Thanks to David Brent we cannot see the new poor | Jonathan Freedland

Maybe it's because white-collar jobs are often the butt of the joke, but we are forgetting too many victims of the downturn

He might be the poet laureate of the squeezed middle. He stands before you in a rumpled suit and a hangdog face, singing of mortgage payments, outsourcing and the threat of redundancy. He is the bard of the Great Recession, a troubadour of the downturn that crashed in on us in 2008 but which had, in truth, been coming for decades.

His name is Ethan Lipton and he is a New York playwright, songwriter and performer whose show No Place to Go is about to conclude its London run. It's an unusual evening in a small, intimate theatre: just Lipton and three musicians telling the story, through song and monologue, of a man whose office is about to be relocated far, far away, taking his job with it. With mordant humour and to a jazz beat, he laments the disappearance not only of a job he thought would "always be there" but everything that went with it – the office camaraderie, its rituals and, most basic, "a place to go in the morning".

It's a New York show – all bagels and ballgames – though it certainly speaks to a wider America where wages have stagnated since 1970, where the median income of men has actually declined by 19% since then, and where the idea of a secure job now feels quaint. Lipton is a Willy Loman for the 21st century, whose song is an elegy for the passing of an American dream – one that told successive generations that, so long as they worked hard and played by the rules, they'd be better off than their parents.

But it resonates in Britain too. Indeed, Lipton's songs touch every neuralgic sore spot of the squeezed middle. Facing redundancy, he admits he used to dream of providing his wife with some of the finer things in life: "And I'm talking about the good stuff. I'm talking about the pension. I'm talking about the sick leave."

With neither of them earning enough, he knows they will soon endure the fate of the "boomerang generation": having moved away from home long ago, they are heading back. One song begins: "When we move in with my ageing middle-class parents, who accumulated wealth from buying a home, when a home was something middle-class people could purchase …"

What gives the show its charge, in part, is its rarity. The legions of white-collar desk workers – whether they have a job or are about to lose it – have few moments at the centre of the public stage. There are not many operas about Barry in accounts, few tragedies telling the tale of Claire in marketing. They may not be heroes, but they are unsung.

Instead, the direct artistic responses to the post-2008 downturn have preferred to focus on the ends of the spectrum rather than the middle. Those living in troubled council estates have had their stories told to great acclaim in Channel 4's Run or Top Boy, the film The Selfish Giant or in Plan B's post-riot anthem, Ill Manors. Meanwhile, critics noticed that post-crash novels such as John Lanchester's Capital or Sebastian Faulks's A Week in December were well-stocked with characters at the high end – the super-rich, whether financiers or Premier League footballers – and with migrants or others struggling in the depths. Perhaps the definitive cultural expression of this age of austerity will be the period drama not set in this period at all: Downton Abbey, depicting a world made up of those above and below stairs with next to nobody in between.

The result is a curious disconnect between the economic facts and the way the culture is showing them. Confirmation came this week that most of those living in poverty are in work, families with one or even two earners who are nevertheless struggling because their jobs are part-time and low paid. (Lipton's onstage persona says he has a "permanent part-time" job: "That means I'm there for most of the work and few of the benefits.") On Thursday, George Osborne told the Treasury select committee that he would cut public spending further by slicing more money off the social security bill – which will, inevitably, mean taking more away from the working poor. As Gavin Kelly of the Resolution Foundation has reported, it is those in work but in poverty who have found themselves losing out again and again under this government. Why, then, is it that these people – the squeezed middle, broadly defined – are so rarely glimpsed on screen or on stage?

Part of it is visibility. Victims of the Great Depression were there in plain sight, the unemployed queuing up in breadlines, their plight unambiguous. When the early 30s classics Remember My Forgotten Man or Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? sang of men fallen on hard times, everyone knew who they meant. Today's suffering is less visible and, thanks to part-time work, less absolute. Food banks – today's breadlines – have helped make the problem concrete to those who hadn't grasped it, but many still struggle to imagine poverty and work existing side by side. That's why Osborne can keep pretending that welfare cuts only affect so-called skivers having a lie-in behind unopened blinds, rather than those working flat out yet unable to make ends meet.

The other explanation surely lies somewhere in the nature of the jobs that many – by no means all – of the currently squeezed are doing. Those 1930s songs were hymns to manual labour: "Once I built a railroad, I made it run." They endowed the working man with a kind of nobility, making his plight all the more tragic. The same sentiment operated 50 years later, as the films Billy Elliot, Brassed Off or The Full Monty depicted the devastation wrought by the Thatcher clearances of Britain's mining or manufacturing industry.

But the post-2008 recession has not lent itself to that heroic treatment. For decades popular culture has depicted much white-collar work as a bit of a joke, the province of Reggie Perrin or David Brent. On some level, all that paper-shuffling is not really regarded as work at all. Even Ethan Lipton's show is in on the joke: his fictitious job is that of an "information-refiner".

It means we don't have a ready reflex, embedded in the culture, to respond to the victims of today's economic woes. Decades ago, we knew what we felt about men used to working with their hands, cruelly rendered jobless. But insecure office workers, part-timers and the under-employed? Even our artists are not quite sure what to make of them. Such people are in the middle and feeling the squeeze – even, it seems, when it comes to our sympathy.

Twitter: @Freedland


Jonathan Freedland

The GuardianTramp

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