Home > Critical Thinking, Current Affairs, Dystopia, Musings, Philosophy sans Sophistry, Reason, Secular Religions, Skepticism > The Simpsons Show as a Marker of the Demise of Middle-Class America

The Simpsons Show as a Marker of the Demise of Middle-Class America

Over the last five years, all of us have read a flurry of articles about the slow but certain demise of the american middle-class. While each group of commentators offers different (and often mutually contradictory) explanations for this change, it is obvious that the phenomena they are all talking about is very real. It is also clear that the phenomena in question started 2-3 decades (most likely in the early 1980s) and has been gathering pace since then. Unfortunately most of the well-known explanations for this phenomena are based in presentation of numbers and statistics- perhaps deliberately, to obscure the real extent of this phenomena. I will take a different approach to show how you how far the american middle-class has really fallen.

the-simpsons

I am guessing that most of you have seen more than a few episodes of “The Simpsons”. While many aspects of this show, from its longevity to changes in quality over the years, have been the subject of numerous articles and discussions- a few important ones have largely escaped scrutiny. I wrote about one of those ignored, but important, aspects about two years ago. Recently it struck me that the show was also a commentary, if largely unintentional, about the changing fortunes of middle-class america.

To fully comprehend what I am going to say next, you have to first understand that the show is not set in the 1980s, 1990s, 2000s or the 2010s. So what era is it set in? The first clue comes from the names of the characters. Homer, Marge, Lisa, Maggie and many other characters in that show are named, and partially modeled, after the family members and childhood of the show’s creator- Matt Groening who was born in 1954. It is therefore very likely that Simpsons is actually set in the late 1960s, an era which is now seen as the peak of the american middle-class. This insight also helps us to understand an important, but often ignored feature, of that show.

The simpson family, though clearly working class, enjoys a standard of living which we today associate with the upper middle-class.

Here are a few examples of what I am talking about.

1] Homer Simpson has a decent, if somewhat boring, job at a nuclear power plant. It is noteworthy that he has only finished high school and was hired during a period of rapid expansion. He can also afford, if sometimes barely, to support a family that includes his wife and three kids. The family lives in an old but OK house in a modest but pretty well maintained neighborhood. Sometimes, he even has extra money to spend on some hare-brained scheme or take a family vacation. His job at the power plant is pretty stable, as are the jobs of his co-workers. Sure.. sometimes there is talk of downsizing, reduction of benefits, problems with adequate health insurance etc. But the owner of that power plant, Monty Burns, always relents and ends up keeping things the way they were.

2] One of the main and recurring antagonist of the show, Monty Burns, is the owner of the nuclear power plant. Depicted as an old and greedy WASP, he nonetheless is very different from the type of people who own and run corporations today. For one, he actually owns and runs his own business. He seems to have very few upper management types in the corporation and certainly nobody except his assistant, Smithers, have any significant influence on him. Contrast this to incestuous groups of “professional” CEOs and board members (and their butt-boys) running most corporations today. An even more interesting aspect of Monty Burns is that his main business, the nuclear power plant, produces something real- electricity. It also creates and maintains many non-minimum wage jobs for the locals.

3] The Simpson family, though not wealthy by any standards, has a comfortable lifesyle. The wife, Marge, can afford to be a stay-at-home homemaker except when Homer temporarily loses his job. The family also has enough money to own two used, but reliable, cars. Though they suffer from less than stellar health insurance coverage, they seem to have enough to get by quite well for everything except catastrophic illnesses. The school that Bart and Lisa attend, while not great, is OK- especially when compared to schools in non-upper middle class areas today. They seem to represent an era when decent, if not great, publicly funded social goods were available to almost everyone in the USA (except blacks, of course). Their neighbors, while often annoying, are reasonably decent people of a similar socio-economic class.

The Simpsons is therefore about an era (1946-1979) when even an average, and not particularly, bright guy could get a well-paid and stable blue- or white- collar job and live a pleasant, if not luxurious, life. What was once considered normal for the median person in the USA is now seen as something bestowed by the 1% (or 0.1%) on the 9%.The other 90% are SOL.

The Simpson lifestyle was considered lower-middle class in the 1960s. Today it is considered upper-middle class.

What do you think? Comments?

  1. joesantus
    May 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    I agree.

    I’m a 58-year-old, blue-collar self-employed, white, high-school graduated, Northeast US-born male. My parents came of age in the latter years of that “American Dream”, middle-class bubble.

    As my now-adult kids will confirm, it’s been my conclusion for the past twenty years that historians 200 or so years from today will footnote (if at all note) the anomaly of “the North American middle class” which, due to a unique convergence of extraordinary economic, societal, and political conditions after World War Two, briefly deviated from the globally historic two-class norm of “upper” and “lower”.

    The way things are going, we might not have historians a hundred, let alone two hundred, years from now. Perhaps not even a civilization..

    • Webe
      May 27, 2014 at 3:49 am

      Not just North America, Europe (and Japan and Hong Kong) too acquired a much broader middle class in the fifties and sixties.
      It does seem quaint to think that anybody with a decent union job in the early sixties could buy a home, a car, and maintain a stay-at-home wife and four children. And as a student you could earn enough over a four month summer to go to school (including tuition and living) for the other eight. But it also seems a good day labourer in the late middle ages could earn enough in three months to support his family for a year. It may be an anomaly that broad layers of society share in society’s wealth and income, but the fact that it occurs shows it is quite possible — such periods are not based on unsustainable debt or the fruits of conquest, on the contrary, there are examples in societies that were largely self-sufficient. And it is also not odd that such a period follows a time of war. Even in the bronze age the rulers decreed blanket debt reprieves, perhaps because they were benevolent, or more realistically because the peasants would only fight for the current regime if they had a stake in it. The economy tended to boom after periods of war and debt forgiveness, all former slaves returning to their ancestral land (capital).

  2. Hamsta
    May 26, 2014 at 6:48 pm

    Yeah. I’m early 60’s and know what it was like growing up in a middle class family like that.

    My dad worked in a big steel plant and even though he started out with a grade 10 education he worked up to foreman. He did quite well, and he hated unions.

    Now, as I was a beneficiary of this (masters in engineering, self made self made). I recognize this era was an historical anomaly. To my mind the traditional middle class was and is made up of small business people, professionals (doctors, accountants, butchers, etc. etc.) who are largely self employed. Also, includes are professional managers in large corporations and many civil servants.

    The incredible rise of the industrial age in North America created an explosion of production in cars and other technical hard goods. This was the golden age for trade unions. The unions were able to exploit the fact that large investments in single plants could be used as a choke hold on companies once they were given the right to strike.

    How did the right to strike (a form of gangsterism) get established? Well, I think that the early industrial age produced a lot of social pain and atrocity because the workers were treated quite poorly. Why was this? Well, most of the early workers in big factories were refugees from agrarian life where their manual labor was being upsurped by machines and economic downturns.
    These folks, to be honest, were very uneducated and really ignorant. They were not in good control of there own personal lives and had to be coerced into serving the inhuman demands of the assembly line. They were also easily exploited because of the ignorance.

    So, unions came in to correct the obvious problems and gathered a lot of legal power from the state. It was unionization that pulled the uneducated and ignorant into the lower middle class by raising salaries and benefits every year from the 1920’s to the present. Until the last few years, autoworkers who couldn’t graduate high school were pulling incomes that allowed a nice middle class life comparable to teachers, civil servants and some professionals.

    Enter globalization. Now the unions are in decline since they cut into profits with the friction of onerous work rules and benefits accumulated over time. Companies not seek offshore or non-union states to retain efficiency to keep up shareholder value. This is exactly what they should be doing.

    The net result is that the middle class is slowly drifting back to its natural state that includes the entrepreneurs and self-employed and highly skilled. The unaccomplished, low skilled folks with low impulse control and low ability are being less and less sheltered by unions and drifting back into the lower class. This slows down the economy and brings back reality to North American life. The dream is fading for those who never really had the stuff to rise.

    Civilization is not natural, as are all its consequences- ALL of them.

    • Webe
      May 27, 2014 at 3:31 am

      It’s not just the unions. In Europe we have unions too, but without all the confrontation. Blue-collar workers here never made it into the middle-class, they stayed below the upper bound to the lower class, and did not earn the same wages as professors, teachers, other professionals, or small business owners. Unions here tend to be a lot more cooperative and take responsibility for outcomes, agreeing to pauses in remuneration if the economy or viability of a company demands, and being represented in the board. It’s class war that creates ganster unions.
      The right to strike is not gangsterism. If collective bargaining is somehow inappropriate, how about class action suits? How about insurance (collective risk sharing)? How about publicly owned companies, where investors collectively share ownership to realize concentrations of capital which would otherwise not be possible?
      The rest of your reaction is pretty baseless. My grandparents were working class in the thirties but read books and were better oriented culturally and more civilized than a lot of middle class people today: they were working class because there was nothing else available. When I look at the excercise books of my great-grandparents, when most people were lucky to finish 6 years of elementary school, turns out the arithmetic, spelling, and even physics experiments that they wrote up and illustrated (at age 12) puts most current high school seniors to shame.
      In the thirties they called the employed hobo’s, vagrants and bums, but in the fifties these same people were suddenly hard-working civilized citizens. There’s a whole lot more to this story than your take on semi-human low-class ignorants lacking self-control.

      • Hamsta
        May 27, 2014 at 4:02 pm

        I have not lived in Europe so I have only an opinion from looking from the outside. Compared to the North American history, Europe seems to have had a rich tradition of guilds and trades and agriculture reaching back to Roman times. There is a social stratification there that is different that N. America, It seems that Europeans are more amenable to the idea that its OK to do what your father did and that trades are honorable and worthwhile and can pay a decent wage.

        Here in N America, the dynamic has been intense social striving to do better than the previous generation. There are some big winners here, but inevitably, there are out and out losers. It seems to be not so much the case in Europe.

        I can’t see the similarity between class action suits, insurance and ownership of corporations by shareholders. The reason that unions are often compared to gangsters is that gangsters exploit a power advantage on a community by making a living using just enough intimidation so as to make money and NOT kill off the victimized community. Organizations that have unions with the right to strike live under a different set of rules than ones who don’t.

        I agree that the rigor of education is abysmal.

        There is a significant segment of any population that have low intelligence or self control and they normally wind up doing jobs that anyone can do. The point I was trying to make was that the North American version of unions (esp. big heavy industry unions and then public service unions) was to artificially bring low performers into the middle class where they normally would not be. Now that these types of jobs are being exported to low cost countries the pain of reversion is starting to be felt. This is likely fueling the angry outcries about “inequality” in North American society.

  3. masculineffort
    May 26, 2014 at 8:59 pm

    No post about the Shootout where some dude wanted to kill girls for rejecting him?

    Working on it. You sorta know what I am going to say.. don’t you?

  4. P Ray
    May 27, 2014 at 12:05 am

    In reference to the future article about the shootout dude, don’t forget the reality that as a mixed kid, there were definitely more hurdles he had to cross … and of the “room-mates that found him “strange”, one has a police record for stealing stuff from him. And they were probably of the mentality “work hard, keep your head down, good girls will notice you”(gag).
    Doesn’t excuse what he did, but I understand.

    Like Chris Rock-But I understand – YouTube
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8TqhBIEbWA

  5. Bobby
    May 27, 2014 at 2:41 am

    Wow…I was just thinking about the same thing yesterday, except I was thinking about Al Bundy from Married with Children…no way a guy who sells women’s shoes would be middle class today much less…”Married with Children”…

    Curiously, that was my second choice for writing this article. But the Simpsons is still in active production and more well known than that other show.

  6. sth_txs
    May 27, 2014 at 3:54 am

    Yes, there is smaller number of middle class thanks to oppressive taxation and a bankrupt funny money system creating inflation.

  7. Ted
    May 28, 2014 at 6:35 am

    There is definitely something old-fashioned about The Simpsons. In addition to the examples you list – add in that Homer & Marge were virgins when they met, and after Homer got Marge pregnant, he married her. In one episode, where Homer was managing country singer Lurlene, she comes on to him, and kisses him. Homer then has a flashback of all his interactions with women, which is just a series of of rejections, literal slaps in the face, and finally Marge telling him she loves him. He snaps out of it and runs home to Marge. Almost 20 years after the episode first aired, it is still probably one of the sweeter displays of marital affection.

    Compare that to most TV shows now. The husband is usually a doofus, who could not put his pants on without his wife’s help. The wife is the only one holding the house together, and yet she still is a looker, with no signs of the physical toll that having kids has on a woman’s body.

  8. IamMarktoo
    June 3, 2014 at 1:41 am

    Cadbury company and its Bournville estate show what the paradise could be for workers back then in England. Cadbury is almost a perfect example of historicsl change in Britain on so many levels. The early ideals gone to a multinational culture. Indentured Servitude to indentured finance.

  9. Scott
    December 7, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    In season 7 episode 8, when homers mother tells of homers childhood, she explicitly sets his childhood in the 1960’s, meaning homer was just a young child in the 1960’s. Since homer is now clearly a middle aged man with 2 young kids, the show is set in the early 1990’s.

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