Labor Day 1992 finds American workers less confident about themselves or their future than at any time since the Great Depression. They still enjoy the world's highest standard of living, but that standard is declining -- and with it that zesty optimism which has always powered the American dream. Clearly, the country needs to make painful adjustments from a war economy to a peace economy, from an era of unquestioned manufacturing dominance to one when even the service economy is under stress, from reliance on a huge internal market to an age when export capability will be controlling.
The current election campaign, with its daily barrage of negative catcalls, hardly helps the nation's mood. But it is serving to sharpen the focus on what needs to be done to turn things around. Much good can be found in the intense competition between Republican George Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton over proposals to retrain the American work force. Along with improving school systems and getting rid of antiquated management and union practices, this is the single-most promising escape hatch from the present morass.
What the U.S. needs with increasing urgency are more good jobs that provide sufficient income for a contented population. It is not getting them. Median weekly wages, in real terms, have declined from $409 in 1979 to $391 at present. High-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared, replaced by lower-paying service jobs. The two-earner family has become the norm as women have poured into the workplace to make ends meet.