Middle Class Blues: A Different Narrative
By Shlomo Maital
We are hearing endlessly about the struggling blue collar workers and the oppressed middle class, sinking into debt, losing jobs, struggling to stay afloat. We hear Donald Trump play on their fears and grudges.
There is another narrative, one given in today’s New York Times by David Brooks. It is about resilient workers and middle class people, who adapt, shift jobs, lose one and gain another, learn new skills – and stay afloat, endure and even prevail. And there are lot of them.
Here is how Brooks describes one such case:
A few weeks ago I met a guy in Kentucky who’d lived through every trend of deindustrializing America. He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories — making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings. Every few years as the economy would shift, or jobs would go to Mexico, he’d get hit with a layoff. But the periods of unemployment were never longer than six months and he pieced together a career.
So, how did he piece together a career?
His best job came in the middle of his career, when he was a supervisor at the sheet metal plant. But when the technology changed, he was no longer qualified to supervise the new workers, so they let him go. He thought he’d just come in quietly on his final day, clean out his desk and sneak away. But word got out, and when he emerged from his office, box in hand, there was a double line of guys stretching all the way from his office in back, across the factory floor and out to his car in the lot. He walked down that whole double line with tears flowing, with the guys clapping and cheering as he went. We hear a lot about angry white men, but there is an honorable dignity to this guy. Some of that dignity comes from the fact that he knows how to fix things. One of the undermining conditions of the modern factory is that the workers no longer directly build the products, they just service the machines and software that do. The bakers now no longer actually know how to bake bread.” But this guy in Kentucky can take care of himself — redo the plumbing at home or replace the brake pads.
And what was his ‘narrative’, his story, told to himself? One of betrayal, exploitation, deprival, social inequality? None of that.
It’s more of a reactive, coping narrative: A lot of the big forces were outside my control, but I adjusted, made the best of what was possible within my constraints and lived up to my responsibilities. ….
I adjusted. Made the best of what was possible. Lived up to my responsibilities. This is a narrative that I believe is far far more representative of the working middle class, than the Trump “I’m-a-victim” narrative: “Washington screwed me, so I will vote for a scoundrel, because he expressed my anger, even though he hasn’t a clue about what middle class life is about.”
People are basically resilient. They bounce back. And the ones with integrity do not cast ballots for those who cynically exploit the worst qualities among us – avoiding personal responsibility for our own fate.