Whither the Working Class?

The demand for labor is shrinking. Globalization has already gutted the blue collar job market and now automation is rapidly finishing it off. What does the future hold for the working class, the historical backbone of our society?

Not everyone is suited for a college education and a life shuffling paper or designing smart phone apps. All of us have talents and for many of us those talents involve physical labor. There have always been ways for honest, hardworking people to make honorable livings and to support themselves and their families. But there is little opportunity for the working class these days. Those who can make the jump to the white collar world (as I did) will prosper, but those left behind will, it seems, fall even further behind.

So what are we to do with the working class, in the absence of any meaningful work to do? A life on welfare, at the expense of their dignity? These are people for whom work is a virtue. In this culture the worst thing you can say about someone is that they are lazy. And these are people who are fiercely independent. They want to earn their keep. They don’t want a life of dependency. Everyone of any merit is “hardworking” and everyone wants that word in their eulogy.

And so the working class is frustrated and, increasingly, angry. They’ve seen no real increase in wages in a decade, even as the upper classes continue to amass incredible amounts of wealth. They believe that the political establishment doesn’t care about them, or is even actively working against them. This belief is the source of much of the political unrest we’re seeing in the U.S. now, as working class people grasp for heroes, seemingly willing to accept terribly flawed options.

A couple of days ago I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Annoy a liberal. Work hard. Be happy.” Why should people believe that “working hard” would annoy a “liberal”? That deserves some serious reflection.

This sentiment is common: the government doesn’t care about people who want to work–it only cares about people with money, and people who won’t work. I’ve heard variations of that many times. It doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Working people believe it’s true and they’re angry about it. And my guess is that sentiment is not restricted to a few ignorant rednecks in southside Virginia. My guess is that it is prevalent throughout rural and blue collar America.

But what if the emerging globalized technologically-advanced economy renders the working class irrelevant and leaves them with nothing to do? Who will buy the cheap consumer goods the automated factories are producing? Maybe the system is destined to consume itself.

Demographics dictate the future. And today a full 25% of humanity is between the age of 10 and 24. The vast majority of these young people are coming of age in the developing world, and they’re finding few opportunities. A million young people turn 18 in India every month. The number of Indians between 18 and 34 is roughly equal to the entire combined populations of the U.K., Canada and the U.S. This sort of demographic shift is occurring throughout the developed world, leading to massive waves of immigration and triggering more unrest. Youth unemployment is 25% in Europe and 17% in the U.S., despite not having the lopsided youth-dominated demographics of the developing world. (Read more about that HERE.)

Houston, we have a problem.

Somehow a system must emerge which provides meaningful employment for working class people. The solution won’t come easily, but it will begin, I believe, with attention to sustainability and rejection of growth-at-all-costs economics.

Just some rambling thoughts this morning. We live in interesting times.

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26 comments on “Whither the Working Class?

  1. Laurie Graves says:

    Great post! In the U.S., the biggest employer is Wal-Mart. In Maine, it’s Hannaford Supermarkets. Pretty hard to support a family on those wages. No wonder people are angry. And anger can fuel some pretty ugly behavior, as we are seeing during this election cycle. Actually, Robert Reich and Bernie Saunders do have some ideas, but how much they would help is, of course, theoretical. But at least they have some ideas. Have you read “The End of Work” by Jeremy Rifkin? It was published many years ago, but he could see what was coming.

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    • Bill says:

      That looks like a great book–addressing the very thing I’ve been pondering a lot lately. Thanks for the recommendation. I wonder if there is a similar book written more recently. I’m going to check and if not (and maybe even if so) I’m going to add Rifkin’s book to my must-read list!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. dennisrenner says:

    Bill, I believe your observations and conclusions are correct. I believe we have the building of a perfect storm on the horizon.

    Dennis

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks. It’s a subject that deserves a much more thoughtful analysis. Not enough is being said about this, in my opinion. The system is going to have to find some way to digest millions of unemployed or under-employed people. I don’t think that will be easily accomplished.

      Liked by 1 person

      • So much manufacturing sent to other countries, and while we are glad to see those countries thrive, it doesn’t answer the question of the many lost blue-collar jobs here in North America. The idea that our people would do the white collar and IT work doesn’t seem to have materialized either.

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  3. gatheringplaceseasonfour says:

    two books currently reading: 1) This Chair Rocks (anti – ageism) ; and “Alamance” – history of textile – NC from 1837 (the Alamance mill) through the strike around 1905 – 1906 that shut down the Holt family textile mills (before “Love” – Burlington Industries). I even wrote an Amazon review for “This Chair Rocks”

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  4. Right there with you. Something’s got to change. Actually, everything’s got to change. At all levels. Very disappointed in the name calling and saber rattling. Tired of “us vs. them” too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      I agree. It’s hard to imagine the quality of our public discourse being any worse than it is now. That’s a dang shame considering the great challenges we face. I think we’re up to them. History has proven us to be a resilient lot. But the cast of characters applying for leadership positions these days don’t exactly engender a lot of confidence.

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  5. Chris G says:

    I worry more about the people who think they are doing meaningful work merely making bucket-loads of money, not to say the salt of the earth don’t have their hands full. A cynical person might say a great war is needed to get those folks busy again. But I think that famous economist who drove a lot of the lack of income growth criticism and advocated for a wealth tax instead of a tax on earnings said that (another big war) was the only thing that would narrow the gap between rich and poor. Personally, I think everyone should grow their own food. “Who will buy the cheap consumer goods the automated factories are producing?” Not I said the little hen.

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  6. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, you always seems to rise above the crowd with posts that require pondering (as you said). It’s one of the reasons I like your posts. It gets me to thinking about some thing that’s right in front of me but I don’t see it. I am impressed with the facts you use to back up your posts. This post is a real eye opener for me. How much longer can this unrest last in the working class before revolution has to happen. I think we are already seeing the anger behind the working class starting to come out in the riots that are happening across the country. This political campaign year is filled with the most passion I have ever seen in all my voting days. Those that have secured their retirement wealth and have left the work force are clueless about what is happening in the economic world. As you have stated, advancing technology is eliminating positions of employment for the working middle class. It’s all headed for the proverbial cliff at a high rate of speed.

    I know you are an optimist, Bill, and I hope and pray you are correct in saying that answers will be found to help those that are willing to work but can’t find meaningful work. Some would say that the glory days of this country are over. I’m kind of with you, Bill, in that we the people seem to pull together during difficult times to over come the bad times. Change is coming and has to happen in many areas of life. Some we will like and others we won’t but life will continue as it has for millenniums.

    Have a great Virginia day in the garden.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Dave. I worry sometimes when I put up posts like this one. Who wants to read stuff like this, I wonder. Shouldn’t I just stick to baby goats? 🙂

      But one of the privileges of having a blog is that I get to post whatever I want. 🙂

      Humanity has accomplished some amazing things in the past 50 years (despite ourselves) and we’ve faced a lot more difficult challenges than this one. But still, figuring out how the system is going to digest these many millions of unemployed and underemployed young men is going to be a major challenge. Let’s hope we’re up for it.

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      • Agreeing with so much that’s been said here… But I must say the the concept of “the system ‘digesting’ the unemployed” makes me uncomfortable… Like so much cannon-fodder to be chewed up and ‘spat’ out…
        Needing Equilibrium: balance, fairness, equality

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  7. avwalters says:

    Good food for thought. If you add in that shifting climates may well put millions of those young people “on the move,” we have a future that will not look like our past. Adapt, or die.

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    • Bill says:

      As I’m sure you know, the Syrian drought played a big role in creating the unrest (or at least the atmosphere for it) that has led to so much suffering there. Putting climate change into the mix does complicate things. Maybe some genius will figure out a way to put all these people to work rescuing the environment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        Regenerative Ag is the solution. Only organic methods- low till farming, rebuilding healthy soils and proper crop rotation- actually put carbon back into the soil.

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      • I would expand on AV’s suggestion about “regenerative Ag” to include short-cycle ‘responsible manufacturing’ by cutting out the middle man: to buy Local (make Local, sell Local) and thereby attain that ‘digestion’ you mentioned earlier…

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  8. Hmm, “May you live in interesting times” is an ancient Chinese curse…
    Henry Ford believed his employees should make a living wage – after all how better to expand their purchasing power? These days “down-sizing”, “right-sizing” and “efficiencies” are nothing but code for short-sighted stupidity – a house built on shifting sand…
    I pray that people use the brains they were given

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Lynda says:

    I have read your week in reverse and finished here… what a week it was! Enjoyable reading and awesome content that made me think. Yes, “…it is your blog and you can say what you like” but surprise, we liked it too.

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Lynda. I’ve thought of setting up separate blogs and categorizing my posts that way. But in the end it seemed like too much effort. So for now I just dump it all in one place and let the reader beware!

      Liked by 1 person

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