Matthew Yglesias asks a very good question — but I have a pretty good answer.
Yglesias asks, if the middle class is under pressure, what exactly is it that ordinary American families have less of (or rather, had less of before the Great Recession struck). After all, people do seem to have more stuff.
But one important answer is, they have less time — specifically less family time.
Here’s one estimate (pdf):
Now, you might be tempted to say that something like this was bound to happen along with social changes that led to more women in the paid working force. But the sharp increase in total hours worked per family didn’t have to happen; more female labor force participation could have been offset by shorter working hours. In fact, that’s exactly what did happen in Europe; at this point major European nations, France in particular, have fully matched the US in employment rates for both male and female prime-age adults:
But the Europeans have steadily reduced working hours as labor force participation rises, so that they have not seen an equivalent loss of family time. From the Total Economy Database:
So what we have is a situation in which American families have more stuff, but they have managed to afford that stuff only by being two-income families, with ever less family time — unlike their European counterparts, who have gained in shorter hours and vacations what they lost in stay-at-home wives.
It’s not hard to think of reasons for this divergence; many of them come down to sharply rising inequality and the race this inequality creates. More on that in later posts.