Once again, a presidential election is bringing renewed interest in the working class, especially the white working class. Are they a racist bulwark of Trump support? Will they support a Clinton, after NAFTA and welfare reform? Do they represent a populist backlash against neoliberalism? As Jack Metzgar suggested last week, in the face of such discussions, we need to consider just who we are talking about. What is the working class, and how is it changing in the twenty-first century?
Historians have argued that the working class was formed through industrialization, which generated changes not only in economic structures, working conditions, social relations, and politics, but also in culture. In the first decades of the twenty-first century, economic restructuring has again brought fundamental changes, including the rise of neoliberalism. Those changes together with the economic crisis of the last decade have expanded the working class, but the working class is also changing.
While some would argue that class is an objective term, and being working class is a matter of economic relations regardless of self-identification or attitudes, class has always involved both economic conditions and culture. Yet while the traditional definition of the working class as those who sell their labor, who do not “control the means of production,” remains relevant, it is also somewhat problematic in the current economy. No doubt, many people work in jobs that fit this definition easily, but neither the taskers who sell their labor in small chunks to varied “owners” nor those who sometimes choose the apparent self-control of freelancing over what they see as the drudgery and false security of traditional jobs fit easily into this model.
Even on a purely economic basis, class structure and conflict no longer fit this traditional model. As Guy Standing has suggested, the emerging class structure is increasingly based on insecurity. Whether the “precariat” represents something different from the working class or an emerging set of conditions shaping working-class experience, there is no doubt that in the contemporary economy, increasing numbers of people face increasingly precarious employment and income.
On the cultural side, established definitions of class are also problematic. We make a first mistake in understanding the working class when we try to define it in any simple or singular way. Too often, references to “the working class” imply white, male industrial workers. Yet the working class has always included men and women of all races, ethnicities, and sexualities, who work in a wide range of jobs at factories, farms, stores, offices, and homes. Within this large and multifaceted working class, individuals and groups have rarely defined themselves solely in terms of class, and the working class has fought bitter battles across divides of race, gender, and nationality.
For all their diversity, working-class voters have enough influence that pundits and pollsters want to track their views, and to make that manageable, most rely on a single marker: college education. But here, too, traditional definitions of the working class don’t work as well as they once did. A college degree may be a lever into better lifetime earnings and thus, presumably, into the middle class, but it does not provide any guarantees. As a recent study showed, people from lower-income families gain less from a college degree than do those who come from more affluent families, even if their parents also went to college. And even those who secure good jobs based on college degrees face so much debt and so little job security that the undergraduate degree has lost much of its power as a launching pad into the middle class.
Two recent books point to important cultural changes in the working class. In The New Class Conflict, Joel Kotkin argues that the nature of class struggle is changing. It now pits a wider range of elites, including oligarchs, technocrats, bureaucrats, the media, and academics, against both the struggling middle and the working class. Class struggle also plays out geographically, between urban and suburban communities, and generationally, between the young and the old. Especially hard hit are millennials who are saddled with low incomes and high student loan debt. As a recent report found, millennials are more likely than previous generations to identify themselves as working class. They are leaving cities in their 30s, because they can’t afford housing in gentrifying areas, and, Kotkin argues, they are also increasingly alienated from the political process.
Jennifer Silva agrees that millennials from the working class are alienated, a trend she attributes to the failure of the American Dream and the obstacles that keep many of them from acquiring the markers of adulthood. In an economy that puts homeownership and stable employment out of reach, Silva argues in Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty, younger working-class people have embraced a “therapeutic model of selfhood” built on self-sufficiency and overcoming personal traumas. This worldview differs dramatically from the model of working-class culture described by Barbara Jensen and Jack Metzgar, which values belonging over individual achievement. But the trends Silva documents may provide additional evidence that we are seeing some merging of the middle class and the working class. While this reflects the proletarianization of the middle class, it may also be that the working class is adopting more middle-class values of individualism.
Silva writes that younger working-class people are buying into the “cultural logic of neoliberalism.” They not only “embrace self-sufficiency over solidarity,” they also “blame those who are unsuccessful in the labor market.” They distrust institutions and reject the idea that racism creates real obstacles for people of color. They survived in a bad economy and they think others should as well.
As Silva argues, this attitude “has profound personal and political consequences.” We’re seeing the resentment and blame that she identifies in comments from supporters of Donald Trump. Others, including Kotkin and Thomas Frank, have explained Trump’s popularity in these terms, reading his political success as evidence of economic frustration.
The problem, as we have noted in several previous election seasons, is that defining “the working class” as the class of racism, xenophobia, and resentment reinforces outdated notions of who is working class. “The working class” includes only angry displaced whites, whom media reports describe as forming Trump’s base but who also make up much of Bernie Sanders’s base. But it also includes the frustrated millennials who are more likely to support Bernie Sanders and African-American, Latino, and other people of color who seem to be turning out in support of Hillary Clinton. If the media and politicos believe that the working class holds the key to this year’s election, that’s good news. Now it’s time for them to pay attention to all of the working class, in all its diversity.
Sherry Linkon and John Russo