Discussion of the widening class divide tends to focus on money — the top 1 percent’s share of total income, trends in median income, wealth inequality, intergenerational mobility, and so on. The preoccupation is understandable: economics is preeminent among the social sciences in prestige and influence, and economists naturally look to economic indicators. But if you examine contemporary socioeconomic inequality through a purely economic lens, you will fail to see the true depths of the problem.
I think there may be an interesting gender dynamic as well. In high income countries the female labor force participation rates are rising, and women are achieving higher status by attaining higher levels of education. A lot of the employment growth opportunities (e.g., health care) are female-coded while as you say the male-coded heavy manufacturing jobs are waning. This would seem to jive with the increase in rightwing populism, which always has a big male fragility aspect. It's ... hard to fathom what can be done about this other than a cultural revaluation of what masculinity entails.
Had several thoughts after reading your second installment: 1) Unions did not just wane because of declining labor industry jobs. They were undermined and destroyed by GOP policy, Reagan's union busting of air traffic controllers and "right to work" legislation. Post Covid as workers realize you don't have to labor on an assembly line to need support/protection from predatory management, unions are returning.
2) Race factors into any inclusion question. POC are marginalized in labor, housing, and wealth accumulation if not downright targeted and destroyed, e.g. Black Wall Street. While "rising tides lift all boats," POC have enjoyed substantially less of the culture of financial security you describe.
3) Again, post-pandemic, we are seeing a rather two-faced attitude towards service workers - grocery and retail, restaurant and food industry, health care, school -- who were essential to the economy in the height of it, but are turned on for wanting better wages, more security, better benefits, and safer working conditions now that life is "normalizing. " Unionization will help this some.
Exactly right on, tech change has had profound effects on ordinary workers' psyches as Brink cogently lays out, it goes beyond dollars and cents, strikes deep a peoples' self-worth. A slow motion loss of faith in the system, and the "elites" who seen to be in charge. No wonder the backlash. Eagerly looking forward to the next post.
There's a complementary analysis to be made here of the role of mass education in decreasing the felt agency and autonomy of the children of the non-elite classes. We should ask whether a reformed educational system could go some way to giving more non-elites a sense of a dignified and purposeful life. The sort of vocational education championed by Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame is probably part of this-- and especially important at times like the present when there's a huge shortage of skilled manual workers!-- but there's a need for deeper rethinking too.
Some books and Substacks that have influenced my own thinking about this:
Matthew Crawford, _Shop Class as Soulcraft_ and especially _The World Beyond Your Head_
Simon Sarris, The Map is Mostly Water, e.g. https://simonsarris.substack.com/p/the-most-precious-resource-is-agency
Henrik Karlsson, Escaping Flatland, e.g. https://escapingflatland.substack.com/p/apprenticeship-online
Erik Hoel, The Intrinsic Perspective, e.g. https://erikhoel.substack.com/p/why-we-stopped-making-einsteins
There is much to contemplate in this rich, thoughtful analysis, and I will be thinking about it for some time. It’s striking to me though, that I might be considered a beneficiary of these developments, and yet, I often feel working class jobs in healthcare, construction, installation, maintenance, and repair are more ennobling, an afford more opportunities for virtue, than my own work, which largely entails solitary reading, writing, and coding to ends that are abstract and easily dismissed.
Very interesting article, Brink.
I think you meant "deliver" here: "would not delivery their bounty."
Thank you for this astute essay that combines history, economics, social theory and existentialist perspectives in meaningful ways. For me it was like a refresher course in the oh-so-many and only faintly memorable political science and US history courses of my long- ago undergraduate education. Equally, the comments of readers have provided food for thought- thanks for a good discussion. I am not an economist nor a historian, but I have spent some time studying leadership and education both in the US and in the Nordic countries. I'd be interested to know what role you think the US education system plays in securing the rather grim trajectory that I would agree we are on? For example, the German and Nordic highschool systems begin to direct students early toward vocational, technical and academic futures. Moreover, in most EU countries, securing training and college education (and beyond) is relatively easy and free. The ability to change one's mind about a career trajectory and return for more training or education is also free, including a stipend to support basic needs while you 're-tool'. My opinion is that the lack of an American educational equivalent plays a very big role in what I agree is a serious and long-in-the-making crisis. Again, pleased to have come across your writing.
Thanks; but I have to consider and weigh alternative explanations. The impressionistic analysis I have in mind is that the "Treaty of Detroit" was less the result of the "clout of the working class" than it was the result of the near-monopoly of the American automobile industry at that time, at least within the U.S., and perhaps extending much further. The industry was in such a dominant position that for the sake of peace and mutual profit, the industry could afford to share the spoils. This set the stage for the undermining of the industry/labor compact -- not by a general process -- "...ongoing combination of automation and globalization, productivity growth outstripped growth in demand for [the products of] heavy industries even as supply began to move abroad to take advantage of cheap foreign labor" -- but a more-specific response: the non-U.S. automobile industry could undercut the domestic product.
If workers had sufficient clout, perhaps they could have done a better job maintaining that beneficial compact; protectionism comes to mind. My guess is that breaking worker's power was a highly successful and remunerative strategy for business in general.
I don't know how far this impressionistic analysis can extend to American industry and labor as a whole, but to the extent that it can, then I don't see the necessity of explanations that rely on worker solidarity as a response to the mortality of industrial employment, or on the status of industrial workers.
"...unions struggled to organize in the expanding service industries." Why? My analysis suggests it was because there was no near-monopoly in that sector with any spoils to share (with the public-sector unions as the exception that proves the rule -- sort of).
I would like to see more evidence in support of what appears to be a largely assertional method of argument. Your analysis is on a very productive track, and can and should be more compelling.
Good essay but really ignores the engine of this "creative destruction": global capitalism with its three engines of overseas outsourcing, importing cheap legal and illegal immigrant labor, and automation.
So glad to see articles by you on Substack, Brink. This is exactly the sort of analysis I came for, and as mentioned by another commenter, one I’ll be thinking about for a bit.
Really enjoy your analysis - not just this article.
However, I think you make this argument even more interesting by engaging with Yuval Noah Harari’s argument that AI is going to make this worse, through the rise of the Useless Class. Over the past two hundred years, capitalists have required a well educated, well fed, healthy working class in order to power their militaries and their factories. The rise of AI may make this no longer necessary, therefore giving rise to a “useless class”.
This essay is educational, and it only has 38 comments since October! That is the problem that we need to fix. We are a celebrity society who lives from headline to entertainment. Daniel Kahneman explains it best in his book, Thinking Fast & Slow. We are a nation of Fast Thinkers. Why won't the NYT publish this essay? It is simple. It is too long.
Yes! Everyone has the right to take pride in the work they do. That ought to be at the top of everyone's Dignity of Work list. Great essay, Mr. Lindsey.
There's also the issue of the management revolution de-skilling service jobs and making employees increasingly fungible. Since so much of the service industry is run by a shrinking number of organizations, they are able to impose uniform work standards and conditions. Almost every fast food worker is in this situation including shift managers and the franchise operators themselves. They have a corporate rule book. Workers, and even owners, just need to follow instructions. If they don't follow instructions, they can be replaced by just about anyone. Look at the dairy and poultry industries. They might run the farm, but the only places they can sell to imposes rules and sanctions and sets the terms. So much for Walt Whitman's "I Hear America Singing".
Entire classes of mid-skill jobs have been turned into minimal skill jobs, and they have the pay and autonomy to match.
Very incisive, even brilliant, Brink. Sometime, we should discuss ...
Food for thought here. What is the connection of the social collapse depicted here to the rise of authoritarian populism? What is the connection to the rise of a more cynical more corrupt, less compassionate fundamentalist Christianity?