Get A Job! The Myth of Labor

Our images of manhood and success are too often tied to a “working man” image that doesn’t exist in the real world any more.

It is the mid-90s. I am at dinner with my parents and my mother’s parents; we’ve settled in to dessert and coffee, and my father and my grandfather are discussing politics. My grandfather is staunchly arguing that welfare is unnecessary: that in America, anyone who works hard can apply themselves and get promoted and live a comfortable middle-class life.

“If I can do it,” he says vehemently, “anyone can do it.”

My father attempts to change his mind. Calmly, he explains that the blue-collar entry-level jobs with steady promotion and a pension have completely dried up in most of the country.

My grandfather doesn’t listen. “If I can do it, anyone can do it.”

“The jobs aren’t there anymore,” my father says deliberately.

I’m too young to feel comfortable having—much less airing—an opinion, but I can already articulate two things: I’m sure my father is right, and I’m sad that he is.

♦◊♦

Jonathan Rauch’s story in the National Journal, “The No Good, Very Bad Outlook for the Working-Class American Man,” is a depressing catalogue of the troubles facing workers in the American economy. It has been noted that during the most recent recession, the unemployment rate for people with four-year degrees was half of that for people with only a high school diploma. But the availability of good jobs, jobs that pay enough to support a family and offer a chance for promotion and a retirement, has been waning for decades.

And it’s likely to get worse; Kevin Drum points out that automation has fundamentally changed the way jobs are replaced after a recession—not by new hires, but by robots. When my father worked for Hewlett-Packard in the 1970s, the wafers on which integrated circuits were printed were cleaned by a man who lowered them by hand into a sink of corrosive chemical; today the wafers are sixteen times larger and moved by robots through the same chemicals in a safer, faster, more efficient manner that has probably replaced six full-time jobs. Those improved computer chips have made it possible to allow factories to automate everything from wrapping products to retrieving complex combinations of items for shipping. Our blue-collar jobs, the ones that used to promise any man who wanted to work a steady income and a chance for promotion, have been automated out of existence.

From Rauch’s article:

Both men and women have suffered from the disappearance of well-paying mid-skilled jobs in factories and offices. But they have responded very differently. “Women have been up-skilling very rapidly,” said MIT’s Autor, “whereas men have been much, much less successful in adapting.” Women have responded to the labor market’s increased preference for brains over brawn by streaming through college and into the workforce—one of the great successes of the U.S. economy. Men’s rate of completing college has barely budged since the late 1970s.

One of the struggles of feminism has been fighting the entrenched idea that women’s labor is worthless; jobs which are “women’s work” typically pay less and garner less prestige than jobs which require physical labor. But the flip side of this is that the ideal of men’s labor has been romanticized to the point where we have built a mythology around it: this is America, where every man can get an honest job working with his hands if he wants it; he can support his family and retire in good health.

Even in the 1950s this was never true for all men, as men who were disabled or of the “wrong” race or the “wrong” religion could get turned away from even an entry-level position. But the success myth is stronger than any logic; we believe that any man who wants a job can get one, that the job is the measure of the man, and that without a job a man has no worth. When there are enough good jobs to go around, this is still a toxic idea, but at least it’s possible for men to enact it. As the number of blue-collar jobs dwindle, the number of people directly harmed goes up. It’s hard to convince yourself to go back to school when the jobs you value aren’t promised by a college degree but by your own sweat.

♦◊♦

It seems unlikely that a new blue-collar industry is going to spring up and offer millions of entry-level jobs where anyone can work their way to a comfortable position. Despite the incentives offered by the current administration to move manufacturing back to the USA, despite the news that we’re still building cars and planes and iMacs in this country, the amount of efficiency gained by automation is forever changing the job of the American worker. We need to stop idolizing direct labor as the solution for any man’s ills, as it’s increasingly obvious that it’s not enough to sustain a workforce.

Our ability to create wealth in this country is not limited to jobs which produce actual goods. In fact, the jobs which create ideas tend to pay more. Jim DeMint just went from a job (theoretically) producing legislation to a job producing conservative ideas, for a reported 500% pay increase. We recognize and reward people handsomely for doing intangible work. The main obstacle to allowing more people to share in this kind of labor—the kind of intellectual labor that doesn’t require a factor—is our reluctance to share those opportunities with everyone. We don’t think of jobs at think tanks as being entry-level, but there’s no reason that so-called “unskilled” positions creating ideas should be any less entry-level than “unskilled” positions operating dangerous machinery. We need not keep our old definition of what counts as real work, but we need some avenue of advancement that allows people to get ahead through diligence, regardless of where on the economic ladder they started out.

There aren’t going to be any immediate or easy answers, but the facts make it clear that while we’ve been upgrading America’s factories, the next step is to upgrade the basic American dream.

Read more on Business Ethics.

Photo—Donahue Labor Statue, San Francisco

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About Susan Beaver

Susan Beaver graduated from Reed College with a BA in Chemistry in 2006 and has been idly applying her hard-earned skills in chemical and literary deconstruction to everything she can get her hands on ever since. She lives in Portland, Oregon with a roommate and an epic collection of DVDs.

Comments

  1. I have issues with both the myth of labor and on a broader level with the myth of career. The idea of your job representing who you are, that makes me nervous. Look at Detroit, where auto workers have been squeezed out. Many of them tied their worth/independence into their blue collar identity, which is now being destroyed by wonderfully greedy companies moving jobs overseas to bump up their stock prices briefly so some suits can increase their investment gains.

    In some ways, the very idea of expressing oneself through a job is questionable. I learned a lot from my dad, including work ethic, honesty, and strategy. But we had no conversations about emotional intelligence, pursuing passions, how to be joyful. Those are much more tangible, and are the foundation for doing well beyond the narrow scope of traditional, blue collar labor (or any other color collar work too).

  2. Peter von Maidenberg says:

    I would quarrel – if only rhetorically – with your view of emotions, passions and joy as tangibles. In the culture of work, productivity, and success, they are very much intangibles, and to the extent that we have to live in and by that culture, it will restrain us from their full and honest pursuit.

    • That’s a fair criticism – in the work world I think you’re right that emotions/passions/joys aren’t particularly measurable (or important, at least to the bottom line). But that’s from the employer’s perspective. I guess what I’m suggesting is that employees don’t have to look at it that way, and employers don’t have to be stuck completely in that idea either. Perhaps we can’t marry our self worth with our work worth, but I bristle a little at the idea that an employer, because they pay me X amount of money, can dictate anything in relation to my personal values….because, for example, the music I create is the most tangible part of my life.

      • Peter von Maidenberg says:

        All solid points Joe. Still, our work-worth is our social worth, and that in turn holds overwhelming power over out self-worth. I personally don’t work full-time,m and know that the costs of opting out go far beyond the financial.

      • Peter von Maidenberg says:

        All solid points Joe. Still, our work-worth is our social worth, and that in turn holds overwhelming power over out self-worth. I personally don’t work full-time, and know that the costs of opting out go far beyond the financial.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    The piece started off with a reference to welfare. Problem is, if there aren’t enough jobs to be taxed to pay for welfare, we won’t be able to afford welfare.
    There are plenty of blue-collar jobs, but, as is pointed out, many fewer low-skill blue collar jobs. Had a conversation with a plumbing/heating guy a couple of years ago. He said he and his daughter ride both western and dressage. My family runs to Infantry, so I don’t know much about horses, but does this guy need two sets of horses? In addition to tack and land and vet bills and costumes?
    His is not the job of the high school dropout getting hired to finesse illfitting fenders with a padded mallet. Or, as one of my brother’s friends did, sell booze to the shop floor–getting paid by Chrysler–with the proceeds going to the union bosses.
    Not everybody is smart enough to become a master plumber/etc. Or have the personal characteristics to make a job of it, or even be the boss of the company.
    OTOH, if you can’t support yourself, somebody else has to. That person may wish you could support yourself, which is why we usually think it’s a good idea for an adult to have a job.

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