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.