Where Does the Working Class Fit in the Knowledge Economy?

I recently attended a meeting with a “knowledge management” expert who wants local leaders to help her team create a “knowledge index” of Youngstown. She was enthusiastic about helping the city tap into local resources for community development. The information provided by the knowledge index, she told us, would allow local residents to make choices about the kind of future they want to create here. When I suggested that Youngstown’s real problem is long-term unemployment and poverty, she explained that the “industrial economy” is over. We’re now in the “knowledge economy,” and opportunity rests on information and technology.

This is hardly a surprise. We all know that manufacturing is no longer the core of the U.S. economy. Even as some factory jobs rebound, wages and benefits for those jobs have fallen significantly. Some of the decline in manufacturing is tied to the knowledge economy, as automation enables increasing productivity with ever fewer workers. Still, knowledge has not entirely erased production. Autoworkers and steel fabricators regularly use computers at some of Youngstown’s larger employers, including the General Motors Lordstown plant.

The service sector is even more important, but many of those jobs are also low-skill and low-wage – even if they are part of the knowledge economy. The customer service work at local call centers clearly involves technology and information, but at Infocision, which employs more than 1000 people in the Youngstown area, wages start at just $9.50 an hour. Many service jobs have little connection with the knowledge economy, and as Jack Metzgar and I have discussed before, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the most growth in jobs outside of the knowledge sector – personal and home health care aides, fast food preparation, janitors. These jobs can’t be done by machines or moved to a place with cheaper labor, but they offer lousy wages and minimal benefits. And promoting the knowledge economy won’t help these workers.

The problem isn’t only that the knowledge economy ignores many workers. It also erases working-class knowledge. Most definitions of the “knowledge economy” exclude the kinds of interpersonal or embodied expertise that are central to industrial and service jobs. As Mike Rose argued in his 2004 book The Mind at Work: Valuing the Intelligence of the American Worker, waitresses, hairdressers, welders, and other blue-collar workers don’t use only their bodies on the job. They make decisions, use specialized tools and terminology, and interact strategically with customers and co-workers. As Rose writes, their work represents “agency and competence.” Such knowledge is difficult to trace or quantify. When the knowledge management expert asked me how we could document and preserve industrial knowledge – an important question – I thought immediately of Rose’s study, which relied on interviews and observations. Such knowledge isn’t likely to show up in data sets. Capturing it takes time and effort.

Perhaps ironically, that kind of knowledge is making an appearance in the latest trend: makerspaces. Downstairs from where we met to discuss the knowledge index is the Oak Hill Collaborative’s makerspace, where, according to the Collaborative’s Executive Director Pat Kerrigan, retired welders and electricians regularly come together with teenagers and younger adults to design and build everything from clothing to generators. Such spaces are popping up in cities around the country. They’re also the hot new thing in education, as creative, hands-on learning is touted as a promising pedagogical model. Educause, the national organization that promotes technology in education, argues that makerspaces provide “zones of self-directed learning” and “support invention, provide the ultimate workshop for the tinkerer and the perfect educational space for individuals who learn best by doing.” If we value such embodied learning, then we ought to view industrial workers as central to the knowledge economy.

But we don’t. The idea that the knowledge economy has replaced the outmoded industrial economy suggests that blue-collar workers are stuck in the past or simply irrelevant. A knowledge economy implies that those with less education are less valuable and therefore less deserving of decent wages, benefits, or good working conditions. Worse, this notion blames workers for making poor choices. In the knowledge economy, if you don’t go to school, then it’s your fault that you can’t get a good job.

Of course, those who do go to college aren’t necessarily guaranteed better jobs. In a recent article on “The Frenzy about High-Tech Talent,” Andrew Hacker cites a 2014 study from the Center for Economic Policy and Research showing that 28 percent of engineering graduates and 38 percent of graduates in computer science were either unemployed or worked in jobs that didn’t require such degrees. As computer scientist Norman Matloff told Hacker, all those warnings that companies needed more workers with high-tech skills actually reflect employers’ desire to lower wages, not a real shortage of workers.

Meanwhile, alongside the industrial, service, and knowledge economies that all leave workers struggling economically, many working-class people have created an alternative economy. As anthropologist Hannah Woodroofe told Derek Thompson in a recent article on “A World Without Work” in The Atlantic, we’re seeing the end of “a particular kind of wage work.” Instead, Woodroofe has found, people rely on informal networks to barter goods and services and arrange for short-term jobs. Many reject the idea that a good life involves upward mobility or consumption. They value self-sufficiency. They have, as Thompson writes, “made their peace with insecurity and poverty by building an identity, and some measure of pride, around contingency.”

This, too, reflects a kind of working-class knowledge that does not appear in most discussions of the knowledge economy, in part because those conversations often emphasize economic development, which always implies improvement, if not growth. While some have suggested that the knowledge economy will improve the quality of work life by giving workers greater satisfaction and flexibility (which they may not value as much as their employers do), planners and development agencies often disregard the potential of the alternative economy. That might be because, as Grace Lee Boggs and Scott Kurashige argue, writing about the urban agriculture movement in A Detroit Anthology, such efforts are part of a social and economic revolution that challenges capitalism.

As my colleague explained at that meeting, “knowledge economy” is the term that economists have coined to describe the contemporary era. While it has its uses, especially in describing the sometimes intangible economic activity of software development, the financial sector, business services, and education, the term captures only part of the economic landscape. The “knowledge economy” leaves out the working class, consigning industrial workers to the past and service workers to the margins. It may also blind development experts to working-class knowledge that deserves more, not less, attention.

Sherry Linkon

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8 Responses to Where Does the Working Class Fit in the Knowledge Economy?

  1. Pingback: Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next? | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. Jack Labusch says:

    “As computer scientist Norman Matloff told Hacker, all those warnings that companies needed more workers with high-tech skills actually reflect employers’ desire to lower wages, not a real shortage of workers.”

    This pretty much fits in with occasional articles I’ve read the past few years. Industry alleges shortages of computer and engineering people, e. g., to make the case for expanded H1-B visa quotas to allow less well-paid and more politically vulnerable foreign workers to do the work. That’s the complaint, at least, from some people who believe they’ve been unfairly kicked to the curb.

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  3. Denise Bedford says:

    Sherry – thanks for posting your comments. I think that you might have misunderstood the difference between the service sector and the information economy (ideas coming out of the mid-1900s up to the early 2000s) and the knowledge economy. In fact, as I mentioned in our discussion, the knowledge economy places a very HIGH value on the knowledge of all individuals in a city, in particular those who have knowledge that fueled our industrial economy. The difference is that in an industrial economy, the factors of production (physical and financial capital) were valued over those of workers’ knowledge. The idea of a knowledge economy is that we value their knowledge more highly, not less. Micromanufacturing, maker spaces, are an indication that we are starting to make a small change in our thinking where a few people can own all the capital and control the jobs of industrial workers, to an environment where people who have knowledge can get easier access to those other kinds of capital to move their ideas forward. The term intellectual capital (e.g. Daniel Andriessen) speaks to all kinds of knowledge, and encourages us to assign a high value to all of the kinds of knowledge that are required to support a knowledge city. The traditional characterization as “high skilled information-rich jobs” is NOT what the knowledge economy is all about. I thought this point was made quite clearly in our discussions. Perhaps I was not as clear as I thought. The knowledge economy is about people in Sandtown or Franklinton having an opportunity to grow their own knowledge – through many different channels – and create their own jobs. I’ve seen several examples of this. The more I look for it, the more I see.

    For anyone who would like to read the papers that we provided to Sherry and the others on the KI teams that are moving forward in several cities, please just send me a note. I am happy to share them. Denise Bedford

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    • Sherry Linkon says:

      Denise, I think you may be misunderstanding my point, which is that while economists may not INTEND the concept of the knowledge economy to denigrate the knowledge of industrial workers, it has that effect. For example, a 2009 World Bank overview of the implications of the knowledge-based economy suggests that it is based on creating “opportunity” rather than on “building things,” and the report emphasizes the need for improved technical training in K-12 education, which — by implication — suggests that existing workers don’t have the right kind of knowledge. I read a number of reports before writing this piece, and I didn’t find any that call for efforts to capture and understand working-class knowledge. Rather, they almost uniformly call for more STEM education.

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  4. jwithers38 says:

    Reblogged this on Ethnography.com and commented:
    Good piece from the folk at Working Class Perspectives, and gives a mention of one of my favorite books, “The Mind at Work” by Mike Rose.

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  5. Pingback: Where Does the Working Class Fit in the Knowledge Economy? | Working-Class Perspectives | Activate! Justice: Talk about money and moral wrongs

  6. sparagmite says:

    Kant’s essay on enlightenment assumed that people who were rational would accept their responsibility and learn to adopt freedom rather than fear it. Citizens would embrace their free will and ability to make decisions affecting their own well-being. If he was right, would working-class people really buy foreign-made goods from a billionaire’s company, making his children and other relatives billionaires too? Would people consume indiscriminately, without concern for their fellow workers who lost their jobs because of their actions? It’s true that it made them feel richer when in fact they were growing poorer (for nearly 30 years now), but is that rational? Is that enlightened? Maybe a little more critique is in order.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Christine Pfeil says:

    “If we value such embodied learning, then we ought to view industrial workers as central to the knowledge economy.
    But we don’t. The idea that the knowledge economy has replaced the outmoded industrial economy suggests that blue-collar workers are stuck in the past or simply irrelevant. A knowledge economy implies that those with less education are less valuable and therefore less deserving of decent wages, benefits, or good working conditions. Worse, this notion blames workers for making poor choices. In the knowledge economy, if you don’t go to school, then it’s your fault that you can’t get a good job.”

    This hit the nail on the head. This “value index” that our society has for some reason decided to subscribe to, and uses to then judge a person’s value based on their schooling or employment, is insidious, backward, and harmful to progress. I only hope we can eventually realize that a fully functioning, healthy society, derives benefit and value from ALL levels of workers within it, not just white collar.

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