In my last post, I noted that at least some working-class young adults that my wife and I have interviewed did not want to work in factories—even when those jobs were available and relatively well-paying, and even when the interviewee struggled to find steady, well-paying work. What’s going on here?
Larry Mead advances one interpretation in his essay in Does Character Matter? He points to the qualitative research of people like Kathryn Edin and Elijah Anderson and says, “Their respondents see marriage and work largely as moral issues. They assume jobs are available. They know that they can and should work. If they do not, they do not blame the society. Rather, they blame themselves or others for moral shortcomings.” Mead says that “Character mostly means a capacity to commit to difficult tasks,” and it is that capacity to commit—not opportunity—that has declined. “The nonworking poor don’t talk like trade unionists,” he says.
To Mead’s point, we heard plenty of morals talk about work in our interviews. When I asked Dan—a stagehand who struggled to find full-time hours during the winter—about his friends’ jobs, he was to the point.
I don’t believe I have any friends that are actually unemployed. All my friends work. Because somebody who doesn’t work in my mind is just lazy. Because I mean, as hard as it is to find a job, there is work out there. There is people hiring. But like I said, you gotta get your foot in the door. You can always get a job in the restaurant, but most people don’t wanna lower themselves to getting a restaurant job. But like I said, a paycheck is better than no paycheck if you suck it up. Once you’ve got that money, you can buy yourself a suit and go out and get another job, or put yourself through vocational school.
But the “people are lazy” story wasn’t the only one we heard. Some people noted the fragility of factory work in the last several decades. Others pointed out that society says that to be successful, you should get a four-year college degree. So, in this interpretation, it’s not so much laziness on the part of working-class young adults that is the culprit, as it is noting the signs of the times and doing what society tells them they should do. In this view, avoiding factory work is simply being smart.
In the view of some, avoiding factory work is simply being smart.
For instance, Ricky told me that he’d be fine with a factory job, “even though they’re bad about laying off people.”
Carly was one of those people. For about eight years, she and her cohabiting boyfriend had great jobs at a factory, and they bought a house in the process. But six months after the birth of their child, Carly was laid off, and the life they were building together crumbled. Her boyfriend also got laid off eventually, and she filed for bankruptcy. Her next fiancé also worked at a factory, but they were going through layoffs and Carly was afraid that her fiancé would lose his position. But he was able to keep the job—as she said, they “dodged a bullet.” We heard other stories like this. In that light, can you really blame people for judging that factory work is just too unstable?
Then there is the message that young people hear from their elders. Mark told me about an older friend of his, who “right out of high school, he was offered a job at AK Steel, Ford, somewhere else. I mean, he worked at Ford at thirty years, retired. No degree, no nothing.”
When I asked if the same thing would have been available to Mark straight out of high school (he graduated in the early 2000s), here is what he said:
No.... I remember going to [high school] and they have the career center. And they’ll be like, “All the people at the career center are idiots. You’re dumb if you go to the career center. All those guys were dumb to go to the career center. They got a high school diploma and a certification at the same time.” Yeah, that’s really dumb of them, now wasn’t it?
In retrospect, Mark wishes that he had gone to the career center for anything from welding to automotive. That way, he’d have been on track to do the kind of skilled work that (at least in his mind) he’d have a better shot at getting than the opportunities currently available to him. Instead, Mark did what he heard society telling him to do: go to a four-year college. But after he could no longer afford it and his grades were suffering, he dropped out—and a decade later, he was stuck with a minor criminal record and struggling to find decent work.
In other words, well-paying jobs—including manufacturing jobs—may have been available to Mark, but because he spent a decade trying to do what he thought was the right thing to do (get back to college), he was in a lot of debt and in a bad position to seize those opportunities.
Finally, another way to understand some working-class young people’s avoidance of factory work would be to examine both character and structures, as Mark did during the course of his interview. He mentioned all “that’s been raked away from [the middle class] for the last twenty years,” and how “the white man’s already strugglin’ more than anybody to find work” (not an accurate claim, judging by statistics on unemployment). He sounded the note of a person who is part of a marginalized class. Most people didn’t put it that strongly, but many did seem to feel like victims of a struggling economy. But when I asked Mark to identify the biggest thing that kept him from feeling like an adult, he paused for a while, and said, “Life choices, just living above my means. Spending more than you make, managing money: they’re two of my biggest issues right there.”
Moreover, when I asked him why he thought so many twenty-somethings were finding it more difficult to feel like adults, he said, “Just everybody is so lax with the video game age and everything. Couch potatoes….It has to do a lot about society…. Now, people’s morals aren’t the way they used to be at all. So, you know, everybody’s moral[ly] lackadaisical … almost careless.” In Mark’s mind, then, young people’s failure to find steady work was partly their own fault and partly the fault of a poor economy.
‘I hated that assembly line... You don’t feel human. The machine’s running you, you’re not running it.’
Of course, complaints about factory work—some of which I quoted in my last post—are hardly new. You see them in research with older generations of working-class people, as well. When Lillian Rubin asked working-class men in the 1970s how they felt about their work, she found that in their early work life they tended to move from job to job, searching for “some kind of work in which they can find meaning, purpose, and dignity.” As one man said about his work in a factory, “God, I hated that assembly line. I hated it….you don’t feel human. The machine’s running you, you’re not running it.”
Alex, a twenty-something factory worker I interviewed, told me that he got into factory work despite his grandfather’s admonitions to avoid it. His grandfather was not lazy: he got up at 4:00 every morning and worked in a factory for about thirty years. And he urged his grandson to find a different career.
Alex also told me the story of a 62-year-old coworker of his who had worked at the factory for more than twenty-five years, and only had to work six months longer until he could receive Social Security benefits. But he jeopardized all that by suddenly quitting one day. As Alex recounted, the man turned off his machines at the 9:30 break and turned in his paperwork to his supervisor with the announcement, “I quit.” He had had a heart attack recently, he explained, which got him thinking about the kind of life he wanted to live. “I’ve been thinking and reading the Bible more and thinking about death—and I don’t want to die in this place,” he said. When the supervisor—whom Alex described as “hard-ass”—“started getting shitty,” the old man let everything rip. He took off his gloves, threw them on the ground, and “started flippin’ out on him,” yelling his goodbye to the manager, “I’m tired of you treatin’ us like crap!”
That weary, aging man’s complaint says a lot, I think. The working-class person who says that he doesn’t want to work in factories because the work is uninspiring and the stability uncertain is not just being lazy or cautious, he is listening to the experience of older men like Alex’s coworker. He is taking seriously the voices of alienation—the advice of people who feel like factory work asks them to become a drone. Who experience the work as offensive to their dignity (“It’s not fulfilling to me”). Who do not see their work as meaningful, or an important way of helping others (“Doing the same thing, repetitive, all the time. Gets kind of old”). Who suspect that the factory could replace them with a faster machine or someone else (“they’re bad about laying off people”).
You could say those are excuses for laziness. However, I’d want to work in a factory myself for a few months before leveling that broad charge. I’d also want to examine the character implications of the “short termism” in corporate behavior that Bill Galston and Elaine Kamarck describe in a new paper. They note that, if you exclude the recession years of 2001 and 2008, stock buybacks and dividends at 454 large companies “have averaged 85 percent of net earnings for all corporations since 1998.” “The problem,” they point out, “is that these kinds of heavy rewards to investors leave only 14 percent for internal investment and compensation increases for workers.” What do those decisions reveal about the character of those of us responsible for those decisions? What does it say about the character of our economy? Let’s talk about character and work—but let’s have a collective examination of conscience, rather than singling out the working class.
Let’s talk about character and work—but not only among the working class.
A final point: it’s not just alienation from work that many working-class young people experience, but from social life in general. The person who quits factory work after a few days is many times the same person who is angry at his father or mother for leaving the family, or stinging from the betrayal of a boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse, or frustrated by the feeling that his supervisor is “using” him. “Social life goes on as though beyond them—not so much in opposition to them but rather ‘at their expense,’” as the future John Paul II put it in the essay “The Person: Subject and Community,” which includes a profound meditation on alienation as the antithesis of participation. It’s harder to trust that your supervisor or company has your best interests at heart when you have reason to distrust the people closest to you in life. It’s harder to thrive at work when your core relationships are messy.
At the same time, young people experience their frustration and alienation as a moral drama, with the conviction that things could be different at work if they just applied themselves with a little more stick-to-itiveness. I’d add (as Larry Mead has pointed out) that once a person participates in work, he also has the right to say something about how to improve the workplace, as well as the economic structures that his workplace is situated within. And whenever the working class does have something to say about work, we should listen with reverence. Their participation can combat the new alienation.