Making Sense of Working-Class Work

Forty years ago this July, I left school to start my first career as a railway worker. At sixteen and with few if any qualifications, I was lucky to find a good job which was fully unionised.  As the union rep tossed a bunch of membership forms at us on that first day, he told us “It’s a closed shop, brothers, you have to join”.  

Now, that era appears like the land that time forgot.  The obsolescence of my experience is especially clear when I read about my students’ working lives. I’ve written before about how I encourage students in my sociology of work course to write papers reflecting on and analysing their own work experiences.

But what struck me even more in this year’s papers was students’ resignation in response to poor working conditions. Post-Covid, many students work at call centre companies, but instead of working in a centralised factory-like setting, many now work out of the bedrooms of their student dorms.  They relate sitting cross legged on their beds, juggling multiple devices and fielding calls from frustrated and often abusive customers.

Last year, a number of women wrote about sexual abuse at work, which I took as a positive side effect of the #metoo movement. My students described being propositioned for sex in retail jobs and being sexually harassed by co-workers, managers, and supervisors. Some described instances of rape. Their essays took on an almost cathartic role, and several students wrote that they had never told anyone about their experiences until they wrote it down for the assignment. This year’s essays were less overtly harrowing, although female students wrote about the casual sexism and racism they have to face on a near daily basis — the pat on the bottom by a customer ordering food at a restaurant or being ogled in service work. 

Poor working conditions are also a theme in a rash of essays about working in the gig economy for pizza delivery firms or various fast-food outlets. One male student related practical struggles that made it difficult to gain work or do this kind of job.  When his car needed repairs, he couldn’t earn any money for a week. He wrote movingly of the way kids opened the door to ‘Pizzaman’, the superhero delivering the eagerly awaited treats. Hearing the receding squeals of joy as he walked away after a delivery made him smile. But he also encountered abuse, as when a customer yelled at him after having to wait two hours for food on a Friday evening. The precarity and injustice of his job was even more obvious in the story he told of his car being hit in the pizza parlour parking lot at the end of a shift one night. The repairs cost him far more than the wages he had just earnt.

Across work stories from my working-class students, I see striking similarities. Many have to do basic service and retail work for minimum wage.  They routinely have to passively accept the aggressive backlash of those they serve and poor treatment from their supervisors.

But I think there is a bigger issue here, one we should not ignore:  passive acceptance of the poor nature of work. My generation would have expected better. Another generational change also matters here: universities were once free to all, but my students often work near full time to pay for school.  Theirs is a double passive acceptance.

My students’ belief that this is ‘as good as it gets’ is what disturbs me most, in part because it reflects a highly individualised account of working life.  These young people feel isolated and powerless to effect change. For them, individualism isn’t about selfishness, or about a sense of individual choice or agency. No, for them, individualism means social isolation. And that, in turn, means that they have no sense of collective endeavour. They don’t believe that common action could improve things in the workplace.

I’d like to think that as my students graduate and go on the ‘proper’ labour market, things may change, but their views reflect the findings of research about work. A quarter of a century ago US sociologist Richard Sennett wrote in his Corrosion of Character that workers were losing the social links that embedded them in their work and communities.  Instead, he wrote, ‘fugitive’ relationships were coming to dominate the workplace under what he called the ‘new capitalism’. More recently, American Studies professor Carrie Lane’s book A Company of One describes white-collar insecurity, where laid off software workers no longer blamed government, their former employers, or the economy for their situation. They saw losing their jobs as normal and dusted down their CVs, reached out to their social networks, and sought to rebuild their individual capital.

Yet I see hope in recent worker activism. Over the last year, the UK has seen a wave of public sector strikes as a result of the cost-of-living crisis after thirteen years of real terms pay cuts.  Such activism suggests that just as collectivism can fade from view, it might also come back into fashion. We shouldn’t expect a simple return to the working conditions of the long boom after the second world war, but if workers come together to resist the difficulties my students have identified, they can fashion new standards and a new version of working-class agency.  That’s the student essay I want to see!

Tim Strangleman, University of Kent

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1 Response to Making Sense of Working-Class Work

  1. Glen McGhee, FHEAP says:

    So much in economic and social life emanates from “job polarization” and the worsening conditions of the workplace. I know that Arne Kalleberg has written about job polarization and the worsening conditions in the workplace as author of the book “Good Jobs, Bad Jobs: The Rise of Polarized and Precarious Employment Systems.”
    But who else has made a solid contribution and analysis of this phenomenon?

    For example, the early success of digital diploma mills like UoP can be traced back to increasing job insecurity and the need to “have more letters after my name” as if that had genuine salutary apotropaic effects.
    But what isn’t studied or discussed is how these trends combine and fuel credential inflation — especially among those at the bottom of the economic scale.
    Read through this perspective, “Lower Ed” can be easily seen as a response to worsening job conditions, even though Tressie Cottom takes a different approach.
    Still, the “pain funnel” that she so vividly describes aligns with low-status, low-SES, and a high sense of relative deprivation — exactly like the stories presented here.


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