Human Tumbleweeds, Insecurity Culture, and the American Working Class

Conservatives, while opposing same-sex marriage, worry a lot about the decline of marriage among lower-income households, the still growing number of single-parent families, and the supposed social and economic fallout of children growing up in male-deprived, unstable, and morally feckless households. See Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which asserts a simple causal chain beginning with what he sees as the moral fecklessness of lower-income whites.

Liberals, after decades of celebrating the increased freedom, especially for women, involved in higher divorce rates and the diversity of family forms, have recently taken up this concern. Though they assert that broad economic trends in the labor market are important causes, liberals also worry about what they see as disturbing levels of moral fecklessness.   See my criticisms of Andrew Cherlin’s Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America and Robert Putnam’s Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.

Sociologist Allison Pugh enters this social-science morality debate with a pretty strong moral sense of her own, but with a substantially more complex and insightful approach to both social science and morality – and also to the 80 actually existing people she interviewed. (Neither Murray nor Cherlin conducted their own interviews with the subjects of their moralizing.) Pugh’s new book, The Tumbleweed Society: Working and Caring in an Age of Insecurity, does not rely exclusively on the best-and-worst methods that Murray, Cherlin and Putnam use in contrasting the lives of elite middle-class professionals (Murray’s top 5%) with the least advantaged working poor (the bottom 20% in income and education).   Pugh develops this contrast as well, but in addition she talked with and explores what she calls “the stably employed” whose incomes are in the “middle five digits” – what some people call “middle class,” and others, “working class.”

Before looking at the stably employed, Pugh interviewed winners and losers in what she calls our “insecurity culture” created by a neoliberal market fundamentalism and the withdrawal of democratic government support over the past four decades.   The winners are upper-middle-class married couples with highly marketable professional skills, who benefit from and mostly revel in the lack of reciprocal employee-employer loyalty, changing jobs and geographical locations as new opportunities emerge for higher pay or more interesting work. Pugh finds that these couples erect a “moral wall” between their lack of commitment to employers, workmates and neighbors as they restlessly search for the “perfect job,” on one side of that wall. On the other side, however, they “settle for” the imperfect, often compromised relations within their marriages and seek to raise “flexible children” also unrooted in abiding relationships beyond their nuclear family.

The losers are what Pugh calls “the laid off,” encompassing both those with unsteady work and those scarred by being “let go” in the past while having (temporarily) steady work now but at lower pay and with worse conditions. For them, she finds, there is no wall between work and love, as the insecurity of work and income forces them into a series of unsteady relationships at work, among neighbors, and in their intimate lives. Among these victims of insecurity culture, she found two basic responses – a kind I’m-on-my-own declaration of independence where no commitments are expected or made, except to one’s own children, and a hyper-commitment to one’s duty to others, beginning with your own children but extending out to other family members, especially aging parents.

One of the joys of the book is how Pugh creates richly detailed individual portraits of both the independent and the duty-bound, showing their resilient ingenuity in coping with the constantly unsettling turmoil of their work lives, but also adopting belief systems and life strategies that reproduce and support a neoliberal system they expect to betray and abandon them.   There is no moral fecklessness here, just debilitatingly low expectations of the social support and basic economic security any decent society would provide. Both the independent and the duty-bound, Pugh contends, take on unrealistic levels of “individual responsibility” expecting nothing of employers, government, or other institutions – and all too often carrying expectations of betrayal and abandonment at work and in the larger society into their intimate lives with partners and other family members.

Though Pugh does not use the term, what both winners and losers lack is a sense of collective efficacy of even the modest sorts once provided by churches, unions, ethnic lodges, as well as by a more generous welfare state. The winners think they don’t need collective support and action, and in most respects, at least for now, they are right. But the vastly larger group of insecurity-culture losers in our tumbleweed society seem not even aware of collective efficacy as a possibility, and Pugh convincingly argues that their individual ingenuity in making the best of bad situations, often with heroic efforts, undermines both their own long-term efforts to survive and any possibility of effective collective action that could reverse the downward spiral of contingency, precarity, and insecurity rooted in the American workplace.

Unfortunately, Pugh does not continue this line of thinking when she turns to the stably employed, who she finds have much higher but reasonable expectations of what their employers owe them as well as higher but reasonable expectations of their partners and others in their social circles. The stably employed are also affected by our insecurity culture, but because it has not turned their lives upside down, they are more likely to resist it as best they can – both in thought and action. Based on their own experience, they do not expect to be betrayed and abandoned, and therefore, experience anger when they do experience or witness it, anger that often spurs them to push back in some form or other. But the stably employed in Pugh’s rendering, while committed to patiently nurturing immediate relationships at work and at home, seem not to have any broader sense of the value and efficacy of collective action than the tumbleweeds who are buffeted about by economic winds and workplace practices they think are beyond their control.

Rather than examining whatever lingering embers of collective efficacy there might be among the stably employed, Pugh focuses on their individual characteristics, again reporting wonderfully detailed life stories and complex moral sensibilities from her interviews.   The characteristics she favors are “pragmatism” and “the willingness to compromise” both at work and in one’s most intimate relationships. And though I regret the road not taken by Pugh, I found it refreshing that a rigorous sociologist would so forthrightly champion these kinds of middling-sort values against the never-settle-for-second-best pursuit of excellence that one repeatedly hears from the officially successful.   Her choice of words betrays a middle-class bias, I think, but her individual portraits reveal what many of us will recognize as “working-class realism” and what labor historian Lou Martin has called a “making do culture.”

Still, after so deftly placing individual tumbleweeds’ beliefs and strategies within a larger social-economic context, Pugh stops short by merely establishing the stably employed’s higher expectations of employers, government, and their friends and neighbors.   These expectations, as Pugh seems to imply, are a social psychological base for collective action as well as collective support, but she fails to pursue that possibility.   Given her basic framework, this additional inquiry would have been particularly valuable to labor, community, and political organizers who are busy trying to raise the general levels of collective efficacy among the population. Organizers have usually and sensibly focused on the least advantaged who have the most to gain from collective action. But given Pugh’s analysis, it might make sense to focus more attention on those middling sorts who “settle down and settle for” but who still have a strong sense that human beings should not be constantly tumbled like tumbleweeds.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies



This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Human Tumbleweeds, Insecurity Culture, and the American Working Class

  1. Pingback: Losing the Narrative of Their Lives | Working-Class Perspectives

  2. I had a lawyer acquaintance, libertarian of some degree, who shed little tears about outsourcing of working-class jobs years and decades ago. As computers replace more lawyers, as well as paralegals, I have few tears and plenty of schadenfreude for people like her.


  3. Jack Labusch says:

    Thanks, Jack.

    Why have family-minded Republican partisans and conservative activists NOT noticed the so-called family plan of America’s unique group health insurance doesn’t respect the actual family of marital and filial affection at all? Do those same partisans and activists actually believe the enrollment and non-enrollment of persons into arbitrarily defined insurance groups have no effect at all on the family as a primal economic unit?

    Look at Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want” painting–the Thanksgiving painting. Would anyone believe it makes no difference in family relations at all that one guest’s heart attack cost him a few hundred dollars out of pocket, while the other’s cost him $40,000, for which his savings will be exhausted and his pay attached?

    Back in the 1960s and 1970s, if my memory’s okay, conservatives argued, with some success, that the welfare program of the time (AFDC?) created an incentive for women to have illegitimate children. Why hasn’t the working of group health insurance received the same attention by conservatives?


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