Before the end of the 19th century, the working class had few rights, if any. They worked their whole lives, including childhood, until they dropped. No safety nets. After the idyllic 1950s, the establishment was turned on its ear, new high-tech industries started to emerge, a career became a whole different critter, and getting by required at least some college. By the 70s, it was common to leapfrog your way through various employers to build a resume and move up the corporate ladder. By the 90s, you'd better know some basics of electronics no matter what field you're in.
Entering the 21st century, it required two working-class salaries to provide for a family. If you wanted to own a home, one of you had better be white collar or at least at the top of your union scale. Jumping from one employer to another became so common that standard retirement was obsolete. Enter the 401k and other "financial products" that could accumulate and transfer among several employers. And watch out for Baby Boomers reaching retirement age and over-taxing the whole social security system. Retirement became a competitive arena.
So here we are, after the Great Recession, reeling from the financial strains on the country and its people. Retiring from non-traditional careers without enough to live on. Working longer at more desk jobs without the physical demands of blue collar trades, and needing to work longer because there just isn't ever enough money. A reduction in the incidences of physical injuries at work, and a dramatic rise in stress-related and mental illness.
Financial success is as difficult and elusive as it ever was before the labor movement; it just looks different. It's not as dirty and we have more stuff, partly due to over-use of consumer credit, but we still have 40% of the population living below the poverty line. Four out of the eight kids in my family, all of whom grew up in an upper-middle-class home and went to college, have gone through bankruptcy. A couple will probably have student loans that outlive them.
What does retirement look like in 21st-century America? If one never accumulated enough money to invest in something major, it looks pretty scary. If one saved for 40 or 50 years, only to have those funds stolen by the recession or Wall Street or Madoff, what is there left to do? How did it become a wise financial strategy to default on a mortgage and go rent an apartment? Does anybody really think a reverse-mortgage is a good idea -- handing the title to your home over to the bank and collecting bits of equity each month until you no longer have any and are not only broke but homeless to boot?
We're back to being a society that has to work until we drop, not because workers don't have any rights, but because work is undervalued. Our kids have some college, but can't justify the debt they'd have to incur to graduate, and can't find jobs that pay a livable wage. They'll have to continue to live with parents for years, for their own success as well as to help aging parents. Those who must rely on their physical abilities throughout their careers had better stay strong well into their 70s.
As technology continues to change everything, as people live decades longer, as financial landscapes are precarious, it's a whole new jungle out there.