Tag Archives: Class and the Media

The power of stupid ideas: ‘three generations that have never worked’

This month I ran a workshop with a group of first year undergraduate sociology students at Teesside University (in the North East of England). Our students tend to be from working-class or lower-middle class backgrounds and often the first in their families to go to university. I’d been invited to give an insight into a ‘real life’ research project, and I began by asking for responses and thoughts about some quotations:

‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job’ (ex-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, 1997).

‘…on some deprived estates…often three generations of the same family have never worked’ (Iain Duncan Smith, 2009; now British government Minister for Work and Pensions).

‘To reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations’ (Universal Credit, Department of Work and Pensions, 2010; this is a document that introduces a very major overhaul of UK welfare payments).

‘…there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’ (Chris Grayling, ex-Minister for Work and Pensions, 2011).

The idea that there are families in the UK with three (or four, or five and even six have been claimed) generations where no one has ever had a job is a particularly powerful orthodoxy. It is often repeated, rarely questioned, becoming part of a taken for granted vernacular. I was struck by the students’ comments. One said, ‘well, it must be true if all these [people] are saying it’. Another felt the same because ‘they wouldn’t say it unless there was loads of data to back it up’. Simple ideas boldly spoken (and repeated) by people in authority can carry real weight.

But is this idea true?

One of the most avid propagators of this claim is Iain Duncan Smith, Minister of State for Work and Pensions. Although students imagined that ‘there must be loads of data to back it up’, his response to a Freedom of Information Request enquiring about the evidence for his (and others’) assertions about this was that ‘statistical information on the number of UK families that never work is not available.’ Rather, he explained, his views were based on ‘personal observations’.

But my colleagues and I are social scientists, so instead of relying on ‘personal observations’, Tracy Shildrick, Andy Furlong, Johann Roden, Rob Crow, and I began rigorous research to see if there really were families like this. We have continued thinking, analysing, writing about, and presenting the complexities of the research material that we gathered since then. The research generated other questions, but, unusually for a sociological study, we found a clear and unequivocal answer to this first question: the existence of families where ‘no one had worked for three generations’ is highly unlikely.

We searched very hard to find such families. We chose two extremely deprived working-class neighbourhoods – in Glasgow and Middlesbrough, because we assumed that they were the sorts of places most likely to reveal this phenomenon. Despite deploying all the strategies and tactics we could think of (including financial inducements), we were unable to find any. This does not mean that they do not exist. Some people believe in fairies or Yetis, and one cannot prove they do not exist. We can say, however, that it is highly improbable that they do. Or, if they do, their numbers are infinitesimally small. Other research drew upon the best available secondary statistics and concluded that less than half of one per cent of all workless households in the UK might have two generations where no one had ever had a job. Households with three generations that have never worked are, logically, going to be far, far fewer in number than even this tiny fraction.

This was, actually, a quite predictable conclusion. A little socio-economic history helps. How long is ‘three generations’? Maybe sixty years, so back to the 1950s, or earlier. The proposition is that there are families where no one has had a job since the 1950s. The UK welfare state has become tougher and tougher over this period, particularly in the last few years. We have very tight ‘conditionality rules’ and ‘activation tests’; recipients of unemployment benefits must provide evidence of their worthiness for these on a weekly basis. It is difficult to imagine a person being able to defraud the state for the whole of his/ her working life – and then his/ her son or daughter doing the same and then his/ her son or daughter after them, for sixty years.

We also need to think about what has happened in working-class communities over this period. Certainly the neighbourhoods we studied were impoverished and had high unemployment rates, but they have not always been so. In the 1960s, Middlesbrough was a very successful, prosperous local economy with full employment. During the 19th and 20th centuries it became world famous for its prowess in industrial production (being the source of the Sydney Harbour and Golden Gate Bridges, and the Indian Railway network). Glasgow’s importance was so profound that it became known as ‘the second city of the British Empire’. Middlesbrough had ‘full employment’ in the 1950s and ‘60s; jobs (for working-class men, at least) were in good supply during the exact periods in which this plague of intergenerational worklessness was said to be taking grip. If we are to properly understand the stories of these families and how they became distanced from the labour market, we need to locate family biographies in place and history and, following CW Mills, to trace the connections between ‘private troubles of individual milieu’ and ‘public issues of social structure’. These localities have experienced radical disinvestment and the wrecking of their economic bases. To use Alice Mah’s phrase, they have undergone ‘ruination’, with Middlesbrough now having the reputation of ‘the most deindustrialised locale in the UK’. In hearing the stories of these families we were not hearing tales of ‘welfare dependency’ stretching across the generations but about how, through massive deindustrialisation, many of the working-class families that live in these places have been stripped of the possibility of making a decent life through decent employment.

Debunking welfare myths is an important job for social scientists but so is trying to understand what purpose these myths serve – and why they retain their power. By the end of the workshop, students were getting quite angry and raising questions about the power of the myth: ‘so how can they say this? It’s ridiculous. It’s just daft!’. They were able to understand these simple messages about deindustrialisation and the wrecking of regions, so why can’t clever and powerful people – the Prime Ministers and Ministers of State in the UK (from different political parties) that continue to espouse stupid ideas?

I think there are lots of answers to such questions. One is that myths about a lazy, work-shy underclass serve a clear ideological function: they help ‘sell’ the sweeping cuts to social security spending that have been enacted by the UK government under their austerity programme. Social security budgets have received some of the deepest cuts – and these have tended to be viewed very favourably by the general public, working-class and unemployed people included. Conditions of widespread employment insecurity and falling wages breed mistrust, fear, and anger. ‘Others’ are blamed. These are fertile conditions for stupid ideas about ‘shirkers’ who see ‘unemployment as a life-style choice’ and who ‘sleep their days away on benefits’ in families where ‘no-one has worked for three generations’ (all terms used by government ministers). In other words, we are witnessing the resurrection of the age-old phantom of the ‘undeserving poor’, trotted out to ease the way for further welfare cuts that, in fact, hurt some of the already most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society.

Robert MacDonald

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Sociology at Teesside University, UK. He has researched and written widely about social exclusion, work and youth.

 

Which Side Is Culture On?

Last week I got a call from a reporter at The Guardian asking me to weigh in on the newest anti-union salvo from the Target corporation: a creepy, personal, direct-to-camera attack on unions, delivered by two red polo-shirt wearing Target “team members” (were these actually SAG member actors?) who talked in a chatty and informal way about how unions would destroy the “open door” policies, flexibility, and pleasant working environment already enjoyed by every Target employee. This new Target video has already drawn considerable attention, earning media reports in Salon and Gawker to name a few.

This Target video got me thinking: what is the role of cultural artifacts—art, film, and music—in contributing to attitudes about labor? How do cultural objects impact individual union drives, and how does anti-union propaganda impact wider culture attitudes about labor?

I am a professor of a literature and a cultural historian, so I am inclined to think that culture is powerful, and that anti-union culture has played a role in the decline of union membership we are all suffering from today. At the same time I wonder how much of the decline of unionization is more the result of labor policies and law—especially anti-labor laws passed by state and federal governing bodies because of the powerful lobbying by the wealthiest oligarchs in the land?

We often think that anti-union sentiment peaked in the 1950s, when McCarthyism was in full bloom, unions were purging their radicals, and labor/management cooperation was all the rage. But Nelson Lichtenstein assures us that for the last hundred years and more that the union has been portrayed as boss, bully, and thug.

cartoonHere’s a political cartoon from 1914 that implies that AFL demands were violently military and aimed at the very heart of American democracy.

But during the Depression, there was in upsurge in popular cultural support for labor—what Michael Denning has called the Cultural Front. The 1930s and the 1940s saw an outpouring of pro-labor culture, from the positive depictions of the taxi-cab strike in Waiting for Lefty, to proletarian novels like Christ in Concrete and In Dubious Battle, to the pro-labor film The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), and, of course, the rise of the pro-labor folk song tradition with artists like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Josh White.

What about the rest of the last century? As Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the American working class has long been a “silenced majority”—mostly invisible in news reports, mass-market magazines, films and television programs alike. Roseanne Barr, who starred in one of the most popular working class sitcoms in TV history (Rosanne), said that: “Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing.” Other scholars agree, such as Pepi Leistyna who shows that working-class people have been much maligned on TV, Ken Margolis who argues that unions are “tarnished” on the silver screen, and William J. Puette, who writes that the media views unions through a jaundiced eye.

While I agree that unions are usually portrayed negatively in popular culture, and especially in film, I think the positive relationship between labor and mass culture has, at times, been ignored or forgotten. Mass culture is profit driven, so we suspect that culture always endorses whatever ideology is best for capitalism. But culture produced for the masses is complicated, because in order to appeal to working-class people, who make up the vast majority of the mass audience, culture must represent some ideas and issues that are important to that audience.

In my current book project (Striking Images: Labor on Screen and in the Streets in the 1950s), I argue that there were more positive and realistic representations of unions and workers on film and television in the 1950s than we remember. The new mass medium of television sometimes depicted labor even more positively than postwar film. Teleplays like Marty (1953), A Man is Ten Feet Tall (1955), and Clash by Night (1956) had a more radical edge than their film counterparts (Marty, 1955, Edge of the City, 1957, Clash by Night, 1952). Even Ralph Kramden, on an episode of The Honeymooners, staged a rent strike.

What about the present? A recent poll shows that 51% of Americans approve of unions. While 51% may not seem like a lot, this number has increased 10 percentage points in the last two years. Have cultural factors, like the Occupy movement, the national living wage campaign, and Robert Reich’s powerful documentary Inequality for All, helped Americans to view labor more sympathetically? Have they won out, despite intensified anti-union campaigns, with films like Waiting for Superman and Won’t Back Down,which argue that teacher unions have ruined American public education, the anti-UAW campaign launched in Tennessee, not by Volkswagen but by Southern Republicans, and the continued press by the national “Right to Work” campaign?.

Perhaps culture isn’t on one side or another. Perhaps it is the battlefield itself. The skirmishes are everywhere. Though Republicans helped to tank the union drive at Volkswagen last month, P-Diddy and Danny Glover are helping Nissan workers in Jackson, Mississippi in their current union drive. In 2012, when Scott Walker’s anti-union policies were on the national stage, the Irish punk band Dropkick Murphys refused to allow Wisconsin Republicans to use their song “I’m Shipping up to Boston,” in Republican shows and videos. Recently in Pittsburgh, the rapper Jasiri-X wrote a crowd-energizing song for the Make it Our UMPC campaign called “People Over Profits.”

At the same time, in our creation, enjoyment and promotion of pro-union culture we cannot blind ourselves to the crippling role that labor law plays in the difficulties faced by unions, union organizers, and the tens of thousands of workers who want to join unions but cannot (yet) at Walmart, fast food restaurants, and Target. The worst thing about the Target video is not its slick production values or its horrible, falsehood-laden script, but the fact that it is perfectly legal for Target to force all of its employees to watch it on company time.

Kathy M. Newman

Holiday Steals: Finding the Revolutionary Spirit at the Mall?

I hate shopping malls, but I found myself in one recently, on a family outing to see Disney’s new mega-hit Frozen. But then Frozen was sold out, and so we found ourselves actually shopping at a shopping mall.

I was walking past Wet Seal, a teenage clothing retailer that sells cheap trendy threads to girls and very, very young women. The name is particularly grotesque— suggestive of sex, or, at the very least, something slimy and endangered.

As I passed the store, I saw something that made me stop so hard and so quickly that my sister-in-law almost ran me over: an in-store advertisement featuring a woman against a red background, with her hand cupped out from her mouth, and the phrase “HOLIDAY STEALS” coming out of her mouth in rigid, blocky letters, framed in the shape of a megaphone and pointing towards the store. Wet SealI knew the instant I saw it that it was an homage to the Russian constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko—a riff on his advertisement for books (the original reads “Lengiz, books in all branches of knowledge”). Rodchenko created the ad in 1924 and the woman cupping her hand to yell was Lilya Brik—whom Pablo Naruda called “the muse of the Russian avant-garde.”

RodchenkoRodchenko’s ad, one of the most iconic designs from one of the most revolutionary art movements in world history, was now being used to hail customers as they lumbered through the mall. As one of my facebook friends commented, after I posted the images side by side, the Wet Seal ad was “the very definition of irony.”

We could read this bizarre Soviet style Wet Seal campaign in three ways. The first is the easiest. It could be nothing more than a rip-off—the ultimate pilfering by the capitalist establishment of the revolutionary spirit of early Soviet communist artists. A gross injustice to Rodchenko as well as to the movement he has come to represent.

The second possibility, and this I suspect is closest to what actually happened, is that some Wet Seal designer, fresh out of graduate school, decided to try something cool s/he had learned about Russian Constructivist design and thought it would be a funny wink to folks like me, who were either design hounds or revolutionary art historians or both.

But the final interpretation, and the one I am most partial to, is to read this Wet Seal campaign as a slip of the capitalist unconscious, which in the course of trying to sell things we do not need taps into our desire for real revolution, for real social and economic change. I find it interesting, for example, that the Wet Seal poster heralds “HOLIDAY STEALS” and not “HOLIDAY DEALS.” Is this poster, unwittingly, telling us to enter the store and “steal” what we like?

This utterly counterintuitive way of interpreting Wet Seal’s advertisement is based on Fredric Jameson’s seminal essay, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” published in Social Text in 1979. In this essay, Jameson argues that if something is popular (in this case Wet Seal clothing), and, if we are not brainless automatons, then mass culture must offer something positive to go with whatever repression it is handing out.

Jameson calls this the “fantasy bribe.” He argues that “all contemporary works of art—whether those of high culture and modernism or of mass culture and commercial culture—have as their underlying impulse….our deepest fantasies about the nature of social life, both as we live it now, and as we feel in our bones it ought rather to be lived.” And what it is that mass culture offers, Jameson asks? “Some sense of the ineradicable drive towards collectivity.”

I am not suggesting that the Wet Seal advertisement injects the revolutionary spirit of the Russian intelligentsia directly into the brain of the mall zombie. But, perhaps unconsciously, Wet Seal is using some revolutionary zeal to sell its products because it knows that many of us crave collectivity and a better world—fairness, equality, jobs for all—the kind of world represented by Soviet idealism (though not necessarily Soviet society)—in the 1920s.

In the last few months we have seen hundreds of protests against low wages, targeting Walmart and fast food corporations, involving thousands of workers and labor leaders, suggesting that our “ineradicable drive” towards collectivity is not just a fantasy. Somewhere, buried deep in the capitalist unconscious is its opposite—radical socially conscious revolution. And sometimes we run across it at the mall.

So keep your eyes open this holiday season. Who knows what other revolutionary messages are hiding out in our cathedrals of consumption?

Kathy M. Newman

From Syria to Salford: How We See the Working Class

On the BBC a couple for weekends ago, I heard an expert on the Middle East describing how the civil war in Syria was worsening by the day. He said something like “Some of the opposition are not nice middle class liberals you know.” The clear implication was that working-class rebels were the really bad ones, the ‘other,’ that ‘we’ had to fear.

I thought about that quite depressing vision of the working class the next day, when I visited a fantastic and soon to close exhibition at London’s Tate Britain art gallery of the work of twentieth century artist L.S. Lowry (1887-1976).  Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life has been an unexpected blockbuster with rave reviews. Importantly, most of those reviews have made specific reference to the working-class focus of both this curation and Lowry’s work more generally. Walking through the six large rooms of this powerful retrospective, an observer can’t ignore class, nor the places where the English working class lived and toiled. Lowry was a painter of industry and labor, and the notes to the exhibition quote his explanation of his work:  “I saw the industrial scene and I was affected by it. I wanted to get a certain effect on the canvas. I couldn’t describe it, but I knew it when I got it.”

Lowry painted ordinary life on the streets of his native Lancashire, including Salford in the North West of England where a fantastic gallery bears his name and highlights his work. Ordinary life for Lowry had industry as its backdrop – factories and mills that his trademark matchstick men and women tumble into or out of as their shifts changed. Even his paintings of working-class leisure, depicting football matches and street entertainment, are dominated by the prospect of work and the smoke-belching chimneys that defined northern England at that time. Lowry does not shy away from the grimness of working-class life.  His painting reflects street brawls, house repossessions and those crippled by industrial accident and disease, as this video shows.

Where the exhibition is especially powerful in its juxtaposition of Lowry’s art with a series of quotes from commentators, some directly addressing the artist’s craft and others offering more general insights into the working-class world he painted. These included poignant extracts from books like Robert Robert’s The Classic Slum, George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, and Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy as well as quotes from a John Berger essay. I was reminded just how good the prose in many books about working-class life in the middle years of the twentieth century was. The writing was thoughtful and reflective but pointed. But above all, it was attentive to the working-class experience, a lived experience rooted often in poverty or the fear of it. Consider, for example, this quote from Hoggart’s book, embossed on the wall of the gallery, reflecting simple points about the use of working-class language:  “Today if I hear someone using words like ‘sorrow’ and ‘misery’ freely, they usually sound slightly archaic. To my grandmother they were regular words, together with ‘care’ and ‘hardship.’ When she spoke of someone ‘taking the bread from her mouth’ she was not being dramatic or merely figurative.”

These excerpts give the exhibit visitor pause, as they were designed to do, of course. Lowry’s art and the contemporary writing from and about the working class contextualize each other.  Each art form mirrors the other’s subject matter, the one leveraging understanding of the other. As a working sociologist, I was brought up short by both the paintings and the writing. In just these four writers – and there were others – we see a focus on working-class subjects from Orwell in the 1930s, Hoggart in the 1950s, Berger in the 1960s, and finally Robert’s writing from the 1970s. A four decades span in which working-class life and prospects improved immeasurably even as more popular attention was paid to the lived experience of class and the vision of further improvement. These were writers whose books sold widely in paperback or whose essays were read and helped to form a shared understanding of class matters and a common sense of citizenship. It was perhaps no accident that British sociology and cultural studies expanded in these decades following the Second World War and, early on at least, class was central to its calling.

The exhibition begged many questions about our own age. Lowry’s canvasses recorded a bleak world that few if any would long to return to. If Lowry represented the poverty of working-class life and the heavy price industry demanded of the people and places where it was based in its heyday, then these same paintings in turn raise questions about these inner cities in Northern England now. But above all the exhibition for me prompted consideration of the presence of the working class in popular art and writing now. Lowry’s art has always been popular.  What must have been a cheap reproduction hung in a corridor of my primary school, for instance. But his art also often graced the covers of books about the working class in the decades after the Second World War when serious attention was being paid to them by the likes of Berger and Hoggart. For sure, the working class was often presented as an object of fascination; as ‘different’ from the middle class who researched or wrote about them.  There was, though, a care in that attention and an expression of humanity and recognition in the encounter between classes.

So while there has always been a distance between classes, at times in our history this gap has been narrowed. The geographic distance between Syria and Salford is a long one, but perhaps the void in class understanding may be greater still.

Tim Strangleman

Battlers in Focus: Australian Working-Class Film

As someone with a working-class background, I’m always on the lookout for films that represent the working class people and places I know. That doesn’t necessarily mean people I’ve actually met or places I’ve visited,  just people and places I can relate to as a working-class person. This is why I can watch working -class films from around the world and feel a connection to the characters and their circumstances, even if they are set in Taipei or Paris.

Australian working-class films may work the same way for you, even if you’ve never been here. The films I want to recommend all fall roughly into the category of ‘art house,’ but don’t let this put you off! I’m a great fan of the genre, but I know the slow pace and lack of linear narratives in some art house films can be an acquired taste. Acquired by anyone, I should add. I don’t think you need high levels of cultural capital to enjoy an art house film – just the opportunity to watch one.  I first discovered this kind of film as a teenager, when a friend and I learned that the art house cinema near our work place showed films at discounted rates. Rest assured, the films mentioned here are all compelling and powerful and (quite often) visually stunning.

You might also be worried that these films will be too grim. They do confront viewers with the reality of class experience played out on screen, and some find the social and political reality of hardship sometimes too much to bear.  After all, some of us have experienced firsthand what is represented, and the films become a bit too close to home. These films don’t necessary offer an obvious positive view of working-class life at first glance, but this is because the filmmakers want to show the impact of inequality and disadvantage and life how it is. These films aren’t poverty porn, though. They are nuanced representations of working-class life (including the ugly bits sometimes). They also depict resilience, community, and humor — one of the films is a comedy! I find them empowering and powerful.

Samson and Delilah (2009): Warwick Thornton’s visually stunning and ultra-cinematic film about two Aboriginal teenagers who leave their remote community and head to town. This film shows the legacies of devastating colonizing practices and how a class system imposed on Aboriginal people has led to continuing inequality.

Toomelah (2011): Ivan Sen’s low-budget story about a young Aboriginal boy in country New South Wales. It’s a no-holds barred, hand-held camera portrayal of the boy’s community but the film doesn’t just depict poverty. The sense of community is very strong in this film.

Thornton and Sen are part of a wave of Indigenous filmmakers making their mark on the Australian film industry and gaining attention worldwide. For more on their work and on Indigenous film in Australia in general, have a look at Australian Screen Online.

Head On (1998): Sexuality, ethnicity, and class are explored in Ana Kokkinos’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel Loaded. The protagonist, Ari is a young gay working-class man from a Greek background. He has to negotiate his position within these communities, and he does so with the help of plenty of sex and drugs!

Blessed (2009): Also directed by Ana Kokkinos, this film is desperately sad but is ultimately about the power of love and family and the resilience of working-class women. Be warned, though: the ending is absolutely devastating.

Little Fish (2005): Rowan Woods’s film about a recovering heroin addict attempting to find her feet in the working-class suburb of Cabramatta in Sydney. Cate Blanchett is fantastic in this drama – her character faces continual judgement from those familiar with her past.

Kenny (2006): A very funny and affectionate mockumentary from Clayton Jacobson starring Kenny the plumber. Kenny takes on the really dirty jobs (he’s responsible for maintaining portable toilets at events), and his observations of the people (mainly middle class) who use his facilities are wry and insightful.

The Boys (1998): Another intense drama from Rowan Woods exploring the potential negative and sometimes violent side to working-class masculinity. This film is an adaptation of a stage play and is a close-in dialogue driven drama. It’s extremely menacing and atmospheric.

West (2007): Daniel Krige’s tale of two unemployed cousins trying to make their way in the disadvantaged suburbs of western Sydney. This film demonstrates the limited choices for those who grow up in disadvantage. A bit grim this one.

Somersault (2004): A story from Cate Shortland about a teenage girl who runs away from home and finds herself out of her depth in a small country town. This is a beautifully shot and slow paced film.

There are many more fantastic Australian films and a whole history of working-class representation in Australian film (from the very beginning of the industry – you could start with The Sentimental Bloke from 1919). Hopefully this list of films will give you somewhere to start, and you may well develop an appreciation of Australian film, which tends to be a bit neglected even at home.

Sarah Attfield

Sarah Attfield is a working-class academic currently teaching in the communications program at the University of Technology, Sydney.

 

Mad Men, Capitalism, and the Schizophrenia of Social Class

For most of the first five seasons of Mad Men, Don Draper, the super cool, super successful Madison Avenue creative director, has been something of a superhero, with the seemingly infinite ability to reinvent himself: in life, business and marriage. But in season six, which ended last month, Don Draper has been closer to the edge, as his tragic childhood has come back to haunt him, and, perhaps, to destroy him. He was born as Dick Whitman to a prostitute who died in childbirth. When Dick was ten, his father was killed by a horse that kicked him in the head. Dick was ultimately raised by his stepmother and an assortment of whores, hobos, and lowlifes.

Dick Whitman, while serving in Korea, swapped dog tags, and hence identity, with a dead soldier named Donald Draper, and started his life anew. In this act, he became the ultimate American, wiping the (tragic) slate clean and then moving up from used car salesman to fur salesman to copy writer to copy chief to adman god. And now he is unhappy, a double self, pathologically unfaithful to each of his wives, and, by the end of this season, unfaithful to his advertising partners as well. In one of the final scenes he loses the Hershey account when he tells a group of Hershey executives that as a child he was rewarded with a Hershey bar by a prostitute in return for pilfering money out of the pockets of the men who came to the brothel. “It was the only sweet thing in my life.”

As an advertising historian I’ve always been bothered by the Don Draper rags-to-riches plotline. The vast majority of admen of Draper’s generation were not only wealthy WASPS like Roger Sterling and Pete Campbell, they were the sons of Episcopalian ministers. Jews, Italians, and other ethnic, working-class interlopers were successful in Hollywood and elsewhere in the culture industry. But the doxology of the advertising industry at mid-century was Protestantism, whiteness, and privilege.

Matthew Weiner has been a fanatic for verisimilitude when it comes to Mad Men, explaining in interviews how carefully he places period appropriate political events, songs, toys, and fashion in the historical timeline of the show. But no one, to my knowledge, has questioned whether or not someone with Dick Whitman’s impoverished and abusive upbringing could “pass” among the most elite members of American society and, eventually, become their conquering hero.
On the other hand it is always unsatisfying, and possibly a bit silly, to criticize a work of historical fiction for being inaccurate. Mad Men is much more about “us” than it is about “them.” So what can we learn by reading Mad Men as a parable about the present, rather than the past?

One African American critic, Steven Boone, has argued that Mad Men is Roots for white people. This is pretty astute. Mad Men has the highest percentage of viewers who make over $100,000 per year of any show on cable television—about 50% when the show debuted in 2007. Maybe we are looking for a mythology to justify our privilege and reassure ourselves that we have earned our elite status? Another interpretation reinforces this view. Another critic, Ron Ben Tovim, reads Mad Men as a new American classic in the tradition of Melville’s Moby Dick. According to this reading Dick Whitman is one part Moby Dick and one part Walt Whitman—an American superhero who creates himself out of the existential black hole of the Korean War. Of course, real life WWII and Korean War veterans had considerable help in moving up, from the GI bill, federal housing assistance, and veteran health benefits.

I would like to think that Don Draper’s morbid past as Dick Whitman appeals to viewers because it acknowledges that class inequality exists. Things are bleaker now in the US than ever before. While a real life Dick Whitman would have had about a 10% chance of making it into the super elite, today a child born in similar circumstances would have only a 5% chance of becoming Don Draper.  Perhaps we can read Mad Men as a commentary on today’s class inequality, which produces the schizophrenia of modern day capitalism. It seems clear that Don’s split personality is becoming less functional, and that he is teetering on the edge of a psychotic break.

But in the end, does Mad Men have a progressive message? Quite the contrary: the message of the show is that consumerism is the key to a better life, and audiences seem to respond. After AMC started airing Lincoln commercials during Mad Men, Ford sold “more Lincoln MKZ sedans in April than in the first three months of the year combined.” Over the last eighteen months, Banana Republic has been successfully marketing a line of Mad Men inspired clothing to its customers. Of course, only the show’s upscale demographic can afford the Banana Republic Mad Men Collection Tipped Shift Dress, now selling for $140.00 on Ebay—not to mention a brand new Lincoln MKZ.

Ironically, perhaps, most of us in the $100,000+ demographic of the show have not achieved the heights, penthouse included, of Mad Men’s most successful characters. At the end of the day most of us wish we could duck into a phone booth and come out wearing the grey flannel suits, shape wear, and sexy confidence of an era that exists only in the beautiful, twisted, and tragic imagination of Matthew Weiner and his fellow Mad Men creators. The world of Mad Men is ultimately a fiction—a fiction so compelling that we will have to wait one final season to learn the fate of the whorehouse foundling, Dick Whitman/Don Draper, and to find out what knit print is going to be all the rage at Banana Republic.

Kathy M. Newman

The Incredibly Shrinking Working Class? The View from the “Professional” Bubble

In a semi-sympathetic article about unions organizing professional workers, a Chicago Tribune/Los Angeles Times reporter last month provided the following, colossally wrong, picture of American workers: “Professionals account for 62 percent of the U.S. workforce, up from 15 percent in 1977.”

It’s true that “professional and related occupations” have grown a lot in the past 35 years when they were, as reported, about 15% of the workforce.  But today they are about 22% of the entire workforce (including part-time workers) and 24% of full-time workers – not 62% or anywhere close to that!

If nearly 2/3rds of all U.S. jobs were “professional” – with its connotations of well-paid autonomy at work, requiring high levels of education — the median annual salary of American workers would be in the $50,000 range instead of the $30,000 range.  And that would mean that income inequality would be dramatically reduced – from the top 10% getting half of all adjusted gross income now to them getting maybe only a quarter.  It would also be likely that 2/3rds of the adult population would have bachelor’s degrees vs. less than 1/3rd now, and it would mean that many more entry-level jobs would require that degree.  Now only 20% of jobs require a bachelor’s and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, that isn’t going to change much in the next decade.

In other words, this report turns the American job structure upside down.  Michael Zweig’s most recent analysis of occupations, for example, finds that The Working Class Majority is now 63%, slightly larger than a decade ago.

This is a huge reporting error, and it’s clear in the context that it was not a typo.  I emailed the reporter, calling attention to the error, but haven’t heard back, and there has been no printed correction.   Factual misreporting like this occurs all the time in American newspapers, especially at second-tier outfits like the Tribune. Economist Dean Baker provides a delightfully smart-ass (and clear) daily blog, Beat the Press, that calls attention to errors of fact and reasoning in the top tier of newspapers – and he is never at a loss for material.  But there is often a pattern to these errors, one that reflects the limited worldview and social experience of both reporters and the “upscale” audiences advertisers encourage them to address.

Though I have rarely seen numerical misreporting of this sort, most mainstream and elite discussion of “the knowledge economy,” its “knowledge workers,” and “the creative class” clearly assumes this kind of disproportionate misunderstanding of the jobs most Americans actually do.  Likewise, President Obama’s repetitive (and uncontested) insistence on the need for everybody to go to college so they can do “the jobs of the 21st Century” must be based on a similar misunderstanding.  (For more detail on this see previous Working-Class Perspectives blogs by Sherry Linkon and me.)

The conspiracy-minded could make a good argument, I think, that our elite opinion-makers and leading politicians are deliberately lying to us in order to flood the labor market with college-educated workers who can then be paid less and bossed around more because their supply is so much greater than the demand for them.   But the scope and scale of such a conspiracy makes this hypothesis highly unlikely.     My guess is that the spectacular magnitude of this particular reporting error reflects the increasingly extreme class segregation of American life – not only in residential life, as dramatically documented in Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort, but in social interaction and experience.  Besides, it is almost comforting to think that our ruling class and its elite professional middle-class opinion-makers actually know the truth and are hiding it from us — rather than to realize that the captains and crew of the ship of state are navigating with such a faulty map of the actually existing American people and the work we do.

How could they, the “data-driven” best and brightest, be so woefully misguided?  Here’s my guess:

Imagine the children of two professional workers – a doctor and lawyer, for example, or a university professor and an accountant – who go to one of the many excellent public schools in the dozens of affluent (not rich-richy, just comfortably “middle class”) suburbs around most American cities.  Their highly dedicated parents schedule them for a wide variety of activities that cultivate social and cultural skills while insisting on their getting good grades in school.  These children, both the” over-achievers” and the just-plain-achievers, then go on to one of the better colleges and universities, which are populated for the most part by the offspring of professional workers from affluent suburbs like theirs.   Assuming they have done well in college, upon graduation these young people get entry-level professional jobs from which they launch careers that, like their parents, are both high stress and high reward.   After some years enjoying life in the city, they marry, have children and move to a suburb with an excellent public school.

This may be a bit of a caricature, but it is by no means uncommon.  Even adding some complexity, it will be very difficult for such people, particularly the high-achievers among them, to understand that America is mostly populated with people who are very unlike them.  Yes, there may have been working-class and even poor kids in their high school or at college, but they are a relatively small minority.  Likewise, at work they are aware of clerical workers and maybe even the janitorial staff as they leave work in the evening, but that’s not where their focus is as they go about their daily work routine.   At restaurants and in other leisure activities, they interact with non-professional workers, but they hardly notice the ones who are not directly serving them.   Everything in their lives fosters the illusion that their lives are “typical” or “normal” and that poorly paid nonprofessional workers who get bossed around are a small and declining group.

These professionals may be conservative Republicans or progressive Democrats.  They may be arrogant, self-absorbed, status-anxious climbers or large-spirited, generous and even nurturing leaders and mentors who do volunteer work among “the less fortunate.”  But what is there in their lives – in their direct observation and experience – that would challenge the idea that we are a “knowledge economy” full of well-educated knowledge workers?   And if they were a reporter, a copy editor, or a well-educated reader of the daily press, what would make them slap their heads in disbelief at the idea that a substantial majority of American workers are “professionals” like them?   Not much – and especially when our elite institutions of cultural production and reproduction (media, universities, politicians and their staffs) are peopled by folks with similar life trajectories who naturally recycle and confirm these professional notions of their own disproportionality.

Zweig’s The Working Class Majority is subtitled America’s Best Kept Secret, and despite the substantial attention the book received more than a decade ago, its recent new edition justifiably retained that subtitle.   But it and all the other work of Working-Class Studies are up against formidable cultural odds.  If the captains and crew of our ship of state are navigating with a terribly faulty map of who we are and what we do, only a large-scale and sustained mutiny can break through the professional bubble.  Hopefully, the newly protesting Walmart retail and warehouse workers and the spreading intermittent strikes of fast-food workers may be the beginnings of such a mutiny.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies