In the old progressive narrative of American culture, everyone would do better over time. The son of a miner with an 8th grade education would graduate from high school, and even if he got an industrial job, stronger unions and general prosperity would mean that he worked fewer hours than his father and earned enough to buy a small house. His daughter would go to college and get a job as a nurse or a teacher, and her kids might keep moving up by attending a better college and getting a better job. And surrounding the generations of this one imaginary family would be most other families, so that over time, the whole country would experience increasing prosperity and higher social status. Maybe everyone wasn’t going to make it to the middle class, but most people would get there. (Of course, there’s a troubling counterpart to this narrative that blames those who didn’t become middle class for failing, but that’s another story.)
But something, actually many things, went wrong over the past few decades. I’ve written before about the growth of income inequality, citing Timothy Noah’s analysis that describes it as a long-term trend with multiple contributing factors. Perhaps because of income inequality, surveys suggest that Americans no longer expect their families to keep moving on up. So despite the expectation that we would all become middle class, the working-class is not simply a majority, it is a growing majority. That’s true according to the analyses of academics like Michael Zweig, who describes most Americans as working class on the basis of the limited power they have in the workplace. In the 2011 edition of his book America’s Working Class Majority, Zweig finds
The working class is also changing. The term used to call to mind blue-collar unionized workers with no college education, but today’s working class not only works in a wide range of jobs, but many have at least some college. These days, many people with college degrees settle for jobs that don’t require the credential, and others whose jobs do require degrees have lost the professional autonomy that, according to Zweig, defines middle-class jobs. Indeed, one of the reasons Zweig sees the working class growing is because so many teachers and nurses are now, on the basis of the limited control they have over their own labor, working class. Many people go to college because it seems like the most promising path to economic security, but that promise fades when they can’t find jobs and are burdened by loans. Combine that with an economic crisis and long-term shifts in employment that leave increasing numbers with precarious work, as John Russo noted recently, and it’s clear not only that more people belong to the working class but that the working class itself is becoming more educated and less-steadily-employed.
There’s another likely change in the American working class, one that reflects the broader shift in racial demographics. The Congressional Research Service documents a slight decline in the percentage of Americans who self-identify as white, a slight increase in those who self-identify as Black, and more significant increases in those who identify themselves as Asian or Hispanic, and its study projects these trends to continue over time. Even if we looked only at population numbers, the working class – which was never really “all white” — is almost certainly becoming even more diverse.
The racial diversity of the working class is also likely increasing because of patterns in education and income. While Blacks are more likely to get some college than are whites, whites earn more bachelor and advanced degrees, and whites with BAs earn about $10,000 a year more than Blacks with similar degrees. Hispanics are less likely to either go to college or earn a degree than either Blacks or Whites, though when they do, they earn more than Blacks. Beyond reminding us that racial differences still matter in education and earnings, these figures suggest that Hispanics and Blacks may be more likely than whites to remain in the working class even if they go to college.
Diversity isn’t only about race, of course. A number of sources, including the Public Religion Research Institute, suggest that working-class political attitudes differ by gender, by region, by religion, and by situation, among other things. They note, for example, that the white working class was at least somewhat divided along gender lines in this year’s election and that white Protestants were more likely to support Romney than were white Catholics. Their survey also found that voters who had been on food stamps were more likely to support Obama in this election, while those who had not received such assistance were more likely to support Romney.
So what does all of this add up to? On the one hand, if the working class is growing, it ought to have more clout, as voters and as activists. We may well be seeing a difference in elections, but there’s a big difference between people leaning just enough toward the Democrats to re-elect Obama and having a strong or coherent political voice. The gap between functioning as an electoral block and developing a working-class consciousness that would fire coherent activism may be even larger. While the Occupy Movement stood up (and sometimes laid down) for economic justice, it’s unclear what role working-class people or working-class perspectives played in that movement.
The diversity of the working class, in all forms, may present a challenge to working-class organizing. This has always been the case, of course, and the history of the labor movement reminds us of how difficult it can be to create unity among a diverse working class. Today’s workplaces no longer provide as many opportunities for workers to come together or recognize their shared interests, and in a tight economy, working-class people sometimes see each other as the competition. Given those challenges and the way working-class perspectives are also always shaped by race, gender, religion, and place, it’s hard to imagine a widespread, sustained working-class movement for economic and social change, even though it is so clearly needed.
On the other hand, social movements are not the only agents of change. Simply paying attention to the way the working class is changing and growing makes a difference, since it requires us to think about how social class is not a fixed structure but one that responds to other social and economic changes. That matters for academics but also for civic life. Being aware of the growing presence and diversity of the working class might make the media, educators, policy-makers, and yes, even politicians, more attentive to the importance of including working-class perspectives in public discourse and policymaking.