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Unfortunately, what is known about work is depressing: unemployment is over 7 percent, thousands of auto workers have been laid off since the beginning of the year 1980 and, locally Armstrong Rubber Company has announced plans to close their plant soon, leaving 600 people jobless. For the urban teenager today, the possibility of finding a job is almost hopeless as local employers stiffen job qualifications and federal funds are cut for summer job programs.
As an average high school history teacher, I cannot possibly begin to offer solutions to our current economic challenges, but neither can I ignore them. Not only do I face difficulty in meeting my own expenses, but increasingly, I have trouble in directing my students as they make important college and career choices. Students today are justifiably cynical about the American dream that promises advancement through education. Going to college does not automatically guarantee a job, much less a good-paying, self-satisfying job. Those students for whom high school is their final formal education are inadequately prepared for work, some even unable to fill out simple applications.
Unlike most societies, it is difficult to categorize individuals by class in the United States. Unwilling or unable to stay in one area for any length of time, divided by differences of nationality, race, religion, sex and skills, the mass of Americans do not lend themselves readily to a definition as a people or a class. So in discussing workers with students, it is difficult to present them with a clear idea of whom we are talking about. Traditionally, the working class has been defined as “those engaged in the production and distribution of goods and services who do not own or control the object of their labor or its uses.”2 More recently events have forced reevaluation of this definition. Today’s work force in America may be more loosely described as performing “an activity that produces something of value for other people.”3
The transformation of this country between 1865 and 1920 from an agrarian to an industrial society created lasting divisions among American workers. Some of these divisions were self-imposed; others, importantly, came from forces more powerful.
As capital organized and separated specific tasks, it created a heirarchy within the industrial world. Different skills were required for different jobs as workers were classified skilled, semiskilled and unskilled. This was truly a diversifying factor as each group formed its own social and work-related organizations and developed a mistrust, dislike and even hostility toward the others.
As technology increased and new machines were invented, there occurred a reshifting of the groups and a deepening of the already existing divisions. Employers hired unskilled, low-paid and more “manageable” workers to operate simple machines. Skilled workers, no longer the core of productive labor, were incorporated into management as engineers and technicians. Given the task of finding means to enlarge profit, the skilled workers realized that mechanization did not mean easier work and shorter days as they first thought. Many of the benefits they had gained through their trade unions were lost as were their unions. When employers demanded 12 hour days, cuts in pay, continuous production, and reduction in benefits, skilled workers protested e.g., (Homestead Strike of 1892) but eventually accepted the terms in order to maintain the heirarchical division of labor within industry. Industrial capitalists thus succeeded in maintaining a greater dependency by the skilled workers on the corporations while at the same time dividing the working class. Those who resisted this arrangement were dismissed and blacklisted.
Immigrants blacks and women were caught in the middle of this strategy and were often betrayed by both employers and fellow employees. Another aspect of the American dream promised them equality of opportunity and social mobility. The reality of daily survival, however, made it clear to them that these were promises rarely to be realized. Making up the bulk of the unskilled workers, these groups were excluded from trade unions and politically and socially targeted by discriminatory policies and attitudes. Such relationships only served to further degrade their skills and social position. In some cases immigrants returned to their homelands rather than face the “false promises” of American society.
While Northern European immigrants (especially British and German) comprised more than 62 percent of the skilled immigrant workers, among Eastern and Southern Europeans (especially Slav, Italian, and Hungarian) more than 70 percent were unskilled. Average weekly salaries in 1907 at the Homestead Steel Mill reflected the stratification of labor based, in part, on the ethnic distribution within the hierarchies. Slavs earned $12 a week, English-speaking immigrants $16 a week, native-born whites $22 a week and blacks, who had been brought in 15 years earlier to help break the strike, earned $17 a week.
lt would be impossible to stress the influence of the Catholic Church on working class consciousness. “Home of religion of the immigrant”, as Richard Hofstadter labeled it, the church was extremely important in reinforcing the work ethic: work hard now, be thrifty and gratification will come later. Operating as an ethnic shield for the worker in an alien society, the church stressed obedience and promised deliverance from this hell-on-earth daily life. Helping new arrivals survive and find their place in American society, the church was sympathetic to the struggles of the worker. Urging their parishioners to be content with what they had, to find dignity in their work, the church actually encouraged many workers not to associate with middle class and thus Protestant workers. Sometimes the church became involved with trade unions over issues of corruption or Communism (later on), but basically has successfully integrated its followers into American society by reinforcing many of the attitudes that were at the heart of capitalism.
Just as powerful a force in splitting the working class as nativism was racism. Black people were at the center of the agricultural force that allowed the accumulation of capital both before and after the Civil War. With the fall of cotton prices after 1890 and the increasing mechanization of agriculture, especially after 1890, blacks were thrown off the land and began their long migration to the cities of the South and then to the North.4 The exclusion of blacks from Southern industry constituted a major impetus for the move North, the main migration taking place during the interwar period. The situation in the North was no better, with only the most menial jobs available and with more blacks permanently joining the ranks of the unemployed. Despite (or perhaps because of) the discriminatory policies of the A.F.L. and the C.I.O. increasing numbers of blacks entered industry, especially the auto industry just before World War II. Organizing independent councils and unions, blacks made few gains by 1960 with only 14.1 percent attaining the status of skilled workers and professionals. However, the experience gained by those who fulfilled mobility ideologies and social aspirations had important consequences for the civil rights movement of the ‘60’s.
The transition from agricultural to industrial society had profound effects on the American family and especially on women. Even though there was a sexual division of labor in the agricultural society, in the sense that women were expected to raise the children, be housekeepers, and make necessary articles for the family, while men did the bulk of the farming, women still participated in planting, harvesting, and caring for animals. Women and children were expected to participate in all aspects of farming and thus were partners with the men, more equal with them than later.
During the beginnings of the factory system, women constituted the bulk of textile workers and even by 1850 represented about 24 percent of all employees in manufacturing industries, including heavier industry. Most of the time supplementing family income, they were paid low wages ($4.50 a week was an average salary in 1890). Toward the end of the 19th century with large numbers of Americans moving from the farms to the cities, with mass unemployment among men and with industry shifting from textiles to iron, steel, machine tool production, mining and oil and heavy chemical production, women found themselves excluded from industrial labor. Agitation for “protective legislation” to safeguard the health of women and children coincided with the beginning of mass compulsory public schooling and the development of the ideologies that glorified the nuclear family and the “woman’s place” in the home.
By the time of World War II, most of these ideologies were conveniently forgotten as women suddenly were called upon to do heavy lifting, work long hours, and learn trades for which they had been presumed to be intellectually and physically unfit. But with the end of the war and the return of 11 million men to civilian life, millions of women were reminded once again of the importance of the nuclear family and the “feminine mystique” was reinstated. The fact that both women and blacks have been pushed to the outer edges of the American economy, acting as a reserve labor force in times of war or real economic growth, has forced them to perform the lowest paying and least secure jobs available.
In thinking about my own upbringing, I recall one message that was made clear to me as soon as I was able to understand it. I was expected to do well in school, go on to college, and be able to choose a career that would make me happy. My father reminded me all too often of how hard and long he worked for so little. As a typical parent raising children in the 1950’s, he tried to give me what he could but always stressed that I had to do better, that life would be easier with an education. Fortunately for me and my parents, I liked school, worked hard and was put into “higher track” classes, making it easier to go to a “good” private girl’s school and then on to college. In this sense, the school systems and I succeeded. But what of the failures? Stanley Aronowitz views the high schools as an attempt to replicate the factory: tracking students into academic, vocational and general classes, all with their own career expectations. The various labels attached to the student through testing or tracking all impress upon the student that his or her failure to do well in school is a function of his or her lack of intelligence or efforts. The distinctions between “bright” and “slow” or “bad” children teach children very early that to cooperate, to be obedient and to work hard will bring reward and pleasure.
The importance of play for children and leisure time for adults is that it is seen as their only self-controlled time. It is the escape from domination from adults or school or from a dehumanizing job. For working class women, “rap” groups become the means for sharing frustrations of work or homelife domination. Men play games, go to bars or join various organizations in their attempts to achieve the status of equal to other persons in contrast to their subordination at work.
The message from the family and the school is to go to school to learn what is necessary to become productive laborers. To have a job in America is to be a citizen. An advertisement on the radio recently said “Buy an American car; keep Americans working.”
The advertisement is revealing on yet another count for in the past 30 years, another force has been working against the formation of an independent working class culture. Mass culture reflects the effort of capitalism to give relationships between people the sense of relationships between things. Through mass-communications workers learn that they must produce to consume. Television watching has become the favorite pasttime of both children and adults in our society. As in spectator sports, the T.V. watcher is passive and thus is dominated.
The most popular family show on television is “All in the Fami1y.” Its main theme is the generation gap, especially as it pertains to Archie and his son-in-law Mike. Archie, confused and annoyed by the new world, constantly loses battles with his liberal, college educated son-in-law, but retains authority because he pays the bills and takes care of the family. Many Americans accept the values that preserve the traditional working class society. Television teaches Americans that the factory worker is a failure, without a rich life, accepting a system of beliefs which are not intelligent. How many programs even show the factory workplace?
Television and current films have many messages about women, violence and the changing world. Acting as a kind of safety valve, mass communications attempts to absorb tensions arising out of every day life and relieve frustrations (especially the tensions generated by the contradictions between what workers can actually afford to buy and the amount of gratification they can get from their work). The attempt of the media to scapegoat by using certain groups or reinforcing the necessity of law and order through the typical crime drama both tend to present a degraded view of life today.
The overwhelming majority of American workers are dissatisfied with the quality of their working lives today. The present generation of workers is different from any coming before it. Not prepared to perform mindless repetitive tasks day after day, not motivated by the opportunity to buy a split-level house in the suburbs and have two cars in the garage and an endless barrage of electrical gadgets, many young workers have begun to change work patterns. Although unions have brought about real achievements, young workers are skeptical of what unions can do now. The transformation of the worker from an active producer to a spectator of his own work has made work meaningless to many workers. As soon as he or she leaves work, he or she tries to forget it. While there, he or she thinks of something else to get through the day.
During the last 30 years, American workers have begun to become aware of their power through collective action. Production for profit rather than use has taken its toll on the environment and the health of too many workers. The resulting alienation of humans from nature and from their work has produced a crisis that people are no longer willing to endure. Unless workers are willing to go beyond being manipulated they can never control their own destiny.
A number of changes would have to take place before American workers could effectively create a conscious culture. Workers organizations would have to be organized at the shop level, within industries and nationally. These groups would have to broaden the scope of their interests to include larger social demands having to do with the environment in the workplace and the community. They would have to get involved politically, opposing U.S. involvement in wars, corporate efforts to freeze wages and federal actions that limit workers freedom to act on their own.
There would have to be a massive reeducation to help workers learn how they have been dominated, an effort which would mean a total restructuring of the major institutions of school, church, and family and a separation of popular culture from mass culture. For the working class public to realize its own necessities and how to obtain them without sacrificing the quality of life is a massive undertaking.
The first category and question that students may ask is “Why work?” It has become increasingly clear that working solely for money is not enough. Yes, people do need to provide themselves with basics, but beyond that, what real purpose does work serve?
Traditionally, work served the purpose for society as a means of producing and distributing goods and services, but today there is more emphasis on the personal meaning of work. For some, work is a place to socialize, to meet people, to talk and form friendships. In another social sense, it determines a status for the worker and his or her family, which may in turn determine the neighborhood where a family lives, schools attended by children, friends associated with, etc.
Over and over again, workers talked about work contributing to or taking away from their self-esteem. Work contributes to self-esteem in two ways. The first is through an awareness of how well a person can do his or her job—and thus acquire a sense of mastery over both himself or herself and his or her environments. The second comes from the sense that what the person does benefits others. To be so removed from the actual finished product of your work as one is on an assembly line cannot give the kind of satisfaction that someone who builds a building has. People often talk of work as being “meaningful”. When it hasn’t added to their self-esteem, they feel like “robots” or machines. People’s identities are shaped by their work: they tend to “become what they do”.
Basic to all work is the desire of workers to impose some order or structure on the world. The more people feel that they come to their goal of having control the more satisfaction they experience. For most individuals the kinds of jobs that they see open to them do little to provide the sense of self-esteem, identity, or mastery that are essential for satisfying work. Most turn to other activities (music, drinking, sports) or other institutions (church, family, community) to find their rewards.
As more and more people look to their “leisure” time for satisfaction, the very “work ethic” comes under attack, especially by the young. High absenteeism (sometimes blamed on poor attendance patterns developed in school), poor or careless craftsmanship, and large numbers of strikes are visible signs. The fact that so many people live communally, that many factories have introduced a four-day week, that retirement is occurring at earlier ages, that welfare caseloads are increasing are other signs that people’s values and aspirations have changed. Quantitatively, the lives of workers has improved tremendously. Salaries are higher, working conditions have improved, standard of living and life expectancy have risen markedly. What they find most oppressive about work are constant supervision and force, lack of variety, monotony, meaningless tasks, and isolation.
If Terkel’s book is any indication of the numbers of people dissatisfied with their work then it is fair to say that roughly 90 percent of Americans are not happy with their jobs. Unlike the workforce of the past, todays workers are now mostly native-born, better educated, affluence-minded, and are challenging traditional values. Many of the new workers do not repress their resentment over job monotony and scale of organization or their inability to control the pace and style of work. The big challenge to industrial society is now to consider both the social needs of workers and the task to be performed. Those workers expressing satisfaction with their jobs were those who experienced the following factors—autonomy, working on a “whole” problem and participation in decision-making.
Yet the contradiction of the American dream is that our economic, political and cultural system has fostered without fulfilling the great notion of independence and autonomy, the self-made Horatio Alger image. The idea persists that if you are really hard-working, you can always make a go of it on your own. As recent data shows, there has been a drastic decline in small business and self-employment in the past 70 years. The trend is toward larger corporations which have organized workers to minimize independence and maximize control. So now the elements of dehumanized and authoritarian work add to the causes for dissatisfying working environments, i.e. alienation. Social scientists identify four ingredients of alienation: 1.) Powerlessness (regarding ownership of the business, general management policies, employment conditions and the immediate work process), 2.) Meaninglessness (with respect to the product worked on as well as the process), 3.) Isolation (the social aspect of work), 4.) Self-estrangement (“depersonalized detachment,” including boredom, which can lead to the absence of “personal growth”). As alienation takes its toll on industry by diminishing productivity there is more pressure to relate the production of goods to other social concerns.
For the majority of workers, the frustrations of life in a mass society are vented and show up in the form of “social problems.” Many workers at all occupational levels feel locked in, their mobility blocked, the opportunity to grow lacking in their jobs, challenge missing from their tasks. Work problems spill over into other activities in life. Either workers take out their frustrations on their families, friends, or sometimes hostility is expressed toward the government.
Whether it’s blue-collar or white-collar, factory or office, dissatisfaction with the job is common. The typical American worker today, the clerk, is faced with higher academic requirements for jobs which have not increased in terms of prestige, status, pay or difficulty. Signs of these dissatisfactions may be found in high turnover rates (30 percent a year) and a nearly 50 percent increase in white-collar union membership. Recent articles in the press indicate tremendous increases in white-collar crimes.
On the managerial level, workers complain of job insecurity, and tell stories about people being asked to clear their desks at the end of the day and leave—period. Managers also complain about having no input into decisions on policies they are expected to implement without adequate means. Another fear running rampant among middle-aged managers was obsolescence, as many experience “mid-life” crises.
Young workers, as I have described earlier in this paper, offer the greatest challenge to the system. Out of a workforce of more than 85 million, 22 1/2 million are under the age of 30. Not against work, they reject the traditional work ethic, materialism, and many ideas associated with them. Most want a meaningful career, one which matches the education they are receiving and one in which they have some freedom to make decisions.
But for minority workers, the most immediate need expressed to Terkel was to be able to have a job that paid enough to support a family. Having a meaningful job is seen as a luxury, since one out of three minority workers is unemployed, irregularly employed or has given up looking for a job. Another third earn less than a living-wage in laboring and service jobs. Minority workers are disproportionately unemployed or working at bad jobs. This reflects the systematic discrimination that racial minorities experience not only in work but in education and many other institutions in our society. Untrained black workers in highly competitive work environments worry about security and survival and constantly feel threatened. They have had little control over the institutions that affect their lives and their current work situation reinforces their feelings of discrimination.
Although housekeeping is the main occupation of American women, it is no longer the only occupation or source of identity for most. The Department of Labor studies show that more than half of all women between the ages of 18 and 64 are in the work force and that 9 out of 10 women will work outside the home at some time in their lives.
The job of secretary is perhaps symbolic of the status of female employment in the country. With more than 9 million secretaries composing nearly one-third of the nation’s female workforce, the stereotype is definitely low status and low-paying. Most of the other jobs women do are the worst jobs in the economy and serve to deflate self-images, especially in cases where women have had high expectations about work.
As described earlier in this essay, women have had to overcome some ideological obstacles and myths to even obtain jobs in the past. Statistics on absenteeism have revealed little difference for men and for women who have children. Another barrier to women’s advancement has been the belief that women are not suitable supervisors, although, again surveys on the subject indicate the opposite. Sex-typing is another attitude which has limited the numbers of women entering traditionally “non-feminine” occupations. Ideas on what is “man’s work” and what is “women’s work” tend to be self-perpetuating, although the women’s movement has certainly done much to correct this.
Wage differences between men and women have been quite large in the past and although recent legislation has corrected some of the disparity, there is still a great deal of job segregation or under utilization of women who are qualified to do higher paying jobs.
In the area of disincentives to female employment, the government’s and corporations’ reluctance to provide day care facilities has prevented many women from entering the work force. In addition, Federal policy concerning female unemployment is of great concern to women. Although most of the women who head families work, the unemployment rate, for women in this group was much higher than for married men. The attitude that it is not so serious for women to be unemployed is probably related to the fallacy that most married women who are working are doing so just for “pin-money”. Juanita Kreps has calculated however, that given an average of 40 hours a week spent on housework, the 1960 GNP would have increased by $105 billion, or by over one-sixth if all wives without preschool children had been employed outside the home. Hardly pin money!
Public concern for health in the United States is easily demonstrated today with billions spent each year on medical care, cancer research, proposals for national health insurance, etc. If the physical and mental health costs of jobs were assumed by industry, rather than by individuals and society, there would probably be a drastic decline in the injury, disease, and death rates associated with employment. The statistics speak for themselves: in 1968 over 14,000 people died in industrial accidents; 90,000 suffered permanent damage from industrial accidents; over 2 million suffered temporary disability, while in 1969, exposures to industrial pollutants in the workplace caused one million new cases of occupational disease, including 3,600 dead, 800,000 cases of burns, lung and eye damage, dermatitis and brain damage.
In a 15 year study on aging, the strongest predictor of longevity was work satisfaction, the second being overall “happiness”. Anthropologist Sula Benet’s study of the Abkhasian people of the Soviet Union provide some interesting insights into living longer. Healthy diets and increasing prestige with age were important factors, but a major distinguishing characteristic was lifelong work. Occupational stress was found to be “associate” not only with heart disease (which accounts for about half of all deaths), but with peptic ulcers, arthritis, stroke and gout.
Dull, demeaning work over which a person has little or no control, as well as other poor features of work also contribute to an assortment of mental health problems. Many workers cope with job dissatisfactions, by drinking, taking drugs, or withdrawing from other people. Some intentionally sabbotage their own work.
Ultimately, a major change is going to take a long time as the major policy makers in this country are going to have to commit themselves (business, labor, and government) to the goal of improvement of the quality of working life in America.
For teachers the responsibility of preparing our students for the world “out there” waiting for them becomes an almost impossible task unless we are willing to begin to examine some of our own attitudes and values and really explore the possibility of a new “American dream”, one which emphasizes not how much money a person makes or how many possessions he or she owns, but one which stresses the importance of meaningful work.
to decide whether they think each job is a “male” job, a “female” job, or one performed equally by both. Leave a space for them to give reasons why next to each job.
Collect the sheets and do a quick tally on the board. Using the model below there will probably be a few jobs that will invite a lot of discussion and debate and will reflect typical American and teenage attitudes about sex-typed occupations.
OCCUPATION MALE FEMALE BOTH REASON WHY
Nursery School Teacher
After the discussion ask students to try to think of any job that a woman could not perform, and a job that any man could not perform.
Ask them to think about way so many occupations are performed overwhelmingly by one sex or another.
Then give them same information about workers in other countries.
Most typists and secretaries in England are men.
Most doctors in the Soviet Union are women.
Ask them to think about way.
After reading this article, ask students to discuss or explain the major reasons the Abkhasians live so long. Then ask them to try to explain American society’s attitude toward our elderly especially about making people retire because of age. How do they feel about their own future planned obsolescence? How have attitudes toward the elderly changed recently? What does the huge membership of Senior Citizens say of recent legislation protecting Seniors? What else could be done?
In their own families some students may be able to talk about how grandparents are taken care of in nursing homes or within the family.
Possibly some students may wish to interview grandparents or any elderly people they know on the subjects of: Their earlier lives, their work, growing old, and what it has meant to them, etc.
A great person to get to come in and speak to the students about the changes he has seen in New Haven is Dan Stewart, who has recently written a book on the history of the black community in New Haven. He is really a character and will invite a lively discussion with kids of all ages.
- 1. The job responsibilities
- 2. The qualifications needed, special training, etc.
- 3. The pay they should expect and benefits.
- 4. The possibility for promotion—where could the job lead to.
- 5. The possible satisfaction they could get—what things would make them happy about the job.
- 6. Possible related jobs or careers.
- 7. What retirement may mean.
- 1. Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents, W.W. Norton, N.Y., 1961, p. 71.
- 2. Stanley Aronowitz, False Promises (NY, 1973), p. 12.
- 3. Special Task Force for Secretary of HEW, Work in America, p. 3.
- 4. for further information see Betty LaPucia’s unit “Migration to the Promised Land” in 20th Century Afro-American Culture 1978, volume II.
Dubrofsky, Melvyn, Industrialism and the American Worker, 1865-1920, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1975.
Ginzberg, Eli and Berman, Hyman, The American Worker in the Twentieth Century, London: Free Press of Glencoe, Collier-Macmillan Limited, 1963.
O’Brien, Mary Win and Page, Joseph A., Bitter Wages, New York: Grossman Publishers, 1973.
Special Task for the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Work in America, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1973.
Terkel, Studs, Working, New York: Avon Publishers, 1972.
Terkel, Studs, Working, New York: Avon Publishers, 1972.
Contents of 1980 Volume VI | Directory of Volumes | Index | Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute