Coal Miners Are 0.019% Of All Workers
July 14, 2017 9:15 AM   Subscribe

"The working class that actually exists bears little resemblance to the fantasies of the affluent, highly educated hacks who are paid to vomit their thoughts into newspaper columns. The new American working class is far more likely to be bussing tables at Applebee’s than wolfing down reheated appetizers until their Dockers rip. But many columnists put outsize focus on the most traditionally masculine blue-collar professions, many of which make up a negligible percentage of the total workforce." Stop Patronizing The Working Class, Alex Nichols for eThe Outline.
posted by The Whelk (63 comments total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
 
Focusing on the "working class" - and a very specific, gendered, racialized set - allows the petit bourgeoise to ignore themselves.

Upon writing that out I realize the deliberate process functions for the much vaunted small-business-owner to advance both ethnonationalist and upward-redistributive policies under the guise of doing neither.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:28 AM on July 14 [17 favorites]


I was gonna make an FPP about this, because I live near this area and it's a fair treatment of the issues, complex as they are.

But, look. I grew up in Northern Minnesota, a child of the extraction economy, and I every time the price of steel dropped, I got to eat government cheese and wear hand-me-down hockey gear. Duluth has managed to (again) re-invent itself to better absorb the shocks - relying primarily on tourism - but it was a multi-decade struggle to do that over often virulent opposition by residents.

And they have a point. What used to be a solid middle class job is replaced by one selling t-shirts and apple pies to tourists. At the same time, a town like Moab - which was a tiny nowhereville in the Uranium days has become a tourist mecca - and a the boom has provided solid middle class jobs for a bunch of small business owners. But, talk to anyone in a town near there and they'll say "Thank god for Moab", because crowds and all that.

All of this elides an important point - small town America is dying. It's harder and harder to make a basic living, let alone a good living, in these areas. The cost of living is outpacing the pay in all sectors. People are trapped by falling property values, family commitments, or tradition as the towns get hollowed out and filled by second/third/fourth mansions for the Rich/Famous. It's hard not to have some resentment for that.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:30 AM on July 14 [22 favorites]


The whole white-collar/blue-collar dichotomy is bunk, if you ask me. What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out, or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?

If you earn your bread with what you do rather than what you own, you are working class. End of story.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:30 AM on July 14 [84 favorites]


Obviously David Brooks is perennially embarrassing, but it's interesting to think about how and why these signs became representative of the entire working class and from there to the entirety of Middle America. I think what's going on is that these guys have absolutely no friends who from any other background (or in Rod Dreher's case, a lifetime of horrific familial psychodrama and no ability to connect with other humans on any level), so they gravitate toward the representatives of the population that remind them most of themselves, and what we see represented in their columns is the culture of well-off middle-aged white dudes because those are, by and large, the same demographics as our newspaper columnists. I suspect that as long as hiring practices at our national newspapers put a premium on Ivy League degrees and white upper-middle-class ideology, it will continue to be the case.
posted by Copronymus at 9:40 AM on July 14 [20 favorites]


I think the main thing is that the journalistic class can't seem to get over the fact that the comfortable white middle-class isn't all upwardly aspirational...

it’s that no one wants to go out to lunch with any of these pompous hacks.

Also this - it's odd how treating a lower-income person to a nice lunch has become this weird op-ed trope.

But:

Anyone with roots in the suburbs can testify that many a cul-de-sac is now lined with beefed-up Rams and Silverados used solely to commute to air-conditioned office jobs.

Sarah Palin’s hometown of Wasilla, Alaska is a suburb of Anchorage; her father was a science teacher and she enrolled in a four-year college immediately after high school. Ted Nugent was raised in the Chicago suburbs; Kid Rock the Detroit suburbs, where he grew up in a home that was recently put on the market for $1.3 million.

When people talk about Brooklyn hipsters opening artisanal bacon bars it's accepted that they're seeking "authenticity" or something like that. But pickup trucks and rock music and all of that is the same for a segment of middle-class America - it's not slumming, it's authenticity. These people are economically successful but they don't have any bourgeois aspirations - something that op-ed columnists can't seem to wrap their heads around.

Finally:

soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette

jesus, look, Italian food is great and all but the notion that cured processed pork is superior because it's called soppressata vs salami is just silly.
posted by GuyZero at 9:50 AM on July 14 [24 favorites]


talk to anyone in a town near there and they'll say "Thank god for Moab"

I don't know about that - there's plenty of resentment in Moab, and especially surrounding towns, from folks not involved in tourism. A lot of local resistance to the creation of another national monument, too.
posted by gottabefunky at 9:54 AM on July 14


The whole white-collar/blue-collar dichotomy is bunk, if you ask me. What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out, or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?

Well, imagine for a moment a world in which a high school graduate earns a middle class salary working at a steel mill. Are they going to vote for student loan interest tax deductions? Or increase funding for public flagship universities? As a middle class earner, they're affected by such tax policies as much as the white collar middle class, with no direct benefit.

Sure, in either case you can propose an 'eat the 1 percent' policy that would benefit blue/white collar labor now, but many of them anticipate actually crossing the millionaire threshold by retirement. Retiremees by your own very definition, are not 'working class.'
posted by pwnguin at 9:59 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


For serious. Speaking for the left side of this, this election really exposed the bad conscience of a lot of well-off white liberals; they're very vulnerable to conservative-pushed myths about the hardscrabble "working class" or "Trump voter," about whom they know next to nothing and their relationship to which they have clearly never given careful thought. Even the very basic fact that the sub-$30K and sub-$50K household income demographics went for Hillary has been impossible to keep in people's minds. Just try something advanced like asking them to compare the employment numbers in personal care provision or retail and coal-mining, and they end up babbling about factory workers at Applebee's five minutes later.

These people are economically successful but they don't have any bourgeois aspirations - something that op-ed columnists can't seem to wrap their heads around.

There is really nothing more bourgeois than the rhetoric "these people" adopt, actually. Buying a pickup truck to drive to work on the highway to signal to your neighbors that you are a respectable, hard-working, properly Christian, properly manly fellow...that is the heart of petty-bourgeoisdom.

There is a indeed a pattern here, but it isn’t that working-class Americans universally break out in hives when confronted with food other than hamburgers and mac ‘n’ cheese — it’s that no one wants to go out to lunch with any of these pompous hacks.

You said a mouthful, brother.
posted by praemunire at 10:08 AM on July 14 [31 favorites]


or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?

It makes a difference. There are people with physical challenges, and there are also people who aren't great at reading. They should not be shamed for that.
posted by Melismata at 10:11 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


This is probably terrible, but I immediately assumed that David Brooks's working-class "friend" was someone he paid to clean his house or do some other kind of domestic labor. And if she looked horrified and asked to go to a different restaurant, it was because she was trying to figure out the quickest way to eat lunch and get the hell away without offending her boss.

But yeah, this is perennially annoying to me. And there ought to be some sort of law that you can't write anything about the hardscrabble lives of working-class Americans unless you have more than incidental contact with such people on a regular, day-to-day basis.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:14 AM on July 14 [12 favorites]


The whole white-collar/blue-collar dichotomy is bunk, if you ask me. What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out, or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?

Because being able to sit at a desk all day when you're 70 doesn't mean that you can continue to work as a firefighter. Because if you're 45, have a high school diploma and just lost your job in a factory because you can't stay on your feet for 9 hours at a time, it's hard to get disability payments when obviously you're still capable of sitting at a desk, regardless of whether anyone in the world is interested in paying you to do so. Because going back to work in an office with a broken leg sucks, but try going back to work as a cleaner or shelf-stocker like that.
posted by the agents of KAOS at 10:25 AM on July 14 [44 favorites]


What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out, or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?
When you're young, it probably doesn't make a ton of difference. But a lot of blue-collar work is pretty hard on people's bodies, and that becomes an issue as people age. It maybe wasn't such a big deal when a lot of blue-collar workers had pensions that allowed them to retire at a reasonable age, but it's hard to do that kind of work when you're 70, and working into old age is becoming the new normal. Being a home health aid who lifts 200-pound people is tough when you're 25, but it's brutal when you're 55 and have been doing it for 30 years.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:25 AM on July 14 [20 favorites]


I'm a little confused by the framing of this article (and I love @Lowenaffchen). Who, exactly, are the people who have been dying at alarming rates from opiate/opioid overdoses? How about the people who make up the enlarging recipient pool of permanent disability benefits?

I agree that Kid Rock and Ted Nugent aren't working class. But it seems disingenuous to me to gloss over the rural/urban cultural divides because some people of that cultural tribe are well-off.

"Coal mining" is a shorthand for rural white men without a college degree, as a subset of all Americans without a college degree. Some non-degree-holders do very well for themselves as business owners, white-collar employees, managers, etc. However the trend has been unequivocally toward worse pay, lower employment, worse health, and lower life expectancy.

Nichols is correct to note the increasing role of service jobs as the core employment base for non-college-educated Americans. But that in itself is a sign of things being extremely disrupted in very recent history. It wasn't all THAT long ago that a white man without a college degree could be the sole breadwinner for a family and own a freestanding house. Now that's practically impossible. This change took place during most of these folks' own lifetimes.

It would be like, I don't know, if dogs went extinct during your lifetime. You'd be like, "How the hell did this happen? What the hell happened to the dogs?" And the neoliberal response has been "Oh well! Things change! It's cats now." Nichols is a leftist, but he's still minimizing the legitimate sense of shock and hopelessness that you can find across a BIG part of the US.

Yes, MANY poor and working-class people are women, many are people of color. But the contrast between the recent past and the crushing current economic reality is powerful. White men sans degree have fallen hardest and fastest, during their own lifetimes.

Answers to this range from, "Cry me a river, now you know what it feels like to struggle down here with the rest of us," to, "Yes, but plenty of suburban white people are still rich, so who cares?"
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:30 AM on July 14 [37 favorites]


Most people live in the suburbs still, and the difference between "urban" and "rural" is which direction you head on your days off.
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:37 AM on July 14 [7 favorites]


Who, exactly, are the people who have been dying at alarming rates from opiate/opioid overdoses? How about the people who make up the enlarging recipient pool of permanent disability benefits?
An excellent question, but not one that the pundits are really answering. If your answer is "people who drive pick-up trucks, listen to country music, and eat at Applebees," then you don't understand what defines the American working class or what is causing their problems.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:37 AM on July 14 [5 favorites]


But white men with wealth and authority have been driving that disenfranchisement, by monetizing things formerly understood as social goods that should be inexpensive or even free: education, health care, medicine. Those same men have also been instrumental in suppressing wage increases and in profiteering from moving from a pension employment model to a 401k/contract employment model. White men might have fallen off the top rung of the ladder, but everyone else wasn't even near the top. It's not like groups of women and people of color took the advantage and fired all the white men. Groups of white men did that.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:37 AM on July 14 [30 favorites]


I'm a little confused by the framing of this article (and I love @Lowenaffchen). Who, exactly, are the people who have been dying at alarming rates from opiate/opioid overdoses? How about the people who make up the enlarging recipient pool of permanent disability benefits?

I feel the very way you object here exposes the problem. I mean, you can't consciously not know that people of color have been dying at "alarming rates" from opiate (or the other drugs du panic-of-the-day) for decades now. Can you? You really can't. But somehow, opiates have become a compelling cultural crisis now that they are framed as affecting white people.

Yes, MANY poor and working-class people are women, many are people of color. But the contrast between the recent past and the crushing current economic reality is powerful. White men sans degree have fallen hardest and fastest, during their own lifetimes.

By some markers, yes. But it is very reasonable to respond to such a statement by asking why it's people who started better off (basically as a result of generational looting) and are now doing relatively worse who deserve all the care and the crisis-response treatment, as opposed to the people who have been, and stayed, worse off all along. Which is how so much of this coverage has been framed.

I mean, you can't actually believe that somehow the white guy who makes less than his dad did and can't buy a house is experiencing a more "powerful economic reality" than the black woman who has lived the Evicted renter lifestyle since childhood, can you? You can't. You can't possibly.

The rhetoric used by the right, and not-too-infrequently professed progressives, implicitly singles out and privileges white economic decline and its social concomitants, as if it's the truly unique, truly shocking phenomenon (and the characteristic experience of economic deprivation in America), and, moreover, one that somehow justifies whites voting for an incompetent, thuggish tinhorn dictator. What all that rhetoric boils down to is: "Well, you took away their ability to feel superior to black folks and/or women, can you blame them?"
posted by praemunire at 10:47 AM on July 14 [68 favorites]


I'd also like to point out that today's biggest wealth-generating sectors are still swarming almost exclusively with white men, for the benefit of white men--like Silicon Valley and basically the entire tech industry. And the culture in those places, held up as admirable for its "disruption" and its bro culture and its profligate money-wasting, is concentrating more and more on its lack of diversity. It's not opening up to the general population and looking for ways to serve the public at large, it's firing everyone who isn't a bro and narrowing the pipeline to exclude non-bros to greater and greater degree.

The fact that some white dudes are surprised to discover that they are not, in fact, members of the club doesn't necessarily mean they suffered a worse tragedy than any other demographic, who never had any reason to believe they were members of the club. It just underlines that nobody is immune from being excluded.
posted by Autumnheart at 10:47 AM on July 14 [20 favorites]


But somehow, opiates have become a compelling cultural crisis now that they are framed as affecting white people.

They're a compelling cultural crisis because fatal overdoses have increased from 4000 per year to over 22,000 per year in under twenty years.
posted by overeducated_alligator at 10:52 AM on July 14 [21 favorites]


I grew up working class in rural Denmark which is obviously different than growing up working class in rural USA or rural UK, but definitely working class. I grew up in a family of factory workers, farm hands, kitchen assistants and cleaners. I also grew up in a family that watched ballet on the TV on Sundays, read books and newspapers, and who loved art and music. My uncle was a welder and a self-taught artist (now retired he teaches art at a local community centre). Sure, all those stereotypical working class traits were there too — alcoholism, never travelled anywhere, preferred BBQ over fine cuisine, whatever — but my family was really damn big on culture (including classical music, that bastion of fine taste).

Anyway, I was bookish and smart, and my teachers helped me apply for scholarships, and I got to university and graduated with a good degree. After graduation I applied for jobs within social mobility and further education, and never got anywhere because I was "not working class enough". I thought back to my entire childhood and teenage years and I laughed.

There is so much snobbery about what's allowed to be "working class" or not.
posted by kariebookish at 10:54 AM on July 14 [19 favorites]


So, for instance, Charles Murray has a terrible quiz that is supposed to determine whether upper-middle-class Americans live in a bubble. It asks about things like whether they smoke, listen to country music, watch popular movies, have friends who are Evangelical Christians, and have friends who are stupid. (I'm not making that last one up.) But a better quiz would ask whether you have a close friend or family member who doesn't have health insurance. Do you have a close friend or family member who has ever lived in their car? in the past five years, have you gone to work sick because you didn't have paid sick leave and either would get fired or would not be able to afford you bills if you took time off? Do your total savings equal less than a month's expenses? Have you ever lost a job because you didn't have adequate transportation to get there? There are a lot of questions that would get at how isolated people were from actual working-class experience, but Charles Murray isn't interested in most of them, because he cares about culture, rather than economics. And being working class is about economics, not what kind of sandwich you like.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 10:55 AM on July 14 [47 favorites]


I mean, Charles Murray cares about genetics, because he's a nightmare in a way that even Brooks and co. aren't. But he definitely doesn't care about economics, because that's not what defines the working class for him.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 11:00 AM on July 14 [3 favorites]


As a middle class earner, they're affected by such tax policies as much as the white collar middle class, with no direct benefit.

The direct benefit for policies that have to do with education could have a direct benefit on their children. Doesn't the "pursuing the American dream" fantasy include that succeeding generations will gain higher education levels than previous, and thus gain higher economic status?

I mean, that's how immigrants have worked in the US for generations. I guess the degradation of the value of education has penetrated fully into the white population, but I look at all the stories I read/hear about children of immigrants who are doing Major Rebellion Against Parents by not going to school to become doctors or lawyers....

The whole myth of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps is becoming too ingrained in White America to allow for having society at large play a part in the development of community members as a whole, and that's going to totally fuck over US society in the next 20-30 years.

Tax policies are about the entire group of people you're living with and how these are benefits that you get for what you pay, not whether or not you can do a balance sheet at the end of the quarter to show a direct return on investment.
posted by hippybear at 11:02 AM on July 14 [4 favorites]


I grew up working class in rural Denmark ... I grew up in a family of factory workers, farm hands, kitchen assistants and cleaners. I also grew up in a family that watched ballet on the TV on Sundays, read books and newspapers, and who loved art and music

This is literally why some Americans hate Europeans. Because all those things are signifiers of not being working class.

There is so much snobbery about what's allowed to be "working class" or not.

Oh yes.
posted by GuyZero at 11:09 AM on July 14 [8 favorites]


poor and working-class
I do wish more people would make a distinction between those two groups. Working class people are people who do blue collar work that generally pays well. I know heavy equipment operators making $150/hr. Blue collar poor people (and that included me for most of my life) are just ordinary poor people.
Well, imagine for a moment a world in which a high school graduate earns a middle class salary working at a steel mill. Are they going to vote for student loan interest tax deductions? Or increase funding for public flagship universities?
Often, yes. My family certainly does. You'll find that there are a lot of blue collar people, working class and poor, who want their kids to not have to sacrifice their body to capitalism, even when they still valourize traditional masculine labour in so many other ways. There are a lot of cultural divisions between the blue collar world of the working class and the poor and everybody else, but it's not steel workers who killed unions and social benefits, it's guys who go to work in suits and ties and sit behind desks. It is people like steel workers who created those things in the first place, though.
being working class is about economics, not what kind of sandwich you like
Yes and no? Like I said above, there's a difference between working class and poor, and class divisions will very often come with cultural divisions. Straddling that line between them is crazy and is significantly harder than it looks. (I'm a poor person* who "passed" for middle class most of my life, even when I was stealing food and wearing rags, because you put a glass of rye in my hand and position me behind a cheese plate I can talk the middle and upper-middle cultural talk. It became something entirely different in the interview room when it came time to get a job, though. It's like they can fucking smell the poor on you. Even after a couple years in an office I still feel socially and culturally at sea most of the time.) Anyway, I agree with GuyZero; while yes, class signifiers are in constant flux, at the working class level authenticity matters a *lot*, and you signal both success and authenticity by parading around in a fancy, tricked-out version of something intensely practical in an explicitly physical sense.

*Edited to say that I was a poor person. I haven't been poor since 2013 but it's still what my internal picture says about me. I still think "I'm a poor person" when it's time to talk about who I am.
posted by Fish Sauce at 11:11 AM on July 14 [23 favorites]


White men might have fallen off the top rung of the ladder, but everyone else wasn't even near the top. It's not like groups of women and people of color took the advantage and fired all the white men. Groups of white men did that.

White men are not a monolithic group. Also, whatever happened to "an injury to one is an injury to all" ?

I get that winning Metafilter's 18th Annual Outrage Olympics entitles you to give zero fucks about who don't live in Manhattan with you. But I can assure you that they care - they note the left's general lack of concern - and they vote like it.

The bottom 1/3 to 1/2 of America is getting hollowed out. It is possible to have empathy for those caught in that while still adhering to principles of equality by lifting everyone up - rather than dragging those who saw some success down.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 11:26 AM on July 14 [14 favorites]


I'm not a ref, but I'm calling a yellow flag on that play anyway. There's no outrage Olympics going on here, and most of us don't live in Manhattan. Get a fucking clue and try again.
posted by tobascodagama at 11:41 AM on July 14 [27 favorites]


People are trapped by falling property values, family commitments, or tradition as the towns get hollowed out and filled by second/third/fourth mansions for the Rich/Famous. It's hard not to have some resentment for that.

Thanks for linking that article about Nucla, Colorado. I'd read about Uravan before but had no idea that Nucla had started the way it did.
posted by asperity at 11:53 AM on July 14


What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out,

"White collar" vs. "blue collar" used to be effectively a shorthand for how much education was required for a particular job, with blue-collar jobs being typically those you could do with a highschool diploma or some sort of trade education, versus professional education at the post-secondary level.

I think the distinction — the relative educational investment that is required for a particular job — is still important, maybe even more important than ever given the increasing cost of education, but the "collar" rhetoric is less-than-useful, and tends to hide the fact that a lot of jobs that used to be attainable with a highschool education have been 'professionalized', with an attendant huge educational cover charge required to even get in the door.

E.g. I know a couple of second (and in one case third) generation machinists in the slowly-dying northeast aerospace industry; guys (and they're still all guys, which is a separate problem) who do more or less the same thing their fathers used to do. It's uncommon in the US, at least in my experience, but that makes it sort of an interesting point for comparison. Their fathers might have started off in a second or third-tier parts supplier directly from highschool; to get hired there today requires either an engineering degree, or years of experience (at other shops which will, of course, only hire you if you have an engineering degree or years of experience...).

It's hard to quantify, but some of this is a natural consequence of the job just getting that much more complex — a modern CNC machine is not your Dad's old Bridgeport — and there's also been a lot of elimination of manual processes that were labor intensive, or offshoring of operations that used to be done in-house and in the US, such that the entry level jobs are gone, but I have a sneaking suspicion that in many fields there's also a substantial amount of 'professionalization' that's really just Baby Boomer ladder-raising. In some jobs (e.g. medicine) the supply cartel aspect is brutal and obvious.

On the other side, there are some "white collar" jobs that can be done — not dominantly, but at least by a suitably-motivated person — without a professional education. I've met a variety of very highly-motivated software people over the years who either didn't bother to attend college or didn't graduate (though it's somewhat less common now than it was in the 90s, at the height of the tech boom, and we know how that ended) and did fine. I'd have a hard time recommending that as a safe life path to a young person, though, and I don't think it would have worked well for me if I'd tried it, but it's certainly possible.

More than once I've thought that software development is probably the closest modern parallel to the machinist jobs that kept the area where I grew up alive. In the 50s (hell, into the 90s in some parts of Appalachia) it wasn't especially hard to learn how to use machine tools, if you were interested; a good suburban highschool probably had a reasonable shop and a person at least partially dedicated to teaching you about them. Not every kid's cup of tea, sure, but if you happened to be interested and have some aptitude, the opportunities were right there. (The inverse is sort of also true; getting time on a modern CNC machine is sort of like getting access to an early mainframe. They cost a phenomenal amount, nobody is just going to allow you to screw around with one. You have to know somebody, and the priesthood guards its temples and its secrets jealously...) Today, the equivalent skilled trade probably involves sitting in front of a computer, which are not in short supply in most (again, assuming a reasonably well-funded, suburban) highschools.

Which I guess is fine, if that's what the economy really needs, but I tend to wonder if a cultural preference for one as "white collar" vs the other as "blue collar" has led to an overinvestment in one vs. an underinvestment in the other.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:00 PM on July 14 [22 favorites]


To paraphrase Allison Kilkenny-- "David Brooks: I Saw a Poor, Once."
posted by Kitteh at 12:19 PM on July 14 [3 favorites]


To me the "American dream" is not having a high school diploma, a GED, or taking an SAT and still getting into a big ten university.

It's called slipping through the cracks with boot straps.
posted by clavdivs at 12:23 PM on July 14 [1 favorite]


Keith Olbermann, the unofficial head of the #Resistance
Hrm.
posted by brennen at 12:40 PM on July 14 [6 favorites]


Who, exactly, are the people who have been dying at alarming rates from opiate/opioid overdoses? How about the people who make up the enlarging recipient pool of permanent disability benefits?

I think part of what he's trying to do is to question the idea that the people who are most directly victims of these crises are really the same people who constitute the right-wing/Trump base. I think there's a point to that but it's not entirely clearcut, probably? There's a case that those who maintain a middle/upper-middle class income and lifestyle running a business, in a trade etc. are more likely to be excited by reactionary messages - or at least to do something about it - than those at the bottom, but that may not be fully separable from what's happening in their communities and the loss of a sense of stability.
posted by atoxyl at 1:05 PM on July 14 [4 favorites]


I have a weird relationship with class, education, and elitism. I grew up as a child of public school teachers who worked in Vocational Education. So I got both the "education is good" indoctrination and the "Blue Collar Pride." My dad built houses in the summers, but he also had a Masters in Education (and was 3 hrs away from an EDS before he stormed out of the university because they were "assholes".) I learned to drive a tractor on the family farm but was informed at age seven that I was going to college, and I had no choice about it. My home town had only two fast food restaurants (DQ and Hardee's) until the late 80s when we got a Little Ceasar's and McD's, but we were 30 minutes from the third biggest city in the state. When we were little, the kids I grew up with never really thought about college, but most of the smart kids were pretty sure they'd end up working at Y-12 building bombs. The ones that were kinda smart, but not inclined to sweat looked forward to teaching school. And the rest had the option of family farms, meat processing plants, and the Yale lock factory.

As I grew up, I struggled with how to define myself and those who weren't like me. I've tried to sort by economic class, but came up short because I know some racist, ignorant, rich assholes who love to pretend they're poor and an equal number of poor, kind, enlightened folks who just want to find a way out. I've tried regionally but discovered that there are racist, evil assholes whose great granddaddies fought for the Blue rather than the Grey, and that didn't make a lick of difference. I tried urban and rural but soon discovered city people who'd never left the county they were born in and farm kids who loved sushi, ballet, and read Vonnegut.

Basically, every line you can draw between people in this country is going to be a false one, except for those who delight in their ignorance and those who strive to remedy it. People who are proud of how little they know will always be the kind of people that I can't handle being around. And those who want to figure out what they don't know and learn it? They're the ones I'll be proud to hang out with regardless of class, job, education, or what ever else.
posted by teleri025 at 1:06 PM on July 14 [27 favorites]


I have a weird relationship with class, education, and elitism. ... I got both the "education is good" indoctrination and the "Blue Collar Pride."

To the extent that this seems weird today, it's because the "build a better future for your children" version of the American Dream has been replaced by a "keep those uppity crabs down in the bucket with you" version.
posted by tobascodagama at 1:19 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


I mean I'm sure a number of us are acquainted with (or, you know, related to) guys who make pretty good money (enough to own trucks, ATVs, watercraft) while holding some kind of white-working-class identity - I was just discussing the origins of this identity with someone the other day.

The think about "working class" is it seems to mean at least three things. You've got the sorta Marxian version, which is specifically defined but very broad. You've got the version that refers to a narrower demographic subset, with an emphasis on economics, but it's pretty loosely defined. And you've got the version which pretty much just means "blue-collar" - which can be interpreted in ways that are fairly clear but often ends up being broad in a way that's confusing in relation to the other definitions.
posted by atoxyl at 1:41 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


It seems to me, honestly, that any definition of "working class" that uses cultural signifiers rather than, well, economic classes are reactionary attempts to defuse the power of the Marxist analysts. The Brooksian definition is the most obvious version of this, but the whole "poor, white coal miner with a Confederate flag" definition transparently exists to undermine any efforts at building solidarity between white and non-white workers. And that's how you get a world where Twitter leftists spend most of their time mocking black anti-racists as "neoliberal elites".
posted by tobascodagama at 1:58 PM on July 14 [13 favorites]


And that's how you get a world where Twitter leftists spend most of their time mocking black anti-racists as "neoliberal elites".

One of those Twitter leftists writes:
The working class that actually exists bears little resemblance to the fantasies of the affluent, highly educated hacks who are paid to vomit their thoughts into newspaper columns. The new American working class is far more likely to be bussing tables at Applebee’s than wolfing down reheated appetizers until their Dockers rip. But many columnists put outsize focus on the most traditionally masculine blue-collar professions, many of which make up a negligible percentage of the total workforce. Fewer than 1 in 10 Americans work in manufacturing, and the coal mines of Kevin D. Williamson’s imagination employ just 0.019 percent of all workers. Service workers make up the largest portion of American non-farm laborers, at 71 percent, and the fastest-growing job markets are in nursing and caretaking, both of which overwhelmingly employ non-white women. When Brooks writes that to be accepted into the upper class, one must “possess the right attitudes about gender norms and intersectionality,” we know what he means. The implication is that the working-class subject is old, white, and male by default, and that the inherently elite concepts of racism and sexism are thrust upon him by the well-off and well-educated. This is a strawman, created so that Brooks can avoid the fracas he would provoke if he openly argued against whatever he means by “gender norms.” Either way, if having a progressive take on gender were really a requirement for entering the elite, the decidedly retrograde Brooks would be on the other side of that gourmet sandwich counter.
Thanks for posting this, Whelk. It's a good article!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 2:06 PM on July 14 [7 favorites]


praemunire: "I mean, you can't consciously not know that people of color have been dying at "alarming rates" from opiate (or the other drugs du panic-of-the-day) for decades now. Can you? You really can't. But somehow, opiates have become a compelling cultural crisis now that they are framed as affecting white people."

I mean, the data seem to suggest that in the particular case of opioids it *is* a public health crisis that disproportionally affects non-Hispanic white people. In 1999 non-Hispanic white, non-Hispanic black, and Hispanic people all died at roughly similar rates from opioids; whereas in 2015, non-Hispanic whites were dying at a rate double that of non-Hispanic blacks.

That's not to question your larger point: no doubt the crisis is receiving particular attention because it is affecting white people disproportionally. But it seems somewhat unfair to say that it is merely a question of framing, when in fact there is a genuine public health crisis affecting these people.
posted by crazy with stars at 2:14 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


But a lot of blue-collar work is pretty hard on people's bodies, and that becomes an issue as people age. It maybe wasn't such a big deal when a lot of blue-collar workers had pensions that allowed them to retire at a reasonable age, but it's hard to do that kind of work when you're 70, and working into old age is becoming the new normal.

This is literally why my grandparents hoped I'd find a white collar career of some kind. My grandfather had to have multiple back surgeries and spent his evenings in constant pain after a life working as a sharecropper picking cotton and later working in timber and heavy equipment repair. The stress took a big toll, too, so he had to have so many stomach surgeries for ulcers and blockages, they had to fashion part of his intestine into a sort of new stomach for him. Different kinds of work come with very different costs, benefits, and trade offs. There's a lot of nuance and detail there that all gets swept up into massive over-generalizations.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:16 PM on July 14 [8 favorites]


One of those Twitter leftists writes

I beg of you, look at a black activist's mentions on Twitter some day. Those are the people I'm talking about.
posted by tobascodagama at 2:19 PM on July 14 [6 favorites]


Nichols is correct to note the increasing role of service jobs as the core employment base for non-college-educated Americans. But that in itself is a sign of things being extremely disrupted in very recent history. It wasn't all THAT long ago that a white man without a college degree could be the sole breadwinner for a family and own a freestanding house. Now that's practically impossible. This change took place during most of these folks' own lifetimes.

The thing is, there's no reason that service jobs can't be reasonably dignified and well-paying jobs. Service and retail jobs are shitty because a) they're low-paid, b) the conditions are shitty and c) people look down on them. That used to be true of factory jobs too. Things can change. And those are interconnected conditions; money brings respectability, respectability makes someone more able to advocate for themselves, and so on.

A lot of people don't want to adapt to the new economy, and they don't want to accept these changes. But they still want to be able to walk into Wawa and have someone standing there waiting to make them a sandwich. You can't have it both ways.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 3:10 PM on July 14 [15 favorites]


there's no reason that service jobs can't be reasonably dignified and well-paying jobs.

There's little barrier to entry and workers are pretty much interchangeable for low-end service jobs. Once you're a commodity you get commodity pricing. I think we should find ways to ensure that the humanity of service workers isn't lost but there is kind of a reason why these jobs are unlikely to be well-paying.
posted by GuyZero at 3:28 PM on July 14 [2 favorites]


All jobs are unlikely to be well-paying as long as employers have the ability to define labor compensation. Employers want to pay minimum wage to people with years of experience and/or college degrees. It's not because of the JOB, and it's definitely not because of the workers, seeing as how productivity has continually risen even as wages have stagnated or fallen. It's because companies want to keep their profits. It's why we had unions. It's also why corporations have worked hard for the last few decades to successfully make unions sound like a terrible idea. Voila, now everyone's working two jobs, or doing the work of more than one person, for less than they made 25 years ago, while bearing far more of the costs of their education, training and retirement.
posted by Autumnheart at 4:10 PM on July 14 [17 favorites]


Yeah, if you want most jobs to be decently compensated, you need to create laws that make that happen: laws that regulate pay, and laws that make it possible for workers to unionize and engage in effective collective bargaining. This is something that the US could do if we chose to.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:13 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


There's little barrier to entry and workers are pretty much interchangeable

That used to be true for factory jobs, too, as late as the '70s. But they still managed to get worker protections in there.

And actually you'd be surprised - I thought it would be easy to get a job waiting tables, but if you've never worked food service before it takes about a week of training to get you up to speed, and few places are going to take on that expense if they can avoid it. That's true for any food service job, even Mcdonald's. There's no such thing as unskilled labor - only skills that aren't valued.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 5:08 PM on July 14 [16 favorites]


Nichols is correct to note the increasing role of service jobs as the core employment base for non-college-educated Americans. But that in itself is a sign of things being extremely disrupted in very recent history. It wasn't all THAT long ago that a white man without a college degree could be the sole breadwinner for a family and own a freestanding house.

Part of the problem with this, too, is that the Longstanding American Narrative has placed primacy on just how hardworking and great those white men were, and not the massive structural inequalities that slotted those jobs and houses specifically for them. The narrative now, still, switches to "how sad it is that white men work so hard and can't have that stuff they used to have", rather than admitting that maybe white men never objectively "deserved" that stuff over single mothers and POC.

One of the biggest eye openers to me was realizing that the unstated assumption behind a refrain I've often heard that "insert Othered group here" are taking our jobs" is that people took it for granted that those jobs inherently belonged to them. Because the American Narrative told them so.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:48 PM on July 14 [14 favorites]


I've worked in newspapers all of my adult life, meaning decades, and I want to push back against this myth about the Ivies.

Yes, a few of the really large papers are inclined to hire from that demographic, but it's been my experience that the vast majority of newsroom people come out a variety of economic and geographic backgrounds. I've worked at newspapers in four states, with circulations ranging from mid-30,000s to more than 900,000. Before the decline started taking hold, I knew editors at smaller papers around the country, who had to quietly take second jobs so they could indulge their journalism habit (and by quietly I mean many are restricted because they need to avoid any hint of a conflict of interest). One copy editor I knew would finish his late shift in the newsroom and then drive around the back to the loading dock to fill his truck with bundles of newspapers that he then delivered on his way home.

Journalists and their business side people too often align with the upper-middle class because that's what they aspire to, that's who has the power and thus heavily influences what is considered news.

Newspapers gave up having a labor beat in the 1980s, if they ever had one; in the late 1980s and through the 1990s, they fell all over themselves raving about the great business minds on Wall Street and Silicon Valley, instead of reporting on the lives of ordinary people. Newspapers wrote about the "brave" decisionmakers who managed their companies so well through "rightsizing."

Yes, in some cases, as papers stopped paying interns, meaning only the upper class kids who could afford to work for nothing, access to jobs to the less wealthy was shut off. But it's certainly not true everywhere. I also think that sometimes reporters betray their blue-collar backgrounds to hobnob with the upper class.

In my opinion, the loss of journalism jobs is another blow to the middle class. People like me, from an blue-collar upbringing, can't climb up the ladder a little bit because the jobs that would have led to that climb have disappeared.
posted by etaoin at 8:07 PM on July 14 [12 favorites]


Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The: "The whole white-collar/blue-collar dichotomy is bunk, if you ask me. What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out, or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?"

Statistically blue collar work is a lot more dangerous. Few people have crushed or broken a body part manning a keyboard. Most worker deaths (here in BC anyways) happen on construction sites (and it ain't the engineers in the trailer dying; usually). A distinction that acknowledges that is important.
posted by Mitheral at 8:39 PM on July 14 [5 favorites]


these types of discussions never lead to anywhere productive because 1/3 of the people commenting are mostly talking about wealth and class, 1/3 about culture, and 1/3 about race. but everyone thinks they're talking about the same thing, so they talk past each other.

when it comes to wealth, yes, inequality is increasing rapidly and there is a real "hollowing out" phenomenon based on technological change and foreign competition. the solution is a more robust safety net, higher min wage, and single payer healthcare, paid for by a higher tax on ultra high earners and corporations.

on culture, the divide is exaggerated. pop cultural signifiers are ubiquitous; we in the US have a lot more in common than not in this regard. yeah, we rabbithole into separate cultural bunkers, but this isn't going to lead to the downfall of society.

on race, .... oof. this one troubles me. the country will not come to terms with its past.
posted by wibari at 10:46 PM on July 14 [6 favorites]


I mean, the data seem to suggest that in the particular case of opioids it *is* a public health crisis that disproportionally affects non-Hispanic white people.

That's true now, but as mentioned in this older document,
Deaths in the United States classified as
unintentional poisoning by drugs and medicaments fell
from 14.7 per million population in 1975 to 8.8 in 1978,
a 40 per cent decrease....Seventy-three per cent of this
drop was attributable to a reduction in deaths coded to
opiates and intravenous narcotism. The highest mortality rates
and the greatest variation in mortality during 1970-78
occurred in 20-29 year old non-White males. Racial
and sex differences in opiate poisoning mortality,
notable early in the decade, were greatly reduced by
1978 due to a relatively larger decline in mortality of
males and non-Whites.
So what kind of sticks in my craw, at least, is not that people are finally getting some of the treatment they should've gotten all along, but that all during the 1960s through the 1990s, the response of the United States of America to opioids was to lock up the sufferers and make it incredibly difficult for them to obtain proper treatment. Because as a matter of national policy lesser human beings like blacks and latinos weren't worth protecting or spending taxpayer money on and if we all died from overdoses, well, how is that even a problem? And to this day the drug epidemic continues to be treated as a law enforcement issue in minority communities even as it's deemed a tragedy for a class of people characterized as working, hard-working Americans.
posted by xigxag at 11:06 PM on July 14 [6 favorites]


What difference does it make whether your job takes place indoors or out, or whether your labor is primarily mental or physical?"

The difference, as mentioned above, is that the body breaks down. Physical labor grinds at the joints. Tendons seize. Cuts and burns become scar tissue. The exhaust fan stops working quite so well, and the workers in the kitchen get heat stroke.

I love the kitchen, I love what I do, but I doubt I've got more than five or ten years left in me to do it, with a bad back, messed up Achilles' tendons, and shoulders that grind. What do I do then? That's the question that plagues my mind when I have the luxury of not being so exhausted when I get home that I just go straight to sleep. You can learn new coding languages, learn to use new software. You can't just learn a new back, or develop a suddenly working shoulder. That's the difference. We all have expiration/best before dates. The blue collar dates tend to come a lot earlier than the white collar dates.
posted by Ghidorah at 4:04 AM on July 15 [9 favorites]


What I don't understand is how Applebee's, of all places, came to represent working-class taste. When I was a poor kid in the Armpit District of Duelingbanjos, NY, I promise you none of us were eating anywhere as expensive as Applebee's on a regular basis.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:58 AM on July 15 [6 favorites]


That's the difference. We all have expiration/best before dates. The blue collar dates tend to come a lot earlier than the white collar dates.

Yeah. I'm well aware of my looming expiration date as a programmer, but there are tracks into management and other options, probably. Even if I don't love the prospects, I'm under no illusions that this maps to what I'd be looking at if I'd been destroying my body throwing heavy shit around for the duration of my working life.
posted by brennen at 10:20 AM on July 15


My partner is 66 and is still programming with a vengeance.

The expiration date for a programmer is mostly based on the agism of the industry, not on the limits of one's body.
posted by hippybear at 10:37 AM on July 15 [4 favorites]


I've done some number crunching with some US government data to determine which working class jobs are most likely to be dominated by white males. To be specific, I took a comprehensive list of jobs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics & filtered everything to limit myself to jobs that have a typical entry-level education requirement of a high school diploma or below. (Although it can be quite problematic to define working-class status in terms of educational attainment or lack thereof, that was how most political polls or op-ed commentaries defined "working class" or "white working class" in the context of the 2016 election.)

I then collected data on the % of white people in each occupation and the % of males in each occupation. Since I don't have crosstabs that tell me the exact number of white men in each occupation or the percentage of white men in each occupation, I had to do a rough estimate using the simple equation (% white males) = (% white)*(% male). After doing so, I could determine which working-class jobs were most dominated on a percentage basis by white males.

The top ten most "white male" of working class jobs are as follows:

1. Roof Bolters, Mining: 92% white male
2. Loading Machine Operators, Underground Mining: 91% white male
3. Millwrights, 91% white male
4. Farm Equipment Mechanics & Service Technicians, 90% white male
5. Mine Shuttle Car Operators, 90% white male
6. Motorboat Mechanics & Service Technicians, 88% white male
7. Tool & Die Makers, 88% white male
8. Outdoor Power Equipment & Small Engine Mechanics, 88% white male
9. Continuous Mining Machine Operators, 85% white male
10. Commercial Pilots, 85% white male

The Bureau of Labor Statistics can be hair-splittingly specific with its occupational categories, but interestingly, four out of the Top Ten "white male" working class jobs (#1, #2, #5, and #9) are related to the mining industry. It really puts Trump's focus on coal mining and "the war on coal" into perspective.
posted by jonp72 at 8:30 PM on July 15 [14 favorites]


I assume those statistics are the jobs with this highest percentage of white men, not jobs that actually employ a lot of white men.

Like, what are the actual numbers employed in those 4 Top Ten jobs related to mining? How many actual individuals working in those jobs, regardless of race?
posted by hippybear at 9:40 PM on July 15


I also did an estimate of the absolute number of white men using the same list of working-class occupations with an entry-level education requirement of a high school diploma or less. Here you have the jobs where you find largest numbers of white working-class men, but not necessarily where they'd be numerically dominant over everybody else.

Here are the Top Ten working class with largest absolute numbers of white males.

1. Retail Salespersons (1.4 million)
2. Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Materials Movers, Hand (1.2 million)
3. Maintenance and Repair Workers, General (920 thousand)
4. Sales Representatives, Wholesale & Manufacturing (902 thousand)
5. Janitors and Cleaners, Except Maids and Housekeepers (811 thousand)
6. Combined Food Preparation & Serving Workers, Including Fast Food (802 thousand)
7. Stock Clerks and Order Fillers (776 thousand)
8. Cashiers (602 thousand)
9. Waiters and Waitresses (560 thousand)
10. Customer Service Representatives (550 thousand)

As you can see, the typical employer for the working class white guy these days is not a coal mine or Amalgamated Manufacturing, but the same service economy where everybody else works.
posted by jonp72 at 7:24 AM on July 16 [7 favorites]


I assume those statistics are the jobs with this highest percentage of white men, not jobs that actually employ a lot of white men.

Like, what are the actual numbers employed in those 4 Top Ten jobs related to mining? How many actual individuals working in those jobs, regardless of race?


You're nailing the point exactly. Those 4 jobs may be extremely "white male" on a percentage basis, but they don't employ a lot of people in absolute terms.

Here are my estimates for the four mining jobs that appear in the Top Ten white male jobs. Please note that "mining" includes all forms of mining in the extractive industries, not just coal mining, because Bureau of Labor Statistics data doesn't make a distinction about what kind of mining a person does.

Roof Bolters, Mining (3,456 white males)
Loading Machine Operators, Underground Mining (2,369 white males)
Mine Shuttle Car Operators (1,521 white males)
Continuous Mining Machine Operators (7,845 white males)

If you add them together, you still get 15,191 white males, which is still less than the number of white males employed in occupational categories such as Crossing Guards, Baggage Porters and Bellhops, or Dispensing Opticians. When I expanded the analysis to include all possible mining industry jobs still eligible to someone without a college degree, the number of "white working class" males employed in mining was less than the number of white working class males working as parking lot attendants. That's even when you consider that a lot of working class jobs employed the mining industry, such as truck driving or repairing industrial machinery, are much more adaptable and re-deployable to other industries than the narrative of declining coal mining towns would lead you to think. Mythologizing about the he-man working class jobs of the past isn't going to do much to understand where working class people (white male or otherwise) actually work.
posted by jonp72 at 7:40 AM on July 16 [9 favorites]


Since I'm in Nate Silver geek mode right now, here are the top ten least "white male" occupations that have a typical entry-level requirement of a high school diploma or less.

1. Legal Secretaries, 3% white male
2. Medical Secretaries, 3% white males
3. Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, Except Legal/Medical, 3% white male
4. Executive Secretaries and Administrative Assistants, 3% white male
5. Receptionists and Information Clerks, 5% white male
6. Child Care Workers, 5% white male
7. Shampooers, 6% white male
8. Home Health Aides, 6% white male
9. Maids and Housekeeping Cleaners, 6% white male
10. Word Processors and Typists, 6% white male

It's definitely pink collar work, split mainly among occupations dominated by white women (most secretarial work) and occupations dominated by black women (home health aides and maids). If I recall correctly, my estimate of the percentage of black women in home health aide jobs was higher than the percentage of black women in Maids & Housekeeping Cleaners. The domination of Maids & Housekeeping Cleaners by black women was a major reason that "domestic workers" were originally exempted from the original version of Social Security, so as not to challenge Southern Jim Crow. I think a similar phenomenon is going on where Home Health Aides have had more difficulty having their right to form labor unions recognized than other occupations.
posted by jonp72 at 7:59 AM on July 16 [11 favorites]


Just to connect the dots here, I believe what jonp72's getting at is that the working class economic anxiety narrative focusing so hard on coal miners is not accidental. It's one thing to say that mining is far from the largest working class industry, but the fact that it's the whitest is a strong indication of why it's become the poster child for that narrative. We all know it's a dog whistle, but running the numbers provides a pretty dramatic reinforcement of what we all already know.
posted by tobascodagama at 8:54 AM on July 16 [7 favorites]


on culture, the divide is exaggerated. pop cultural signifiers are ubiquitous; we in the US have a lot more in common than not in this regard.
"Culture", especially in this context, really isn't just, or even mostly, about things like entertainment choices.
posted by Fish Sauce at 11:38 AM on July 17 [1 favorite]


these types of discussions never lead to anywhere productive because 1/3 of the people commenting are mostly talking about wealth and class, 1/3 about culture, and 1/3 about race. but everyone thinks they're talking about the same thing, so they talk past each other.

I think the problem is that in America, there's this really strong taboo about talking about social class - like, the pretense is that no one has any, and everyone's class is just about the wealth they currently own, and not "what was the social standing of your father and grandfather", which is how many people actually understand class. And so these conversations cannot be had because even acknowledging that in America, people might treat you by the status you were born into, is verboten.
posted by corb at 4:46 PM on July 17 [5 favorites]


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