One of the dramatic demographic changes that has taken place in the U.S. over the past three or four decades is what appears to be the disappearance of the urban white working class.
These people haven’t actually “vanished” – rather, many of them simply don’t like to identify themselves as “working class” anymore.
There are many complex factors at play here – including class-consciousness, class-snobbery, economic realities, immigration, racism and even technology, among others.
From a purely anecdotal perspective, I have never heard anyone describe themselves as “working class” or “blue collar” – even if it was obvious that these terms applied to them perfectly.
Invariably, they classify themselves as “middle-class.”
Indeed, among dozens of white bartenders, construction workers, policemen, firefighters, delivery-men, welders, electricians, even the unemployed, I have met and known over the years in New York – not one of them regarded themselves as “working-class.”
While being considered “poor” is absolute anathema, being “working class” also seems to have become a pejorative term in this country.
Perhaps it shows how fluid and vague these class distinctions are to begin with.
For example, a unionized electrician (with no college degree) probably earns more money than a highly-educated philosophy major working as a substitute teacher in a public school. Which one is of the “higher” class? Among these two prototypes, one may have more “prestige,” but the other has much more purchasing power (and, in the end, that’s what most people in a capital democracy really aspire to).
Race, of course, plays an important role in this discussion as well.
I remember once speaking to an Irish-American construction laborer in Queens who was complaining about the fact that there were “too many” blacks and Hispanics on his work-site. He characterized them as being “poor” and “uneducated,” when he clearly he was in the exact same socioeconomic predicament.
Thus, the once great white working class has somehow been “upgraded” to the “middle-class” (regardless of their income or profession).
Self-perceptions and self-classification aside, the absolute number of white working-class Americans likely has decreased substantially in recent decades primarily due to the collapse of manufacturing base.
With so many steel plants, car factories, foundries having vanished, so have the men and women who once worked there.
But attitudes about class have dramatically changed as well.
I am certain that the GM auto-worker in 1950s Detroit or the Pittsburgh steelworker proudly and enthusiastically identified themselves as “working-class.”
So, what has happened in the years since that has prompted millions of Americans to shed the “working-class” label?
One thing, I believe, was the obsession with upward mobility and the sense that, in the wealthiest country the world has ever seen, everyone is entitled to go to college and get a high-paying white-collar job.
Moreover, after World War II, the GI Bill and the rapid expansion of suburban developments suddenly allowed an entire generation to become homeowners (something beyond the hope of their parents and grandparents).
This was, of course, all a bitter illusion, since even in the U.S., people tend to die in the same class they were born in. Moving up in class remains a very difficult thing to accomplish, unless one is very lucky.
The two most famous white working class men in America were probably Ralph Kramden, the Brooklyn bus driver from the 1950s television classic “The Honeymooners” and Archie Bunker, the bigoted Queens-based loading dock foreman from “All in the Family” in the 1970s. Even though they were fictitious characters, I think they perfectly captured the values of the former generation of blue-collar white working men.
Although Ralph and Archie dreamed of striking it rich and advancing to a “better life,” they still seemed quite content with their lives. They worked hard, took care of their families, went to church, loved their country and (generally) adhered to values and the culture ingrained in them from childhood. “Upward mobility” was rather meaningless and pointless to them.
But Ralph and Archie truly have vanished. These two men, uneducated, hard-working and solidly blue-collar, relished their working-class values and deeply disliked the middle and upper classes, whom they regarded as weak and effete.
Politically, national lawmakers have completely abandoned the white working-class. Perhaps their last champion was President Ronald Reagan, before him, Richard Nixon and, perhaps, notorious Alabama governor George Wallace.
Since that time, prominent politicians have focused their energies on either the poor or the affluent (and, so have advertisers).
Thus, even politicians seeking higher office pretend that white working-class no longer even exists.
Technology, I think, also plays an influential role in self-classification. Virtually everyone today (regardless of income or social status) owns a cell phone or PC. These easily-acquired material possessions, I believe, give people the illusion that they are not poor -- that they are “connected” to society and that they are active, vital participants in a dynamic, ever-changing world.
Can you imagine Archie Bunker speaking on a Smartphone or sending emails?
Also, do not underestimate the impact of student loans, credit card and easy mortgages – these financial instruments (eagerly snapped up millions of foolish, naive Americans) provided a lifestyle that was not earned and ultimately could not be paid for.
Considering that student loan debt and consumer credit debt in the U.S. now each total some $1-trillion – well, that's a huge magnitude of delusion and self-entitlement.
But, it's all a myth.
Many people cannot come to terms with who and what they are and choose to live in a delusional fantasy world. I also think the recent global economic crisis – which threw millions of people out of work and out of their homes – has merely served to exacerbate this condition, not rectify it.
I know people in New York who grew up in comfortable, affluent middle-class suburban homes who are now barely scraping by. Despite that, they cling to the false notion that they are still middle-class, or even more incredibly, upper-class – simply due to their background and birthright.
They simply will not (and cannot) acknowledge the reality of their lives.