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



Posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A New Leader for Labour in the UK

Last Saturday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected the new leader of the UK Labour Party after a summer long campaign. Corbyn’s name may not be familiar to many readers. To be honest, few outside the supporters of left wing causes in the UK would have known of him until he just scraped on to the ballot after finding enough MPs to put his name forward. What happened afterwards has been truly amazing. From the status of ‘doomed to fail’ outsider, Corbyn and his team took the election by storm, speaking to packed rallies up and down the country. These drew many long-time labour members as well as others who have returned to the party after a long absence and, perhaps most significantly, thousands of young people who were supposedly irredeemably lost to politics. In a few short months, Corbyn managed to attract into the party tens of thousands of supporters who paid a nominal £3 to take part in the election. I went to one of his final rallies in Margate, a struggling seaside resort on the Kent coast. As with all of such events, the hall was packed to capacity with 300 people eager to listen to Corbyn speak. He is not the most electric orator, but in his calm, rational way he dissects with great clarity and moral authority many of the issues confronting the UK and the world beyond. He speaks in a direct, unspun style and is unapologetic about his views, which built up over his three decades as a backbench MP and before that a trade union officer.

Ordinary Labour Party members love Corbyn, but many MPs and the party’s grandees hate him. While Labour activists are excited to hear someone speaking in their language about issues they care passionately about, the senior figures see him as a dangerous radical who would drag the party back to the ‘bad old days’ of the 1970s. They have a very particular narrative of how labour made itself unelectable during the 1980s and the Thatcher era, a situation that Tony Blair reversed, leading the Party to three successive general election victories in 1997, 2001, and 2005. Labour lost the 2010 election under Gordon Brown, partly as a result of the post-crash global economic crisis. In many ways Corbyn’s rise mirrors that of Bernie Sanders in the US – the traction both are enjoying suggest a growing discontent among the rank and file of their parties, a disconnect with an established political class.

This era of ‘New Labour’ was marked by a striking reluctance to talk about class, which was seen as part of the vocabulary of ‘old labour’ and a manifestation of the politics of envy. This trend continued even after the economic crash of 2008 and the beginning of the Party’s period of opposition. Corbyn himself rarely uses the word ‘class’, but through his actions and speeches he clearly articulates a class-based understanding of the economy, education, and the workplace. While his leadership election rivals were busy arguing over the extent to which they would match Conservative plans to extend austerity, Corbyn confronted head on the claim that Labour had mismanaged the economy. As Paul Krugman has recently pointed out, the Labour Party has a relatively strong story to tell in economic matters before during and after the crash, but it has allowed the Conservatives and other rivals to paint them as reckless and clueless.

All too predictably, the right-wing media and, to its shame, many BBC journalists have engaged in a vicious attacks based not on Corbyn’s substantive policy pronouncements but on his dress style, his failure to sing ‘God Save the Queen’, and other obscure features. Corbyn and his supporters may have a rough time ahead in the face of this tsunami of abuse, but in many ways this targeting speaks to his success in mobilising a popular movement of grass roots supporters to his cause. As I write this, some 50,000 new members have joined, or possibly re-joined the party, including 16,000 who signed-up on the day of his victory. The danger Corbyn represents for the political class lies in his class-based analysis, an approach that has not been attempted by a mainstream leader for two decades or more. Importantly, he draws attention to the interlinked issues facing the poor and the dispossessed in the UK and beyond, including the corrosive effects of the dearth of public housing, low paid casual contracts, the expansion of low skilled jobs, and lack of educational opportunity for working-class kids. In one of his first public speeches, to the Trades Union Congress, he rejected the accusation that Labour was a party of deficit deniers and instead described the Tories as ‘poverty deniers’. Corbyn has also described Government welfare policy as effectively ‘social cleansing’ of big cities, most notably London.

These are interesting and exciting times for those interested in working-class issues in the UK. For the first time in a generation we have a Labour leader unafraid to talk about how class and inequality work, and more crucially, how governments might intervene to ameliorate some of society’s more intractable problems. At the same time, many are uneasy at the power of the press to distract attention from these vital issues and instead vilify Corbyn the man. Even if Corbyn fails to change public policy, he is already helping to revive attention to class in the UK. Watch this space.

Tim Strangleman

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Internet Access and the High Costs of Being Poor

It has been over 20 years since the term “digital divide” was coined to describe unequal access to digital technologies at the start of widespread access to the internet. The ubiquity of smart phones has reduced this conversation as online access has reached near saturation points. In late June, Pew reported that over 9 in 10 adults between 18-50 and 8 in 10 adults between 50 and 64 used the internet. Even the category of “over 65 years old” had a solid majority, with 58% reporting that they use the internet. However, this apparent success belies some important issues of class that speak to larger dynamics of the high cost of being poor.

Internet access is a necessity in contemporary life, but while access has become nearly universal, it is still distributed unequally. According to Pew, 25% of Americans are “smartphone dependent.” They have smartphones but either don’t have high-speed internet at home or have “limited options” for online access other than by smart phone. They generally have low levels of education and income and are likely to be non-white and young. Indeed, 13% of Americans with incomes less than $30,000 a year are smartphone dependent versus 1% of Americans with incomes over $100,000.

Poor people routinely pay more for access capital. They are, for example, charged higher interest rates by exploitative payday lender services. That pattern also applies to cell phones. In working class neighborhoods of American cities, cell phone stores are almost as ubiquitous as payday lenders. The dedicated pay-as-you-go cell phone services available from these outlets, like Boost Mobile or TracPhones, as well as the major contract carriers like ATT, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, offer pay-as-you-go options that may be affordable on a monthly basis but cost much more over time than the purchase plans that people with more disposable income can afford.

The current access and cost gap has several implications, which we can perhaps understand best by considering how it would affect someone using a smartphone to apply for jobs. Guy Standing argues that members of the precariat spend 15% of their time looking for work. According to Pew, smartphone dependent users are nearly twice as likely as non-dependent users to use their phone in job search activities and four times as likely to submit application materials than non-dependent users. That raises two problems.

First, applying for a job is more costly for them than for most others. This is true, by the way, for Americans in general. They pay significantly more for lower speeds and (for mobile) lower data caps than consumers in other industrialized countries. For example, in the U.S. three gigs of prepaid data costs an average of $85 a month versus $9 a month in England. Although these costs are coming down somewhat (in part due to the FCC’s insistence that the major cell phone service providers permit smaller services to access their networks), mobile internet pricing is based on the amount of data used. According to Pew, half of “smartphone dependent” Americans “frequently” or “occasionally” reach their monthly data caps, this could potentially reduce their ability to search for and apply for jobs.

In addition, mobile phone pricing plans favor those with more disposable income. When Time examined different models of obtaining smart phone service, unsurprisingly, the most financially prudent were those where people purchased unlocked phones and remained out of contract. However, that option requires an upfront payment of $400 to $600 for the phone, which puts it out of reach for lower income Americans. Conversely, the most exploitative plans in the long term are those with the lowest initial costs. Indeed, Pew found that half of smartphone dependent users report having to cancel services for financial reasons. So not only do poorer people pay more to apply for a job, if they have to cancel for financial reasons, neither they nor potential employers can follow up on an application easily.

Second, while phones and tablets work well for short communications, mobile websites often have reduced functionality as compared to full sites. While discussions of usability often focus on the retail website environment, job search or other kinds of non-commercial sites often have less money to invest in the duplicative coding necessary for separate mobile and full function sites. These limitations are somewhat ameliorated by job searching apps like or, but it’s much more difficult to compose and format application materials on a phone rather than on a traditional computer. In 2013, surveyed 680 clients and found half had “horrendous” and “cumbersome” mobile career sites. The issues included the number of pages that needed to be loaded, the type and number of fields that needed to to be filled out, and difficulties sorting and navigating listings. Moreover, last year, only 26 of Fortune 500 companies offered application processes that had been optimized for mobile access.

In sum, while the Pew survey’s finding that more Americans are online than ever before suggests that the old digital divide has shrunk, new costs and challenges emerge in the smartphone era. If “the days of walking in and filling out an unsolicited paper application are gone,” we need to address how today’s access and cost gap perpetuates the high cost of being poor.

Alex Russo

Alex Russo is an Associate Professor of Media Studies at Catholic University and  author of Points on the Dial: Golden Age Radio Beyond the Networks (Duke 2010).

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Steinbeck and the Refugee Crisis

“No home no job no peace no rest”
— Bruce Springsteen, “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

As a British immigrant to the US, one key difference I notice between me and most Americans is that I did not read The Grapes of Wrath in high school. Actually, an informal survey reveals that some acquaintances settled for the Cliff Notes or the movie of John Steinbeck’s epic tale of Oklahoma farm families fleeing the Dust Bowl in the late 1930s for the false promise of work and plenty in California — rather than the 600-page text.

Having read it, I’m wondering why The Grapes of Wrath is probably the best-known novel of working-class life in the US, featuring on most top 100 lists of great American literature and earning Steinbeck a Pulitzer and eventually a Nobel Prize. What does it say about poverty, dispossession, migration, and survival in capitalism’s global hub that made it required reading for the nation’s youth?

A 1940 reviewer offers what has become the standard schoolroom answer: “It is the saga of an authentic U.S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.” This is uplifting – and it has a basis in Ma Joad’s famous claim that “We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on” – but it is less than half the story. And its implication that this is a uniquely American drama is at best anachronistic and at worst nativist: are the Joads “authentic” because they are white?

Since the novel is still on the curriculum, what are its assumed lessons for today? Might it speak to the global refugee crisis now unfolding, when masses of poor and working-class people are on the move, fleeing violence, famine, and environmental degradation in their homelands. Most of the migrants in the news are from war-torn Syria and North Africa. In the future most will be climate refugees (as many as 200 million by 2050, in some estimates) driven out by desertification, sea level rise, and “extreme weather events” like floods and typhoons — or the drought and dust storms that displaced the Okies.

In Reading the Grapes of Wrath (2014) Susan Shillinglaw draws the connection: “the Syrian picture seems not unlike the story of 1930s croppers in Dust Bowl Oklahoma at the mercy of California agribusiness.” Citing Thomas Friedman’s “Without Water, Revolution,” she notes the combination of anti-small-farmer politics and severe long-term drought as elements in the “lethal ecological mix” fueling that regional war.   The livelihoods of 800,000 farmers and herders were wiped out and the countryside evacuated. Assad’s tyranny and US military support for regime change have only made matters more desperate.

Europe is the current front-line of the escalating clash between relatively prosperous nations and those seeking refuge. On August 27 2015 — just one day in what has been a deadly summer for migrants worldwide — 71 people, mostly Syrians, including a family with four children, were found decomposing in a refrigerator truck abandoned by a highway in Austria. Another 200 refugees — from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as Syria — drowned off a capsized fishing boat near the coast of Libya. The Mediterranean has claimed at least 2500 migrants’ lives so far this year.

A year ago, the US was the headline-grabbing locus of the refugee crisis, with 68,000 children, mostly from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, detained entering the US without their parents and without immigration papers. Donald Trump promises to build a steel fence along the 2000 miles of the US-Mexico border and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants now living in the US. Not to be outdone in nativist fantasy, rival candidate Scott Walker also calls for a wall between the US and Canada. These proposals are popular with self-described “white nationalist” voters, suggesting that, as Trump’s advisor Roger Stone likes to say, “Hate is a stronger motivator than love.”

Steinbeck thought otherwise. Preacher Casy, a lead character in Grapes, “love[s] people so much, I’m fit to bust.” The novelist invited readers along on the Joads’ exodus in part so that we too could come to love them, their human peculiarities, their togetherness, their will to survive. And this is the appeal typically celebrated in the novel, from the earliest reviews to the most recent commentary. As Shillinglaw puts it, this is “not a novel of social reform” but “a message to the human heart,” provoking “empathy for working people.” But is this all the novel offers, and is it enough?

Steinbeck had more in mind, as he later wrote: “these migrant people with their clear thrust are destined to be a large determining factor in the imminent social change. And I love them for it.”   Surely the “clear thrust” Steinbeck admired in his characters includes the “wrath” of his title: “In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy.” This anger is directed at the people and the power structures responsible for the economic catastrophe which combined with “extreme weather” to make them refugees and keep them impoverished.

The Grapes of Wrath is profoundly critical book. It blasts the interlocking systems of land ownership, finance capital, and political cronyism that dispossess the farmers. It shames the isolating self-interest of the owners and bankers (“For the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I’, and cuts you off forever from the ‘we’”) and the violence of their associations. And it demonstrates the consequences in pillaged farmland, decimated families, stillborn babies, and starving parents.

Equally clear in the narrative is the migrants’ “thrust” to do more than survive: the determination to push back against those systems and push forward into making a life of dignity in a place of their choosing. This is the essence of Tom Joad’s parting pledge to Ma as he goes on the lam near the novel’s end. If, as Casy told him, “a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but only a piece of a big one,” then dead or alive, Tom says “I’ll be everywhere – wherever you look. Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Whenever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build – why, I’ll be there.”

Tom speaks versions of these words – with their obvious resonance for our era of extreme inequality and police killings — in the coda of John Ford’s 1940 movie of the novel, and in the final stanzas of Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Tom Joad” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad.” Perhaps the enduring thrust of the story is the call to “be there,” to supply the missing response to the “imminent social change.”

We see one answer today in the groundswell of support by ordinary people across Europe for welcoming and hosting the migrants, while their governments discuss quotas and border enforcement, and some build razor-wire fences.  In this crisis, food, shelter, safety, and a human greeting are great gifts, as were the resettlement camps that welcomed a lucky few Okies in 1930s California. But Steinbeck’s novel also provokes other responses: a clear understanding of the forces driving out the refugees, as well as a vivid grasp of the meanings of home and homeland — and the trauma of being uprooted from them.

Nick Coles

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Generation Jobless: Are STEM Students Next?

As college students return to classes this fall, many feel both excitement and apprehension about the future. After all, they are about to invest tens of thousands of dollars in education that they hope will lead to bright economic futures. Some probably feel pressure to pursue STEM degrees because they’ve been told that this will guarantee a good return on that investment. Unfortunately, as Andrew Hacker shows in a recent book review about education and high-tech work, there is clear evidence that this idea is wrong. Indeed, while those who tout the knowledge economy promote the idea that higher education is the key to economic opportunity, recent college graduates are having difficulty finding work, and many of the jobs they have found don’t require the kind of education they have. This led the Wall Street Journal to describe recent graduates as “Generation Jobless.”

Robert Reich thinks the problem is the result of businesses requiring only a small workforce of innovators and strategists He believes that over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work, including many with advance degrees. He predicts that corporations will continue to expand their use of algorithms to measure their value and develop spot-auction networks. Under this system, corporations would have a small number of core employees and would require others to bid on work opportunities. Using Apple as example, Reich notes that the company employs fewer that 10 percent of its 1 million employees who design, make, and sell their product. The rest are largely contingent workers.

But do the concerns of most college graduates apply to those earning STEM degrees? If you listen to business and higher education administrators, science and technology workers are in short supply. But Hacker finds that underemployment and joblessness include STEM graduates and employees. In reviewing a series of books concerning the need for high-tech talent, Hacker found that business and higher education leaders have greatly exaggerated the employment opportunities for STEM graduates. For example, he cites a National Science Board study that shows that of the 19.5 million STEM degree holders, only 5.4 million actually work in those fields. That suggests that extending STEM programs will probably not increase employment or lead graduates into better quality jobs. Hacker finds that employers blame the inadequate educational preparation of STEM employees, turn to low cost foreign workers, or increasingly replace workers with more technology. The result is increasing job insecurity even among STEM employees.

Put differently, despite claims that education is the path to better economic opportunity, workers in the knowledge economy are already and will continue to experience limited employment and economic mobility. Of course, this has long been the experience of the working class, and some would suggest that this is simply the proletarianization of STEM workers. But is it?

In his study of precarity, Guy Standing draws a distinction between prolitarianization and what he calls precariatization. He argues that proletarianization is the late nineteenth century historical term for the habituation of labor. The precariat, including STEM workers, are losing control over their time and the use of their capabilities, which represents a different situation than what the proletariat faced 150 years ago. Standing writes, that “the precariat has distinctive relations of production, or labour relations they [flit] in and out of jobs, often with incomplete contracts or forced into indirect labour relationships via agencies or brokers.” In essence, the precariat can be seen largely as a class of contingent workers regardless of education level.

We see this already in “taskers,” as Standing wrote here last spring, but we should expect to see a similar shift for STEM workers. They will lose control over their time as they spend longer hours at work and more time looking for work. They will also experience increasing levels of job insecurity. Because unstable work opportunities rarely if ever include employer-financed insurance such as Social Security, unemployment benefits, workers compensation and employer-provided health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, these workers will be deprived of economic benefits and government protections. Instead, they will have to take responsibility for their own employment costs — education and retraining, health insurance, and pensions. The changing work conditions disrupt more than just workers’ schedules or bank accounts. They also wreak havoc on workers mental health and personal lives. STEM graduates are not inheriting the economic future they envisioned. Some are learning tough lessons about the “race to bottom” and the experiences of the working class.

As I have said many times, deindustrialization and economic restructuring not only cost many people their jobs, they also undermined the stability of communities and made the American dream inaccessible for many working-class people. This has been clear for decades in places like Youngstown, which relied so heavily on manufacturing. The change is not only about technology replacing human work, the focus of a recent article by Derek Thompson in The Atlantic. It’s about the gap between claims about STEM education and the reality of STEM employment. The knowledge economy was supposed to bring a better future, especially for those who pursued the education necessary to enter the middle class, but as science, engineering, and technology jobs become increasingly contingent, the educated workforce is joining the working class and becoming part of the precariat. No wonder young people are worried.

John Russo
Visiting Scholar
Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor
Georgetown University

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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

Posted in Contributors, Issues, Sherry Linkon, The Working Class and the Economy | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

David Bowie: Creating a Middle-Class Dream for a Working-Class Fan

I recently visited the David Bowie exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, and attended a two-day Bowie symposium. They provided plenty of time for nostalgia and opportunities to listen and sing along to Bowie songs but also to discuss Bowie’s cultural significance as an artist and innovator. I was struck, though, by how often I thought about class during the presentations. Two aspects of class became quite clear – one related to middle -class dreams for working-class teenagers and the other to the how the high cost of fandom affects working-class fans. What does it mean to be a fan who can’t afford the records, clothing, souvenirs, concert tickets, or hair cuts to properly follow their star?

David Bowie’s own class background is somewhat ambiguous. I’d suggest he was lower middle-class – the son of a white collar father and a mother who ‘married up’ (he certainly isn’t a ‘working-class hero’). But it isn’t Bowie’s life growing up in leafy Bromley as David Jones that is so significant. His entry into the bohemian world of art school and his knowledge of fine arts, theatre, literature, art music – in other words, his accumulation of cultural capital — is what interests me most.

When I first discovered Bowie I was a working-class girl living in public housing near an industrial area. When I was very young, the school principal told my mother that education wasn’t very important for the children destined to work in the local factories. Despite some excellent teachers along the way, the schools I attended didn’t encourage an interest in intellectual or artistic pursuits. We were advised to train for vocational occupations. But Bowie created a different dream for me. This dream involved art school and fine arts. I wanted to experience the bohemian life – to paint, write, live in a shared house with other like-minded creative people, and play with identity and performance (preferably not in northeast London where I grew up). In Bowie’s music I found references to many things I was intrigued by but didn’t understand. I didn’t have the cultural capital to decipher them or to recognise the influences in his music from the world of art. It is only since I gained formal education (and cultural capital) that I have been able to see these references at work. The desire for this bohemian life –a middle-class life– was strong. But this dream never eventuated. The reality of working-class life meant that art school didn’t happen, and the need to support myself in a non-bohemian way did, but I did maintain the interest in the arts that Bowie had created for me.

The class dimensions of music fandom have been acknowledged, usually with a focus on the popularity of certain artists with fans from particular class backgrounds. The connection between punk rock and working-class fans is well documented as are the political class dimensions of followers of artists such as Billy Bragg and so on. Not all fans want to follow their idol’s career path in a literal way. Many are content with emulating style and enjoying their idol’s creative output. But fandom requires resources – access to an artist’s body of work and the clothes and accessories needed to emulate their style is expensive.

The Bowie symposium included presentations on Bowie’s musical output, his on-stage performances, and his style. One session focused solely on Bowie’s hair. The majority of the presenters were fans, and many spoke of their experiences at concerts and of buying records and trying to copy his look. These kinds of experiences were out of reach to me. The Bowie music I listened to as a teenager was recorded from a cousin’s records on cheap cassettes. I played them on a much treasured mono tape recorder I’d been given as a gift. The idea of a concert ticket was a faraway fantasy, and I couldn’t afford to pay a hairdresser to give me a Bowie look. Posters, badges, fan club membership and other memorabilia all cost money. I could be resourceful sometimes – cutting out pictures of Bowie from the newspaper or old magazines in lieu of posters. I could afford the occasional badge (and I did make my own). My friends and I mixed our own hair bleaching concoction, and I gave myself some blonde bits (trying to be blonde 1980s Bowie). But I didn’t have the same detailed knowledge of Bowie’s albums and concerts and couldn’t achieve the same level of admired fandom as many of the other delegates.

The Bowie symposium brought home the ways in which the accumulation of cultural capital is so difficult for working-class people. And how dreams about the future are so affected by class position. My bohemian dream set me apart from my working-class cohort (being into David Bowie rather than the mainstream popular bands of the time made me ‘weird’). In a way, Bowie helped me to discover music that was in opposition to the mainstream, but it also set me up for a big disappointment when the reality of working-class life hit and art school dreams made way for retail work. And this is not an experience confined to the 1970s or 1980s. Recent discussions have suggested that in the UK, working-class people are much less likely than their middle-class counterparts to train in the performing arts. The world of film, theatre, and (increasingly) popular music is dominated by middle-class, privately educated artists. The combined effects of lack of cultural capital and the resources needed to fund artistic ventures limits the ability of working-class kids to fulfil their bohemian dreams.

When so much of subcultural membership is tied to consumption, I wonder how many other fans out there from working-class families have to sit on the sidelines and watch others love their idols in ways they can’t. If my fandom of Bowie is in question, the answer is because of class.

Sarah Attfield


Posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, Working-Class Culture | Tagged , , | 4 Comments