The Incredibly Shrinking Working Class? The View from the “Professional” Bubble

In a semi-sympathetic article about unions organizing professional workers, a Chicago Tribune/Los Angeles Times reporter last month provided the following, colossally wrong, picture of American workers: “Professionals account for 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, up from 15 percent in 1977.”

It’s true that “professional and related occupations” have grown a lot in the past 35 years when they were, as reported, about 15% of the workforce.  But today they are about 22% of the entire workforce (including part-time workers) and 24% of full-time workers – not 62% or anywhere close to that!

If nearly 2/3rds of all U.S. jobs were “professional” – with its connotations of well-paid autonomy at work, requiring high levels of education — the median annual salary of American workers would be in the $50,000 range instead of the $30,000 range.  And that would mean that income inequality would be dramatically reduced – from the top 10% getting half of all adjusted gross income now to them getting maybe only a quarter.  It would also be likely that 2/3rds of the adult population would have bachelor’s degrees vs. less than 1/3rd now, and it would mean that many more entry-level jobs would require that degree.  Now only 20% of jobs require a bachelor’s and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that isn’t going to change much in the next decade.

In other words, this report turns the American job structure upside down.  Michael Zweig’s most recent analysis of occupations, for example, finds that The Working Class Majority is now 63%, slightly larger than a decade ago.

This is a huge reporting error, and it’s clear in the context that it was not a typo.  I emailed the reporter, calling attention to the error, but haven’t heard back, and there has been no printed correction.   Factual misreporting like this occurs all the time in American newspapers, especially at second-tier outfits like the Tribune. Economist Dean Baker provides a delightfully smart-ass (and clear) daily blog, Beat the Press, that calls attention to errors of fact and reasoning in the top tier of newspapers – and he is never at a loss for material.  But there is often a pattern to these errors, one that reflects the limited worldview and social experience of both reporters and the “upscale” audiences advertisers encourage them to address.

Though I have rarely seen numerical misreporting of this sort, most mainstream and elite discussion of “the knowledge economy,” its “knowledge workers,” and “the creative class” clearly assumes this kind of disproportionate misunderstanding of the jobs most Americans actually do.  Likewise, President Obama’s repetitive (and uncontested) insistence on the need for everybody to go to college so they can do “the jobs of the 21st Century” must be based on a similar misunderstanding.  (For more detail on this see previous Working-Class Perspectives blogs by Sherry Linkon and me.)

The conspiracy-minded could make a good argument, I think, that our elite opinion-makers and leading politicians are deliberately lying to us in order to flood the labor market with college-educated workers who can then be paid less and bossed around more because their supply is so much greater than the demand for them.   But the scope and scale of such a conspiracy makes this hypothesis highly unlikely.     My guess is that the spectacular magnitude of this particular reporting error reflects the increasingly extreme class segregation of American life – not only in residential life, as dramatically documented in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, but in social interaction and experience.  Besides, it is almost comforting to think that our ruling class and its elite professional middle-class opinion-makers actually know the truth and are hiding it from us — rather than to realize that the captains and crew of the ship of state are navigating with such a faulty map of the actually existing American people and the work we do.

How could they, the “data-driven” best and brightest, be so woefully misguided?  Here’s my guess:

Imagine the children of two professional workers – a doctor and lawyer, for example, or a university professor and an accountant – who go to one of the many excellent public schools in the dozens of affluent (not rich-richy, just comfortably “middle class”) suburbs around most American cities.  Their highly dedicated parents schedule them for a wide variety of activities that cultivate social and cultural skills while insisting on their getting good grades in school.  These children, both the” over-achievers” and the just-plain-achievers, then go on to one of the better colleges and universities, which are populated for the most part by the offspring of professional workers from affluent suburbs like theirs.   Assuming they have done well in college, upon graduation these young people get entry-level professional jobs from which they launch careers that, like their parents, are both high stress and high reward.   After some years enjoying life in the city, they marry, have children and move to a suburb with an excellent public school.

This may be a bit of a caricature, but it is by no means uncommon.  Even adding some complexity, it will be very difficult for such people, particularly the high-achievers among them, to understand that America is mostly populated with people who are very unlike them.  Yes, there may have been working-class and even poor kids in their high school or at college, but they are a relatively small minority.  Likewise, at work they are aware of clerical workers and maybe even the janitorial staff as they leave work in the evening, but that’s not where their focus is as they go about their daily work routine.   At restaurants and in other leisure activities, they interact with non-professional workers, but they hardly notice the ones who are not directly serving them.   Everything in their lives fosters the illusion that their lives are “typical” or “normal” and that poorly paid nonprofessional workers who get bossed around are a small and declining group.

These professionals may be conservative Republicans or progressive Democrats.  They may be arrogant, self-absorbed, status-anxious climbers or large-spirited, generous and even nurturing leaders and mentors who do volunteer work among “the less fortunate.”  But what is there in their lives – in their direct observation and experience – that would challenge the idea that we are a “knowledge economy” full of well-educated knowledge workers?   And if they were a reporter, a copy editor, or a well-educated reader of the daily press, what would make them slap their heads in disbelief at the idea that a substantial majority of American workers are “professionals” like them?   Not much – and especially when our elite institutions of cultural production and reproduction (media, universities, politicians and their staffs) are peopled by folks with similar life trajectories who naturally recycle and confirm these professional notions of their own disproportionality.

Zweig’s The Working Class Majority is subtitled America’s Best Kept Secret, and despite the substantial attention the book received more than a decade ago, its recent new edition justifiably retained that subtitle.   But it and all the other work of Working-Class Studies are up against formidable cultural odds.  If the captains and crew of our ship of state are navigating with a terribly faulty map of who we are and what we do, only a large-scale and sustained mutiny can break through the professional bubble.  Hopefully, the newly protesting Walmart retail and warehouse workers and the spreading intermittent strikes of fast-food workers may be the beginnings of such a mutiny.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

 

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5 Responses to The Incredibly Shrinking Working Class? The View from the “Professional” Bubble

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  5. knewman4 says:

    Great post, Jack. I do think social and economic segregation account for some of the tone-deafness of the opinion makers about the “truth” about class. But I was struck reading your fictional biography of someone who is born to two professional parents and raised in the suburbs and who then evolves into a similar life. That was basically me! Except for one thing. Perhaps we can take some comfort that it does matter how we teach our children, at home and and school. The way I was taught as a child made me aware that there was a working class majority, oppression, discrimination, an American left-wing movement, etc., and I have been a lifelong activist for social, racial, economic and sexual justice since I started college. So we can teach people the truth! But we have to start when they are young!

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