Men, Work, and Self-Worth

Most of us define ourselves largely through our jobs. That's increasingly a problem.

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The discussion around yesterday’s post “EU Elections Show Continued Voter Frustrations” quickly turned to the societal motivations driving the transatlantic rejection of the postwar consensus by so many. OTB regular Michael Reynolds observed,

This is not about hard times by any rational measurement, it’s all about relative social standing and inflated expectations. Men are losing position relative to women. Who votes for Trump? Men. Whites are losing position relative to brown and black people. Who votes for Trump? White people. The underlying problem is that relative social standing is increasingly determined by intelligence and adaptability, factors as baked-in as gender and race. And who votes for Trump? The poorly educated.

Male, white and poorly-educated, three groups doing fantastically well by objective measurements – healthier, wealthier, safer – who are enraged because they aren’t advancing in relative terms, or see themselves as slipping, again, in purely relative terms. And why do the male, the white and the uneducated see themselves as in decline? Because they’ve chosen to define themselves by their sex and their race, irrational criteria.

That’s right. But there’s also more to it.

While defining themselves by sex and race are objectively choices, it’s also deeply baked into the culture—particularly outside the major metropolitan areas, university towns, and the like.

A Sunday feature by Sabrina Tavernise titled “With His Job Gone, an Autoworker Wonders, ‘What Am I as a Man?’” gets to that quite nicely.

He has done everything he could to avoid thinking about the fact that, after 25 years at the General Motors plant in Lordstown [Ohio], he was losing the only real job he ever had.

For Mr. Marsh the plant is personal, but in the three months since G.M. stopped making cars there, it has become political. A parade of presidential hopefuls has come through, using the plant to make the point that American capitalism no longer works for ordinary people. President Trump has taken an interest too, berating both G.M. and the union on Twitter, and then suddenly announcing brightly in early May that the plant would be sold to a small company that few people in Lordstown had ever heard of.

The news caused a stir. TV trucks showed up at the union hall. But after a few days it became clear to Mr. Marsh that the buyer — which had no experience in mass vehicle production and quarterly revenues that were less than the price of one high-end sports car — was probably not a solution.

“To me, it’s another flagrant sign that these people, they really don’t have a clue,” Mr. Marsh said of the country’s political class. “They are so out of touch with reality and real people. All of them.”

He made no exception for Mr. Trump. Mr. Marsh voted for him, as did a majority of voters in Trumbull County, a small square on the map of northeast Ohio that hadn’t voted for a Republican for president since 1972.

The path to the White House next year runs through places like Lordstown, and Mr. Marsh and many of his neighbors, far from knowing how they will vote, say the G.M. plant shutdown has only left them more at sea politically. They tried voting for Barack Obama, then Mr. Trump. Now they don’t know where to turn.

Out-of-touch or not, I presume that our recent Presidents cared at least in the abstract about these jobs. All of them in my memory have talked about the need to save manufacturing jobs—especially in the auto industry. Ronald Reagan slapped tariffs on Japanese imports, inadvertently spawning the rise of the Japanese luxury brand spin-offs like Lexus, Acura, and Infiniti as well as driving those companies to open plants in the United States. George W. Bush and Barack Obama both rammed through bailouts of Detroit despite considerable opposition within their own parties. Even Trump is railing about American companies sending jobs overseas and praising those who, even temporarily, reverse the trend.

But Marsh is right: the trend has seemed inexorable. The great-paying jobs with terrific benefits are going away, albeit mostly in favor of robots rather than offshoring. Even though a lot of foreign manufacturers have built factories in the United States over the last three decades, whether to escape tariffs or otherwise, it hasn’t been enough. And most of the new jobs are in right-to-work states with strong anti-union cultures.

For three generations of Marsh men, the G.M. plant was a golden ticket to a middle-class life in a part of the country where those were not easy to come by. Then, when Rick Marsh got the biggest test of his life — the birth of his beloved daughter, Abigail, and her diagnosis of cerebral palsy at the age of one — his job became a central part of how he saw himself. He was her provider, her protector. That was his worth in the world.

So when the last car rolled off the Lordstown assembly line around 2:45 p.m. on Wednesday, March 6, it was like a heart stopping. He had lost the thing that made him who he was.

He knows he is looking for one thing from the country’s political system: a president who will save the plant that has meant everything to his family.

“I really don’t care if it’s a Democrat, Republican, male, female, black, white, I don’t care,” he said.

This wasn’t supposed to happen. Mr. Marsh thought he would retire from the Lordstown plant, just like his father. Richard Marsh Sr. started in 1967, the year after the plant opened. He came straight out of the Army, inspecting headlights for $1.92 an hour. When he got his first paycheck, $100, “I thought I was rich,” the elder Marsh said.

The job lifted the Marsh family from apartment to trailer to house on a pretty street lined with cornfields and long, smooth driveways. Rick grew up there, in a back bedroom with heavy-metal posters on the walls. His grades weren’t good, but he wasn’t worried. When a history teacher told him he’d be stuck flipping burgers for the rest of his life, Rick told him he knew where he’d be working. When his father — at the time an elected union official — got him a job at the plant, it came with two pieces of advice.

“Get to work on time, and don’t embarrass me,” the younger Marsh recalled his father saying.

That was 1993, and the plant was its own little city. It employed around 9,000 people. Its giant parking lot was packed. Workers grilled sausages in the break room. He grew up with his colleagues, going to bars, attending weddings, coaching their children in softball, taking up collections when someone’s parent died.

The truth was, he never really liked the work. He found it boring and physically demanding. He worked in the paint shop, wearing two sets of gloves, big plastic boots and a full body apron, while he wielded a sanding tool that smoothed the primer on the surface of the cars. Every night he came home drenched and exhausted.

But he was grateful for it. With his G.M. paychecks, he built a big house in the woods just half a mile from his parents. He paid for his wedding in full and bought his new wife, Lindsay Marsh, a blue Chevy TrailBlazer. And when Abby came along — his beautiful girl, his floppy baby — his financial security powered the family through the six years of therapy it took to teach her how to walk.

In those early years, Mr. Marsh didn’t care about politics. He voted for Democrats without really thinking about it. It was what his family had always done, more out of union loyalty than ideology.

What follows is a long discussion of the decline of these jobs. It’s a well-known story and only tangential to the point here. What I’m interested in is the cultural impact:

Nafta had given him a new political awareness: Republicans may have started it, but it was Democrats who sealed the deal.

“That’s when I realized these parties were not so different,” he said. “They are all there to make money on our backs.”

Still, he kept voting for Democrats, including twice for Barack Obama. He gives him credit for the bailout of G.M. The company would have died without that help. But it made him angry that a financial crisis that started with banks ended with autoworkers giving up raises and the right to strike, which seemed to him the only real leverage they still had. (They got it back later.)

Mr. Marsh had never had a definitive moment with politics, a sudden clarity in which he clicked with a candidate. That changed in 2016. He remembers sitting at home watching a debate between Mr. Trump and Hillary Clinton. He was expecting suit-and-tie civility. Instead, he got a circus. Mr. Trump was like a boxer who kept landing punches. It was electrifying.

“I said, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this,'” he said.

He knew what it looked like. Mr. Trump was kind of crazy. But he liked the fact that he didn’t back down. Then Mr. Trump brought up Nafta, and it was like he was speaking directly to Mr. Marsh. Nothing else mattered — not Russia, not porn stars, not divorces.

“Nobody had our backs in office, not Democrats or Republicans,” he said. “I’m tired of being sugarcoated and being robbed in the process.”

He voted for Mr. Trump, and so did his father, along with just under half the workers represented by the union.

He was in the plant on election night. He remembers being in the break room with the TV off, and a woman came in crying. Trump had pulled ahead. The reaction would intensify over the following months. He found it baffling. The only explanation he could think of was generational: millennials freaking out after not getting their way.

Marsh may well be objectively wrong about the differences in policy preferences of the two major parties. But it’s how he and so many feel. It’s why a lot of people who voted for Obama twice turned around and voted for Trump, his complete opposite. Again, it’s objectively bizarre. But it makes sense viscerally: We’ve tried normal. We’re ready to try crazy.

What has happened with the plant has made him see things differently. He never used to care that G.M.’s chief executive, Mary Barra, made millions of dollars every year. Now he thinks about it. Companies have more and more power. It makes him feel small. Like the time they were told they’d be laid off, and everybody just went right back to work.

“It felt like we were begging,” he said. “It’s humiliating, as a man, as a person, as a worker.”

He understands this to be a political problem. But what is the solution?

He doesn’t blame Mr. Trump for the problems at the plant. They are older and bigger than him. Yes, he made promises during the campaign, telling people not to sell their houses because factory jobs were coming back. But politicians make promises. That’s what they do.

The real question is whether anything is changing, and so far the answer is no. And he finds that Mr. Trump is “getting harder and harder to defend.”

That Trump’s bizarre trade war has objectively made things worse for people like Marsh of course matters. But he doesn’t get the blame because, from their perspective, the normal politicians before him didn’t do any better. And Trump at least seems to be trying something.

A couple years back, I got into a Twitter debate with Dan Drezner and some others over a meme was going around. Trump and others had been making a big fuss over the loss of coal mining jobs and a graphic was going around showing that many more people were employed by Whole Foods, Dollar General, and Walmart than by the coal mining industry.

I pointed out that, “The problem with this meme is that, unlike most service industry jobs, coal mining pays a middle class wage.”

Drezner replied, correctly, that, “The problem with your rejoinder is that there are a lot of middle-class jobs listed here that don’t seem to get the same policy attention.”

First on his list? Car washes.

My response: “Contrast the ‘we dug coal together’ thread in ‘Justified’ with ‘working at the car wash’ as Walter White’s humiliation in ‘Breaking Bad.'”

Coal mining is objectively a shitty job. It’s dangerous, repetitious, life-shortening work. But it not only paid well but it gave men—and it was mostly men—a sense of pride that working at Walmart or a car wash couldn’t provide.

Which gets us back to Reynolds’ observations and my thesis. Yes, there’s something toxic about a masculinity that defines a man’s self-worth in how well he’s doing compared to women. But it’s more complex than that. Marsh comes across as reasonably progressive culturally. He’s not measuring himself against his wife but against his—and his father’s before him—ability to provide for his family. He feels like a failure because he’s not meeting that expectation. And therefore less of a man.

March painted cars for a living. It was a shitty job in a lot of ways and he knew it. It was boring as hell. It made him ache. But it allowed him to provide. To hold his head high. And that’s gone now.

Unlike a lot of folks in rural America, he’s at least willing to move to get another job. But his daughter’s special needs makes that very difficult. And there just aren’t many more of these jobs left.

They’ve not coming back. And I’m not sure they should.

I’m enough of a capitalist to think that jobs that can be done more efficiently by robots really ought to be done by robots. It means lower costs for consumers and, over time, the fewer people doing mind-numbing, back-breaking work, the better.

But, as a society, we’ve got to figure out how to replace these jobs.

Part of that is economic and political. We need to make sure people can maintain a decent lifestyle for their families. And that certainly includes being secure in the knowledge that the healthcare needs of their children are going to be met. And the ability to retire in reasonable comfort when they’re too old to continue working.

A big part of it, though, is also cultural and psychic. Men like Marsh need to feel useful and fulfilled. For most men, that has for generations come from their job and the status it brought. Maybe it needs to come from something other than work. But it needs to come from somewhere.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, Society
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    Back in 2000, I recall a conversation with an acquaintance in which she exclaimed that she was excited to vote for Al Gore because “he’ll stop all the logging in Maine!” Setting aside several other responses, I said, “What will the loggers do then?” She dismissed this by saying, “Oh, they’ll find something else.”

    Like what? Enroll in Johns Hopkins and train as neurosurgeons? Become investment bankers? What happens to these people when there are no more loading docks, no more trucks to drive, no more trees to cut down, no more roads to build, no more assembly lines, no more check-out counters?

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  2. Rick Zhang says:

    What I don’t understand is why those people making solid middle class wages in the factories thought those jobs would last forever. They should have planned better. It’s not like the warning signs weren’t flashing red for many decades. Those of us in tech or medicine around where I live who have arguably secure jobs with good prospects are insanely paranoid about the future. We constantly talk about the industry being disrupted, whether by foreign competitors, government regulation, or changing consumer tastes.

    In fact, at our last business meeting we talked about the “graveyard” of dead/dying companies and what we can do to avoid that. In the meantime, as individuals we’re all looking to divest and diversify from being solely reliant on our job for income. This means having multiple streams of income from side gigs, investments, and real estate. It means saving like crazy and living below our means – no extravagant vacation or fine dining – in order to secure our future in an uncertain world.

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  3. CSK says:

    @Rick Zhang: Because they weren’t smart enough to plan ahead. What’s the I.Q. of someone working in tech or medicine? Now what’s the average I.Q. of an assembly line worker?*

    *Of course, there are outliers on both ends.

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  4. Teve says:

    If you think the answer to society’s problems is to get everybody to have an above-average IQ, good luck with that.

    A smarter answer would be to build a society where millions of people don’t get their lives ruined by forces completely outside of their control.

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  5. CSK says:

    @Teve: Sounds good, but seriously, how do you do that?

  6. mattbernius says:

    @Rick Zhang:

    What I don’t understand is why those people making solid middle class wages in the factories thought those jobs would last forever. They should have planned better. It’s not like the warning signs weren’t flashing red for many decades.

    Because humans are simply not wired that way. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Its simply something that we were not culturally or cognitively adapted for. Sure there are always outliers, but en mass we are really bad at it (and there are a lot of cultural forces that further entrench the behavior).

    There is a ton of established research out there on this…

    https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/shut-and-listen/201806/humans-cant-plan-long-term-and-heres-why

    https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5530483

  7. James Joyner says:

    @mattbernius:

    Because humans are simply not wired that way.

    Concur.

    I’m better at it than many. I’ve been putting money away for retirement since my first paycheck 31 years ago. I live within my means and have a decent amount of liquidity. But I still spend more than I need to on simple daily pleasures—eating out, outsourcing housecleaning and yardwork, clothing, entertainment, etc.

    As Keynes put it another context, “In the long run we are all dead.” It makes sense to plan for tomorrow but the cost is deferring pleasure in the here and now. And there may be no tomorrow. Or we may be too old and feeble to enjoy it.

  8. Teve says:

    @CSK: that’s a complicated problem and we would do well to look to other countries when they have successes that we don’t. Germany has a manufacturing base, and it’s totally unionized, and it works. How many people in Norway fall into poverty and opiate addiction because the plant closed down? There are answers that can be had but they’ll take a lot of thought and work, and systemic fixes, and not the bullshit answers I see too often on TV, like get a STEM degree, move somewhere else, get a side hustle making $4/hr driving for Uber.

    America has such deep systemic problems that people are blind to it, so you get scenarios like JPMorgan Chase taking billions of dollars of bailout money, paying their tellers poverty wages, and then tweeting that poor people should just skip Starbucks to save up some equity.

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  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @mattbernius: As a gypsy carpenter I was always working myself out of jobs. The layoff check was inevitable. The only defense was being as productive as possible but that too ended in the building being built. I always saved between 1/4 and 1/5th of every paycheck and lived mostly debt free. It worked for me with plentiful opportunities for travel, but I was most definitely the exception to the rule. Most guys I worked with had the new truck, the house, the fishing boat, etc. I always had a beater old truck I paid cash for and the cheapest living arrangements I could find.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Teve: Agreed. Although poor people really should enjoy Starbucks infrequently.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    It has never been the duty of government to provide ‘decent, high-paying jobs.’ It’s also never been the purpose of capital. Capital pays as little as it can to labor. It was unions that made those jobs into decent, high-paying jobs – unions systematically attacked by Republicans at least since Reagan, with a lot of help from the workers themselves.

    How long did this halcyon time of real men holding down hard jobs for good pay in a company that employed them from graduation to the grave last? The Great Depression ended as WW2 started. So, from, let’s say 1940 to something less than the present, pick a year, 1985? 1990? It’s what, two generations of men? And only men, women worked during the war and were promptly shoved back in their boxes once the boys came home. The post-war years were not some long-established norm, they were an anomaly, likely never to be repeated.

    I genuinely feel sorry for these guys. I’ve never had one of those decent, high-paying jobs, I’ve had mostly marginal jobs – waiter, apartment manager, janitor, retail clerk, law library grunt – but I can empathize. But only up to a point. As you talk about upstream @James, no one has ever given a damn about men who worked retail, or restaurants or banks or or or. We get mawkish over farmers, coal miners and factory workers, no one rallies to save the jobs of librarians or travel agents. Manufacturing jobs have been in decline for decades. Not months or years, decades. But lots of non-manufacturing jobs went away as well. Why is a coal miner predictably losing his job a crisis but a travel agent losing his job is just a bad career choice?

    Capitalism is hard on people. Change is hard. But it’s hard for everyone, not just the prototypical factory worker, miner or farmer. No one is doing anything to these men, no one has taken their job, no one has an obligation to replace it. I’m sorry for the men who were unable or unwilling to adapt, but that’s what’s happened, and it has happened to women and to black men and to men in all sorts of occupations no one seems to give a damn about, as well as to white men in factories.

    So, they can legitimately blame themselves, or they can blame the bad hand they drew in the DNA deal, or they can start organizing for unions, they can do lots of things, maybe successfully, maybe not, but what they cannot do, and expect any pity, is to turn their own failure to adapt into racism, nativism and misogyny, and that’s what they did the minute they checked Trump’s name on the ballot. You cannot morally make your problem into a problem for some innocent third party.

    If an unemployed travel agent said he had to vote for a corrupt wannabe fascist because he really liked being a travel agent we’d laugh. But make him a coal miner and suddenly we’re supposed to nod along?

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  12. Kit says:

    I’m enough of a capitalist to think that jobs that can be done more efficiently by robots really ought to be done by robots. It means lower costs for consumers and, over time, the fewer people doing mind-numbing, back-breaking work, the better.

    May the invisible hand of the market shepherd us all! I, for one, have yet to get a sneak peek of just where we even hope to arrive. People can say to hell with the losers, but I fear that a country without a thick middle class, in which 50-80% of the population are forever members of a precarious lower class, is simply incompatible with democracy. Some countries will find a way, but it certainly won’t be those tossing up their hands and saying that people have no obligation to each other. The judgement of history won’t be that capitalism is hard, but rather that democracy is.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    Twenty years ago it became obvious that production would move out of the US to low wage countries. “Free trade” agreements have little to do with it. Once we had the internet, container ships, widespread air travel and so on it would happen, until wages and living costs more or less equalized over decades. I asked myself then, ‘Will workers get screwed, or will society and government take steps to mitigate the change and compensate affected workers?” Stupid question. How many lobbyists do the workers employ? We did nothing.

    We are at a fork between a Star Trek future and a 1984 future. It’s entirely possible to mitigate the economic effects of loss of production work, but we won’t unless socialism stops being a dirty word and we destroy the Republican Party. The psychic effects are harder to deal with. We might simply have to accept that if we provide a decent minimum income, a lot of people will spend their lives playing video games and doing drugs.

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  14. James Joyner says:

    @michael reynolds:

    How long did this halcyon time of real men holding down hard jobs for good pay in a company that employed them from graduation to the grave last?

    A very strong point. For most of human history, virtually everyone simply eked out a meager living. The difference is that, now, we see within living memory a very different existence and are in connected in such a way that the differences between the haves and have nots is much more obvious.

    Why is a coal miner predictably losing his job a crisis but a travel agent losing his job is just a bad career choice?

    Partly, it’s a function of the former being a primarily male and the latter primarily a female associated job. And men draw their self-worth from their work to a much greater extent than women. Additionally, coal mining or working at the auto plant was communal—it’s what men in certain communities did. That’s never been the case with being a travel agent, working at the Walmart, or whathaveyou.

    @Kit:

    May the invisible hand of the market shepherd us all! I, for one, have yet to get a sneak peek of just where we even hope to arrive. People can say to hell with the losers, but I fear that a country without a thick middle class, in which 50-80% of the population are forever members of a precarious lower class, is simply incompatible with democracy.

    I share your fear. I don’t think trying to bring back dying industries is the answer. I’m just not sure what that answer is.

  15. Modulo Myself says:

    America has a history of unsustainable boom towns where nobody plans for the future. Look at Montana or Idaho in the 1890s…or just drive through a place like Pennsylvania, where little one red light towns have the word ‘city’ optimistically added to their name. Even this guy admits his job basically sucked, which makes sense. Taylorized factory labor in America sucked as a job, which is why people who used its benefits to their advantage got their kids into college and the hell out of there.

    I think a huge safety net should exist because bad jobs leave. But the point of this safety net–which has existed, especially for white blue-collar labor–should have been to change things, not just sit around and wait for the axe to drop and then turn against everything.

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kit:

    People can say to hell with the losers, but I fear that a country without a thick middle class, in which 50-80% of the population are forever members of a precarious lower class, is simply incompatible with democracy.

    It would appear that Republicans for the most part agree with you in this sentiment.

  17. Kit says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m just not sure what that answer is.

    I rather doubt anyone has an answer, at least for the moment. Then again, I feel that the entire world is going to need a reboot within the next couple of generations as several crises grow too large to ignore. Any successful answer will need to address all of them. We, the can’t-do generation, are certainly not up to this challenge today, but maybe our kids are. In any case, they had better be.

  18. Slugger says:

    The majority of people crave status, stability, and predictability. A skilled woodworker wants a world where he makes a good living, is admired for his artisanal skills, and gets to pass his appellation, Joiner, to his descendants. The owner class disrupts this by seeking ever more profit from each worker. A small number of entrepreneurs disrupt this by developing new technologies that catapult the innovator into the ownership class but require the worker to adapt and commit to lifelong learning. The world has been like this for a long time. These facts have been pointed out by many thinkers from the early eighteenth century on. Some, such as Joseph Schumpeter, thought that broad based democracy would have trouble handling these inevitable conflicts.

  19. Not the IT Dept. says:

    I’m getting tired of this “my whole essence is bound up with this job/town/neighbourhood and it’s the role of the universe to make sure nothing ever changes for me ever at all never never never” nonsense. Wake the f*ck up already. Off-shoring and automation have been around since the 1980’s and are not something that just dropped out of the sky. Maybe you should have voted for something other than flag lapel pins or anti-flag-burning or pro-gun-rights. Maybe you should have remembered that you were a member of a union and supported that union.

    And, James, maybe Republicans could have done something more for working class Americans than use them as culture war fodder since 1980.

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  20. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    The issue is that labor was not created to give people’s a meaning in life, it was created because it was required to produce and create things. In Germany that may work because there is interference from the government and there is no ethos of having work for the sake of work.

    It’s not like there is no demand for labor in things like education, healthcare and things like that. It’s not like the purpose of work is to give people meaning in their life.

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  21. JKB says:

    @Slugger:

    The last two centuries have been a great inflection point for humanity. As pointed out below, life in America in 1800 would not have been to very much strange to the farmer of the 9th century. By 1820, that was no longer true. The transformation proceeded apace hitting the “hockey stick” around 1900-1950. With a few blips, it has slowed and perhaps will return to a norm.

    A problem is, we’ve political, economic programs and doctrines formed based on a belief in the continued rise. The welfare state depends on an every growing supply of younger workers, and work for them, but fertility controls and the influences of modernity have slowed population growth.

    You get the gist. We are going through the politics of adjustment with many unwilling to face that the economy of the mid-20th century touted by politicians, economists, social scientists and high school teachers has been slowly settling to something different for more than 50 years. As for voting these days, it is only logical that people feeling out of place to vote for someone who shakes the box permitting realignment.

    The man who in the year 1800 ventured to hope for a new era in the coming century, could lay his hand on no statistics that silenced doubt. The machinery of production showed no radical difference from that familiar to ages long past. The Saxon farmer of the eighth century enjoyed most of the comforts known to Saxon farmers in the eighteenth. The eorls and ceorls of Offa and Ecgbert could not read or write, and did not receive a weekly newspaper with such information as newspapers in that age could supply; yet neither their houses, their clothing, their food and drink, their agricultural tools and methods, their stock, nor their habits were so greatly altered or improved by time that they would have found much difficulty in accommodating their lives to that of their descendants in the eighteenth century. In this respect America was backward. Fifty or a hundred miles inland more than half the houses were log-cabins, which might or might not enjoy the luxury of a glass window. Throughout the South and West houses showed little attempt at luxury; but even in New England the ordinary farmhouse was hardly so well built, so spacious, or so warm as that of a well-to-do contemporary of Charlemagne. The cloth which the farmer’s family wore was still homespun. The hats were manufactured by the village hatter; the clothes were cut and made at home; the shirts, socks, and nearly every other article of dress were also home-made.

    —History of the United States During the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Adams, 1889

  22. michael reynolds says:

    We are living in interesting times. Someday this era will have a nice, neat label, like the Industrial Age or the Age of Reason. I think the changes wrought by globalization, secularization, female and minority liberation, and disruptive technology are overwhelming our ability to adapt. Which is one of many reasons why the GOP and Trump are doing so much damage – we should be running to get ahead, not retreating into nostalgia for a time which 1) is g-g-gone and 2) wasn’t that great to start with. Voters in the US and the UK made exactly the wrong choices and as a result we are losing ground faster than ever and it means the hill which was already steep as hell is now a fcking cliff face.

  23. Jay L Gischer says:

    I really like this piece. I’m in great sympathy with it. I think it describes the reason that a large enough cadre of working class white men who traditionally voted Democrat voted for Trump. (There were other groups that voted for him, for other reasons).

    And, while it’s true that men have traditionally invested more of their identity in their job, that isn’t carved into DNA. The story of Mr. Marsh illustrates that in the sense that he knew what his job would be before he even finished high school. That’s not going to inculcate a flexible outlook on life.

    We are in the midst of a process of redefining masculinity to get rid of certain things that don’t fit our present situation. I don’t advocate that we throw out all the great stuff about men, just that we repurpose it a bit.

    By the way, my stepfather-in-law once worked as a typesetter in the publishing industry. That was a job that was well paying and somewhat interesting. His job/profession was killed by the switch to digital/desktop publishing, which I’m old enough to have watched take place. Nobody held rallies telling him they’d get his job back, either.

    This stuff is why I favor UBI. It doesn’t create new jobs, or a sense of purpose, but it does make it easier to take care of the kid with cerebral palsy. Should we go down that road, we’ll also have to start teaching people how to develop a sense of purpose to their life independent of a job.

  24. michael reynolds says:

    @JKB:

    it is only logical that people feeling out of place to vote for someone who shakes the box permitting realignment.

    No, it’s not logical, it’s not remotely logical, it’s illogical, driven by emotion and ignorance. You might make the same argument of pre-WW2 Germany: hard times call for an anti-semitic demagogue! How’d that work out for the Germans?

    A working man’s economic troubles do not lead logically to choosing chaotic, corrupt, racist and nativist leaders, sorry, that’s self-pitying bullshit. A working man’s economic troubles lead logically to unionizing, to supporting workplace regulations, minimum wages, taxes on the rich to pay for programs to protect the displaced workers, all the things you and your party have steadfastly opposed.

    The Right has absolutely no sliver of a clue how to help, they just know how to exploit fears in order to shovel more money into the pockets of billionaires and continue the cycle of middle class frustration. You have nothing to offer. Trump has nothing to offer. The GOP has nothing to offer. Racism and nativism and misogyny are not cures for economic dislocation.

    13
  25. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Automation did not only affect welders and coal miners. It affected a bunch of office workers. It’s one of the reasons why there is far less people working with journalism, for instance. It does not mean that a world where there was plenty of jobs working with linotypes was a better world.

    And part of the problem is that there is no absence of things that need to be done, specially in things like healthcare and education. And specially in world with 40,60 hours workweeks, that are unhealthy.

  26. Jc says:

    Over time more and more labor is going to become unnecessary – We need to have fewer kids – of course that will not happen, even though birth rate has slowed. You can see it now where jobs in health care increase as our old baby boomers start to retire, need care etc… – You see low unemployment as a result of the boomer generation leaving the workforce (slowly, because they did not save like they should have, or could have) that will help the numbers we see, but not the quality of jobs – those will continue to decline for those looking for that level of work, until those folks realize who they should team up against and not pin their hopes for change on a silver spoon blowhard

  27. Stormy Dragon says:

    He found it baffling. The only explanation he could think of was generational: millennials freaking out after not getting their way.

    And suddenly my sympathy meter drops to zero.

    10
    1
  28. Stormy Dragon says:

    A big part of it, though, is also cultural and psychic. Men like Marsh need to feel useful and fulfilled. For most men, that has for generations come from their job and the status it brought. Maybe it needs to come from something other than work. But it needs to come from somewhere.

    That’s the thing though: it can’t come from somewhere, it has to come from within. Society can make sure Mr. Marsh’s material needs are met, but the only thing in the universe that can make Mr. Marsh feel useful is Mr. Marsh.

  29. Monala says:

    @James Joyner: Good points. I’m currently planning an international vacation with my daughter this summer. It may not be the best use of our money, when I could save it. However, my husband died last year. We always wanted to do a really special vacation as a family, but instead, all our vacations were visits to family for significant events (weddings, graduations, milestone birthdays – not that those weren’t good times). But the special family vacation never happened.

    I regret that, and I don’t want to miss out on doing something special with my daughter. She’s starting high school next year, and I realize that with paying for college on the horizon, this may be our last opportunity for a long time.

    10
  30. Mikey says:

    @Monala: You’re doing the right thing with your daughter. Don’t begrudge yourself the cost. I hope you both get as much joy from your special vacation as you possibly can.

  31. michael reynolds says:

    @Monala:
    One of mine has moved out, the other one is about to. Had you told me 20+ years ago when I was using all my wiles to talk my wife out of having kids, that I would be tearing up at the realization that soon I won’t have either of my kids in my daily life, I’d have laughed. Take the trip.

    11
    1
  32. HankP says:

    “His grades weren’t good, but he wasn’t worried. When a history teacher told him he’d be stuck flipping burgers for the rest of his life, Rick told him he knew where he’d be working.”

    This is the core of the problem right here. As my father used to say, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”

  33. Monala says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    We could also experiment with shorter work weeks, more job sharing, etc. I’d love it if I could split my job with someone else, and have more free time. I’d still get the sense of purpose from my work, but I’d have more time to develop other, equally purposeful activities. As long as I could still afford to pay the bills, get healthcare, etc. (there’s the catch, right?), that life for me would be ideal.

    However, what we have done instead in the U.S. is make many full-time workers responsible for the work of what once was done by 2 or 3 (or more) people, and relegated the rest to scraping together part-time and gig work that they can barely survive on.

  34. EddieInCA says:

    @James Joyner:

    I share your fear. I don’t think trying to bring back dying industries is the answer. I’m just not sure what that answer is.

    @Kit:

    I rather doubt anyone has an answer, at least for the moment.

    1. Raise Taxes. Seriously. There is no reason on the planet for anyone, ANYONE, to have a net worth of 30 Billion dollars, much less 160 Billion dollars. Get rid of carried interest. Get rid of Capital Gains. Tax all income. Period.

    If I work all year and make $500K, I’ll get taxed at around 40%. Yet, if I have $5,000,000 in the bank and make 10% on my money ($500K), I pay capital gains taxes at less than $20%. Why? Why isn’t that income?

    In the last 10 years, I’ve made more money from my real estate investments than I have from actually working, and I make a good living. Yet, I pay less taxes than my sister who has a straight salary job and no investments. Why?

    2. Raise the retirement age. Today’s 65 isn’t the same 65 from 1925.

    3. Write laws for affordable housing as part of any new Real Estate development.

    4. Do away with most Corporate subsidies. Let the free market work when it comes to businesses. (with exceptions for re-training workers for new tech fields)

    5. Increase subsidies for single mothers, single fathers, Widows, Widowers, and those who are physically handicapped.

    Some ideas for conversation.

  35. becca says:

    @Monala: I read somewhere recently that memories are our most treasured possessions. I think you have a shot at making some great ones, so good on you.

  36. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Additionally, coal mining or working at the auto plant was communal—it’s what men in certain communities did.

    And the degree to which that communal experience was positive or negative was entirely determined by how unionized the industry was. With a strong union, you get a lifestyle people are content with even though the work sucks. Without the union, you get a company town and de facto peonage. It is a great triumph of Republican propaganda that the very people who depended on the unions for their very self-image were persuaded not only to throw it away in the name of ‘liberty’, but to be willing to do so again.

    I do find it painfully ironic that the same people who will invoke “personal responsibility” to justify anti-abortion or anti-welfare positions take no personal responsibility for choosing to blow off education in order to take a guaranteed factory job in a dying industry.

  37. DrDaveT says:

    Then, when Rick Marsh got the biggest test of his life — the birth of his beloved daughter, Abigail, and her diagnosis of cerebral palsy at the age of one — his job became a central part of how he saw himself. He was her provider, her protector. That was his worth in the world.

    Other jobs besides factory work come with salaries and health plans. Let me guess — Mr. Marsh opposes Obamacare, which would permit him to change jobs and health plans without losing coverage for his daughter… (Note that getting health care detached from employment would immediately greatly increase the mobility and potential retrainability of many workers.)

    I can understand Mr. Marsh’s emotions, but I have very little sympathy for any of his choices. Blow off education, bank on the factory job lasting forever, be content to do the same grunt work for the rest of your life, ignore the warning signs in the economy, blame everyone but yourself, then vote for the con man who promises to kiss it and make it better? Seriously? I do feel for his family, though.

    8
    2
  38. Gustopher says:

    @EddieInCA:

    2. Raise the retirement age. Today’s 65 isn’t the same 65 from 1925

    If we don’t have enough jobs, we actually want to lower the retirement age.

    The problem is that 401ks have been a failure, pensions have been underfunded, and people don’t have enough money to retire, and that’s not counting the folks who have been living month to month.

    Use the higher taxes from 1 to increase social security.

    3. Write laws for affordable housing as part of any new Real Estate development.

    I don’t think tying the building of affordable housing to building new units has worked anywhere they have tried it. Can you provide an example?

    It discourages building new units, by raising the cost, and it lowers property values of the new free-market units (no one wants to live around affordable housing), which further eats into the developers profits, and makes them build fewer units overall.

    I don’t think wedging housing for the working poor in high income neighborhoods is a particularly great idea anyway — there’s poor public transportation, businesses in the area are too expensive, etc.

    We need to change zoning so higher density housing can be built in some areas zoned for detached single family homes — the land is a large part of the cost.

    I’m open to a tax on real estate purchases over $X, and rent over $Y, and using that to partially subsidize rent for the working poor (I prefer paying a percentage, rather than a fixed sum here), and to pay mortgage insurance and lower the interest rate for their house purchases.

    I’m open to alternatives that haven’t been tried and observed to fail repeatedly. We don’t want to create projects, or pockets of poverty. We need to build more units of housing to get occupancy rates down a bit, so the prices can drop.

    We need to redirect the crazy people out of programs for the poor, and into something where they can get the support they need. A problem with subsidized housing is crazy people. Once landlords get a few of them and discover the damage they can do to their properties, they either start discriminating against all subsidized renters, or they go the slum lord route, which creates problems for the rest of the renters.

    The crazy people shouldn’t just be left to live under bridges, though. There’s a very nice apartment building behind my house that has not violently insane tenants, who receive regular visits from social workers. They’re fine. We need more of that.

    5. Increase subsidies for single mothers, single fathers, Widows, Widowers, and those who are physically handicapped.

    I’m going to have to marry a 97 year old on death’s doorstep, aren’t I?

  39. Gustopher says:

    @Gustopher: I really cannot stress enough how failing to take care of the mentally ill and letting them just fall into the same bucket as the working poor via income tests has destroyed programs for the working poor.

    Maybe functioning poor is a better phrase than working poor, as there are lots of folks without jobs who aren’t mentally ill.

  40. James Joyner says:

    @DrDaveT:

    Let me guess — Mr. Marsh opposes Obamacare, which would permit him to change jobs and health plans without losing coverage for his daughter

    He ostensibly voted Democrat his whole life, including twice for Obama, before going for Trump in 2016

  41. Kit says:

    @EddieInCA:

    Some ideas for conversation.

    You’ll get no conversation from me! More seriously, I don’t think these ideas go deep enough. What does it mean for both the economy and for democracy when the middle class no longer makes sense?

  42. foureyedbuzzard says:

    I’ve worked in manufacturing (steel and manufacturing) in a hands-on job for 40+ years and will retire in a few years. But I have some trouble generating sympathy for those who think that simply showing up on time and going through the motions each day for 30-40 years is all that’s required and everything will work out without any upsets. I’ve worked both union and non-union, private and public sector, been through several lay-offs, injuries, and other events. I’ve had to go back to college, change employers, take pay cuts, keep up with advancing technology, move from my home, live apart from my family, etc. So, yeah, life often requires going above and beyond just showing up at the local factory and punching in on time for 30+ years. When things happen, you have a choice of doing something to improve your situation, or being a victim hoping for help. The latter is futile. No politician ever fixed my employment situation(s), and no politician is ever going to radically change the economic realities of modern day economics and manufacturing. But what bothers me more is the sheer numbers of people who are so willfully ignorant as to actually fall for some of these politician’s agendas and promises, especially when their record shows that they have zero respect for working class people. The greatest threat to the US is the willful ignorance and apathy of its citizenry.

  43. michael reynolds says:

    @foureyedbuzzard:
    Yep. At some point you just have to ask people WTF they did to care for themselves in terms of education, training, relocation, etc. I’ve waited in tables in CA, TX, FL, VA, MD, DC, MA and ME. Pushed a vacuum and scraped shit stains in MA. Painted houses in CA. Been a resident manager in MD. And I’ve been really poor, as in on-the-streets, but it never occurred to me it was the government’s fault that I didn’t have a job. If I didn’t work, that was on me.

  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Teve: You sound like you’ve had experience similar to some of my students in the 90s who were studying desktop publishing–just before Microsoft published their WYSISWYG desktop publishing program (which also became obsolete almost before they got it onto the market, IIRC).

  45. The abyss that is the soul of cracker says:

    @EddieInCA:

    There is no reason on the planet for anyone, ANYONE, to have a net worth of 30 Billion dollars, much less 160 Billion dollars.

    What is this heresy? The fact that I can is justification enough!

  46. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @CSK: They also didn’t have the benefit of history to inform their future planning decisions like today’s workers do.

  47. Rick Zhang says:

    @James Joyner:
    There is plenty of serious work to be done. The best use of excess labour I can see is for R&D, especially in the sciences. That has the potential to improve our productive capacity in the future years.

    Also as we become older, caregiving for elders is a growing field. Why are we forcibly limiting the growth of health care spending when common sense predicts that our overall spending (and perhaps by extension the per capita spending) will go up as boomers age and demand more care? Men have historically been resistant to shifting into becoming nurses or radiology techs. But that’s on them. The need is there, and the jobs are there. It’s up to you whether you want to put in the effort to get it.

    It’s not even a matter of being too old. When my father started learning programming at the age of 40 (career change), he learned C/C++. That doesn’t get you very far these days. He then had to pick up Java, Javascript, ASP, and now entire software suites (not even languages) like Salesforce. The pace of change is so fast that you need to go to conferences and keep up to date, or you’ll become obsolete.

    The world’s needs change, and people have to understand that they have to adapt or die. Government can help a bit e.g. with retraining programs and better support for community college (but oops, those were Dem initiatives that were voted against by the very people they’re supposed to help).

  48. James Joyner says:

    @Rick Zhang:

    The best use of excess labour I can see is for R&D, especially in the sciences. That has the potential to improve our productive capacity in the future years.

    That would be great. But an infinitesimal fraction of coal miners and auto workers have the innate capacity to contribute in that field. Hell, I’m pretty sure I don’t.

  49. Kit says:

    @Rick Zhang:

    The world’s needs change, and people have to understand that they have to adapt or die. Government can help a bit

    I strongly suspect that were we to list those countries we most admire, we would find that their governments help a lot, both with visible programs such as retraining and safety nets, as with the more fundamental base of laws, regulations and policy that determine how the game is played.

    Increasingly, I think that rugged individualism and laissez-faire were comforting fictions that hid more fundamental truths: namely that America was perfectly positioned to profit from the dawn of cheap energy, blessed with abundant natural resources, free from the dead hand of tradition, and set loose on a world flat on its back after WWII. Now India is stirring and China is roaring. The environment itself is flat on its back. Our democracy is creaking. And the tough love shown by several posters above to the losers of today’s economy looks likely to be given to America as a whole by the winners of the 21st century.

  50. grumpy realist says:

    @Rick Zhang: part of the problem is that historically, men have worked in jobs that have required things to be pushed around or hit with large hammers, while women have worked in jobs that require taking care of someone else or doing a whole lot of finicky small movements.

    And for some reason it seems necessary to a lot of men’s egos (and identities) to make sure that they’re not doing stuff that women do.

    So the logical conclusion is that we should have a few male-only “professions” which require a lot of things to be hit with hammers but which pay decent salaries.

    (Hmm…mandatory hand-made samurai swords for everyone?)

  51. DrDaveT says:

    @Kit:

    I strongly suspect that were we to list those countries we most admire, we would find that their governments help a lot, both with visible programs such as retraining and safety nets, as with the more fundamental base of laws, regulations and policy that determine how the game is played.

    Of course. Republicans have two replies to this: (1) denial of the facts (i.e. it doesn’t really work in those other countries, that’s just PR) and (2) ideological assertion that it is better to be ‘free’ than to have a society that functions and makes people happy. Or both.

    Increasingly, I think that rugged individualism and laissez-faire were comforting fictions that hid more fundamental truths: namely that America was perfectly positioned to profit from the dawn of cheap energy, blessed with abundant natural resources, free from the dead hand of tradition, and set loose on a world flat on its back after WWII.

    There is one school of historical thought that basically sees the entire renaissance, industrial revolution, rise from feudalism, blossoming of liberal democracy, etc. as a fluke one-time aberration in the general trend of history, powered by the temporary ability to extract and burn fossil fuels.

  52. grumpy realist says:

    Also don’t forget is that the riskier people think their hold on a certain income level will be, the more likely they are to hold back on things like marriage, having children, buying a house (as opposed to renting.)

    A country where the bulk of the population is constantly nervy about where their next pay check will come from is not going to have a growing GNP.

    People need jobs that they have a decent expectation will not yet yanked out from under them because the company has suddenly decided to move to Mexico to make more money for the stockholders.

  53. Monala says:

    @DrDaveT: Or 3) it only works in those countries because they’re smaller and/or more homogeneous than the U.S.

  54. jj says:

    @CSK: It’s not about IQ, as somebody wrote in here. I’ve seen people pick up from only having high school diploma’s and work their tails off (mostly in night school, while working), to get first through community college, then on to finish a bachelors degree — in computer science and engineering fields.
    All of that said, there is basically still something that one can’t seem to make these people realize/accept — the day when a job ( in the field you are best trained for) will be in your home town is essentially finished. Everyone understands that this doesn’t make for ‘old-time’ family values — but that’s reality. If you believe stupid platitudes such as ‘Make America Great Again’ then you are just denying these realities:
    1. It isn’t 1945-1965, when all of the world pretty much HAD to buy from the U.S.
    2. Other countries aren’t going to stay a bunch of poor, sad sack places, that at best make only
    cheap items.
    3. Automation is going to take most of any manufacturing jobs left, and a whole slew of other
    jobs that can be automated. Get used to this fact — and prepare accordingly.
    4. A non-white person inside the U.S. didn’t take your job. If you want to do some of the jobs these people do, I still have family in California, and extended contacts that can get you a job alongside them, picking lettuce, tomatoes, strawberries, etc. I dare you to do such hard work. Most people won’t last a day, let alone a week or more.

  55. JJ says:

    @mattberniusThe commentary that
    “Because humans are simply not wired that way. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Its simply something that we were not culturally or cognitively adapted for.”
    —is purely called rationalization, for not having looked at the coming reality.

    Sure my own father came back from WW II and was a diesel mechanic and machinist — but even he realized that he had to study up on electronics and try to be ahead of other people in his field. I know he’d have gone back to college if it became necessary. My parents also easily realized (maybe it was just growing up near Silicon Valley) that the future would be for those with college educations — and they kicked our tails to get such degrees.

    The concept that ‘anything’ will stay the same way forever; and that U.S. companies competing against global competition and automation, will just suck it up and make no changes is pretty much effectively “sticking your head in the sand”. While I’d like to have major sympathy for such out-of-work manufacturing people; those of us who’ve continually gone back to college, done other training, and been willing to move around the country (to find/keep a job) aren’t exactly crying that river for you.

    Will life be hard for you now — yes. Deal with it. If you think either party is going to just get a company to plop an old-style manufacturing plant in your town — well you must be blatantly fixated on the past.

  56. JJ says:

    @James Joyner:
    in response to –
    “@Rick Zhang: The best use of excess labour I can see is for R&D, especially in the sciences. That has the potential to improve our productive capacity in the future years.
    That would be great. But an infinitesimal fraction of coal miners and auto workers have the innate capacity to contribute in that field. Hell, I’m pretty sure I don’t.”

    This is where we get into the thinking that says either:
    a. I’m not smart enough for that.
    or
    b. That work is beneath me.

    As other have noted, as a good example, some of the biggest ‘growth’ industries are in health care services, but if Joe Bob manufacturing dude doesn’t want to spend 2 years getting a certificate to be a dental assistant, or other form of medical assistant — that really becomes ‘his problem’. Many entry level IT/software jobs can also be gotten with community college, or other training — and one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to start. Yes — you may have to move/travel to find work in a new field — but that’s a reality many others already live with.