage as an institution. It is plunging many inner cities into a kind of despair and dysfunction not seen for decades.
These are far-reaching claims, and the most interesting, about the “crippling” of marriage as an institution, seems a tad overwrought. From a feminist perspective, a realignment of marriage, based on a redefinition of traditional roles, might not be entirely a bad thing. Why not let the men stay home and care for their children, while their presumably more employable wives become the primary providers?
Admittedly, there are a few problems with this scenario. Women, as Peck notes, still earn less money than men “partly because of lingering discrimination.” (They also tend to flock to jobs that men have abandoned; the rising number of women in journalism schools is as sure a sign as any of the profession’s declining status and pay.) Second, many families need two incomes to survive, or at least to prosper. And, finally, depressed, unemployed men—in addition to being more prone to domestic violence, as Peck points out—aren’t likely to make stellar partners or child-care providers. When it comes right down to it, most women prefer a man with a job.
Peck seems on target when he writes about the chronically underemployed, job-switching members of “Generation R,” a term he attributes to New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse. Many in their twenties still live with their parents, or rely on them for financial help. Peck describes their plight this way: “With each passing year of economic weakness, more and more of them find themselves swimming in a seemingly endless adolescence, whose taste has long since grown brackish, and from they cannot fully emerge.”
Peck also discusses the “housebound,” unable to sell their homes in declining neighborhoods; the stressed urban underclass; and the dimming prospects of the “nonprofessional middle class.” He points to the geographic cleaving of American society, with wealth and education increasingly concentrated on the coasts and in a few major cities.
There are some omissions. He doesn’t treat in any detail the sometimes-heartbreaking plight of older workers, whose periods of unemployment tend to last longer than the average. Nor does he delve into structural changes in work itself, as increasing numbers of professionals are obliged to accept freelance, consulting, or part-time positions without job security, health insurance, or other benefits. This has long been the trend in academia; over the last decade, a parallel development has transformed the journalism job market, as media companies cut costs, full-time positions become casual or part-time, and displaced staffers struggle to survive.
Peck’s solutions comprise a political smorgasbord, apt to anger both liberals and conservatives. “In the short run,” he writes, “austerity, not deficit spending, would be irresponsible.” So he supports targeted spending on infrastructure. He also favors tax reform, including increasing marginal rates.