The Real Future of the Working Class

As the economic crisis deals another blow to American manufacturing, I’ve been wondering about something my brother-in-law asked me last fall:  the good working-class jobs seem to be disappearing, so what will become of the working class?

It’s a good question, and the answer is pretty discouraging.   Between the mid-1940s and the early 1970s, strong contracts negotiated by industrial unions, national policies such as the GI Bill and National Highway Act, and several decades of growth by American industries created what many thought would be the permanent reality: working-class jobs that could fund middle-class lives.  Three decades later, some still equate the “working class” with blue-collar industrial workers, and we still believe that working people deserve a chance to achieve the American dream.  Even as unions have accepted reduced wages and benefits and retirees have struggled to survive when the promises of earlier contracts are abandoned, we still see manufacturing jobs as good jobs.  Globalization and technology have allowed manufacturers to make more – products and money — with fewer workers, or at least with fewer workers here.  But even as reality shifts, we can’t let go of the ideal of the good manufacturing job.

All of that is coming to an end, leaving the working class with two options.  The one we hear about most is education.  That college is the path out of the working class has become received wisdom.  And yes, many of the occupations that are projected to grow over the next two decades require college degrees.   While attending college can mean piling up debt and offers no guarantees, education will help some working-class people find their way to new middle-class jobs.

But college isn’t an option for everyone, and about two-thirds of jobs do not require a college degree.  Indeed, some of the fastest-growing occupations require little training.  Manicurists, skin care specialists, fitness instructors, and preschool teachers need only a certificate or license.  Other growing fields require even less.  On-the-job training is all that’s necessary for security personnel at casinos, janitors, or home health and personal aides.

At first glance, then, it would seem that today’s displaced workers have reason to be hopeful for the future.  23 of the 30 jobs projected to produce the largest job growth over the next decade don’t require a college degree, and many don’t even require special training.  Who needs factories?  Beauty salons, medical offices, and casinos will provide the working-class jobs of the future.

But there’s a catch.  The pay is lousy.  The average annual salary for a beginning steelworker (assuming that such a position exists) is $35,590.  After five years, that steelworker would bring in over $50,000.  The starting salary for a manicurist is $21,280, and it tops out at about $32,000.  For home health and personal aides, the #2 and #3 fastest growing jobs, the salary hovers around $20,000 a year.

It’s not news that the American economy is shifting away from manufacturing and towards service.  Nor would anyone be surprised to hear that while service jobs are sometimes safer, cleaner, and less physically-taxing than working in a steel mill, they don’t pay as well.  But let’s think about what this means for the future of the working class and the future of America.

If nothing else, this will clear up all that confusion about who is working class.   As the majority of working-class jobs become low-wage jobs, we won’t have to worry about how to determine the social class of a high-school graduate working on an assembly line but earning over $50,000 a year.  Income, education, and social position will line up neatly, as they did before the 1940s.

But it also means saying goodbye to the American dream.  Home ownership and saving for a child’s college education are beyond reach if your salary hovers around the Federal poverty rate of about $22,000 for a family of four.  True, some families have multiple wage earners, and many working-class families will be able to earn about $45,000 annually – a good $15,000 below the suggested national livable wage.  And many households struggle to survive on one low income.  As the working-class moves into these low-income jobs, the ranks of the working poor will grow, and the proportion of the working class who are comfortable and financially secure will shrink.

Some will suggest that the working class deserves its economic difficulties.  Want a decent life?  Go to college.  Too “lazy” or can’t afford to go to college?  Tough.  So much for the idea of valuing hard work, much less our moral and social obligation to ensure that anyone working full-time deserves a living wage.

Yet having a large proportion of the population living on the economic edge increases demand for governmental and charitable support, creates a cycle of poverty that’s difficult to escape, and undermines the broader social fabric of American society.

I don’t have a solution beyond the obvious: raise wages.  The only way to get there is to recognize the emerging reality: even if many more people attend college, we will still have a large and growing, hard-working, low-paid working class.  All the discussion about education as the key to stabilizing the economy ignores the real future of the working class.

Sherry Linkon

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8 Responses to The Real Future of the Working Class

  1. Pingback: Is Education the Answer to Economic Inequality? | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. jeff says:

    well, there’s always the service sector including retail; that’s the new frontier for unions, i think. more difficult to outsource, although they’ll probably try.


  3. Pingback: USW Blog » Blog Archive » Jobs, Ideology, and Policy: Putting Workers First

  4. elecpencil says:

    I always see these figures of steelworkers making $35-50,000 a year. I am a former worker in that field (plant closed in 1999) for 28 years. I can say with all the concessions the most I ever made for a year (with no layoffs and quite a bit of overtime) was $22,000 a year. I walked away with ten years of pension ($10,000) 4 years of stolen pension and a crappy 401K fund that the company paid 1% of my wages into.


  5. Jeanne Bryner says:

    Well, I’m proud to know Sherry Linkon, and she speaks the truth.
    At our house the most secure
    wage earner is probably our daughter.
    With less than a year’s schooling
    to become a medical assistant, she
    secured a job prior to graduation. Her portfolio looks like this: $10 per hour, insurance benefits, dental ($25/ month), merit raises, and a
    401K (the jury’s still out on this one.)
    Her father’s retired from GM and
    my hospital’s in bankruptcy. Recently, my son asked me when I
    would retire. I told him, “I’m planning on packing my walker with
    my lunch bucket.” Last week at the student nurse convention in Columbus, I shared the day with a nurse who just retired after fifty-seven years. I’m almost a novice with
    thirty. Stay tuned.


  6. Tim Francisco says:

    Great post. We should also consider the kind of college education being proffered as the solution for economic recovery, which is essentially vocational training, the kind once assumed by employers on the job. As more and more universities and colleges, mostly state and lower cost institutions buy into this agenda, I think we will find a surplus of “trained” workers for these college degree jobs and these wages will also begin to decline. The overarching push toward STEM education as it is being defined at state levels is a good example. The emphasis, despite official rhetoric to the contrary is not to produce the next generation of innovators, but rather to produce the next work force, one not that different in pay and benefits from the steelworker, although I don’t imagine these fields will be heavily unionized. In the meantime, the elite colleges and universities will continue to provide the broad-based education that encourages original thinking and real innovation, firmly entrenching the status quo and the gap between privileged and public education.


  7. Karen Weyant says:

    Well, I’m not sure if going to college is always the answer to the higher “pay” — as many of us in academia know, many, many colleges are using adjuncts to teach — adjuncts with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Of course, that is adjunct work — other jobs, such as social workers with college degrees, often make the big bucks! (That is sarcasm there — something that is hard to convey with a blog comment.)


  8. Leo Jennings says:

    Sherry, you’ve offered one solution to the problem, raising wages, but there are others. Before briefly discussind those, it’s important to talk about how we accomplish the first and the answer is unionization of service sector workers. Unless and until the millions of people who work in this segment of the economy today and the tens of millions more who will tomorrow have the opportunity to form or join labor unions wages for the working class will not rise.

    The experience of the UFCW in the retail grocery industry is instructive. When the level of unionization in the industry was high, the majority of employees in the stores worked full time for good wages and received health care benefits, and pensions.

    As the industry and the union struggled to deal with the Walmartization of America employers became virulently resistant to organizing drives driving down the level of unionization in the industry. At the same time, organized employers and the UFCW were forced to negotiate contracts that drastically reduced wages and benefits in order to survive in an increasingly non-union marketplace.

    The result: an industry that once enabled workers to achieve the American Dream has, in many areas of the country, become a low wage nightmare.

    If wages are to increase in the retail grocery and other service sector industries, it must become easier for workers to form or join unions. It’s as simple–and as incredibly difficult–as that.

    It’s also important to note that because service sector jobs can’t be outsourced or sent to low-wage countries, they are particularly susceptible to organization–which means wages in those industries will rise as long as employees are afforded a fair chance to join a union.

    In addition to promoting unionization, another solution to the problem lies in health care reform. We must make health care more affordable for employers and employees or face the fact that the existing system will continue to divert hundreds of billions of dollars from workers’ paychecks and employers’ bottom lines to the insurance industry.

    We must also develop and implement sensible trade policies that enable U.S. based manufacturers to compete, succeed and, as a result, create jobs. The folly of NAFTA has been proven, making sure that we learn from the mistakes already made is a necessity.

    We must reorder our public spending priorities. While the Obama stimulus plan is certainly preferable to Bush’s inaction and inattention, it shortchanged America’s states and cities as it relates to infrastructure spending. As every mayor and governor knows the need for sewers, bridges, roads, Internet access, and public buildings is nearly inexhaustible–we need to make sure that the feds buy fewer missiles and more asphalt, cement, and fiber optic cable in the years ahead.

    Not only will this reordering of priorities create good paying jobs, it will enhance the quality of life in our nation and make us more compeititve in the global economy.

    Clearly solutions exist–the question before us is whether or not we have the will to embrace them.


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