Sunday, February 19, 2012

Ashamed of being working class?

The other day I was driving behind a truck with a bumper sticker that readCarpenters: Rebuilding the Middle Class.
'Since when are carpenters middle class?' I asked myself.
The bumper sticker exemplifies a weird change in our language that reflects a deeper change in how we work and how we think about work.
When you listen to Pres. Obama and other politicians, there are four classes in the US: the super rich, such as Mitt Romney, the rich exemplified perhaps by Newt Gingrich or Obama himself, the vastmiddle classandthe poor. There is no more working class; it has completely disappeared. It seems as if it has become a bit of an insult to call someoneworking class.Politicians avoid that language because they do not want to hurt anyone's feelings.
How could that be? Working people used to be manual workers, many of them very skilled, who built skyscrapers and houses, ran railroads and built our cars, who baked our bread and cut up carcasses for meat. They worked hard and steadily; if lucky they belonged to a union. They might own a small house and a yard that they maintained meticulously with their own labor. They had children to whom they tried to transmit some of their skills as well as an ethic of respecting the work done by themselves and others, of valuing their moral integrity, and their membership in a democratic society. They knew they were the salt of the earth and they were proud of it.
The old way of thinking about our society was by reference to what sort of work you did: the working class did manual work, much of it skilled. Small business owners, teachers, lawyers and doctors were in the middle class. Big bankers and big business owners, investors, were in the upper class. But today when we talk about the super rich, the rich, the middle class, the poor we are talking about income. Since many working class jobs paid enough, but barely, many working class jobs have lost their luster in a world that cares not about your skills or the good work you do year in, year out, but cares only about how much money you make. Now, when we think only in money terms, it seems embarrassing to be working class.
What has happened to make us ashamed of doing manual labor? The answer is simple: we have outsourced the working class. As of January of this year 9 out of 10 employed in he US worked in services. Production workers are 10% of the US workforce. What used to be the US working class has been turned into the Chinese, the Taiwanese, the Thai, the Indian, Brazilian, Indonesian working class. What is left is mostly service work.
Service work is of different sorts: there are doctors, nurses and many kinds of medical technicians, there are teachers, there are people getting information from the public, giving advice and informationall of them jobs that require aptitude, skill, experience and dedication. Anyone should be proud of doing that work.
But the bulk of service work is short term requiring little skill. They are jobs easily learned: being a “sales associate” at Radio Shack, shuffling papers in an insurance company, cutting up vegetables in a restaurant kitchen. Working class jobs used to be life time careers. It took a good while to get very good at them and then you stuck to them because it was good work. Many of today's jobs are dull pretty soon. They do not require a particular commitment; there is not a lot to learn. The jobs are often unstable so people move from one job to another every few years. What you do has lost importance. How much you earn is all that matters. Working people have lost an important source of pride and satisfaction.
Exporting all the good working class jobs abroad may have made a lot of money for capitalists. It has only impoverished the lives of working people by depriving them of their fromer sources of pride. Hence we see much more depression, more addiction, more violence in families and without, more cynicism, prejudice, and just plain nuttiness.
Bringing good work back to the US is not just a matter of increasing income or growing the job market. It has to do with making life better for many Americans.