Review: When Work Disappears

Review: When Work Disappears

When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor by William Julius Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It is just as indefensible to treat inner-city residents as superheroes who are able to overcome racist oppression as it is to view them as helpless victims.

This book is remarkable to read now, as it documents a phenomenon that has only grown more widespread in the years since its publication. William Julius Wilson set his sights on understanding the causes and effects of urban poverty, particularly as it afflicted the black community.

The process Wilson identifies will be familiar to most Americans now: As factories close and industry decamps, well-paying jobs for people without college degrees dry up. The disappearance of decent work causes a kind of domino effect. Those who can move out, do so, leaving only the most disadvantaged to stay. Little by little, the community starts to crumble. Families fall apart as people—particularly fathers—are unable to support their children. Drug use and drug dealing become widespread in a community with few legitimate employment opportunities.

Meanwhile, the government provides little support for the people trapped in this situation. The chronically underfunded schools did not provide a ladder out of poverty. The lack of public transportation means that people who do not own cars have little opportunity to find work elsewhere. Mothers are forced to choose between staying on welfare, facing stigma and losing a sense of autonomy, or taking minimum-wage work and losing health insurance—for themselves and their children. Instead of providing drug counseling and addiction support, the primary response is to incarcerate drug offenders in large numbers, which only further debilitates the community and makes family life even more difficult.

By now, this basic process has played out in many parts of America. But before it affected rural whites, it hit urban African Americans. And here is where the country’s racial attitude became a major factor. For the public response to this suffering was not sympathetic; rather, people worried about “thugs” and “super predators,” making American streets unsafe—people so dangerous that they could not be helped, only locked away. The public pointed the finger at “welfare queens” and accused poor mothers of milking the system to live a life of ease. In other words, as is so often the case in the United States, we blamed the poor for living in poverty.

As Wilson, a distinguished sociologist, is at pains to show, the key factor in this process is the disappearance of jobs. When there is no opportunity to make a decent living, a community suffers. Nowadays such a thesis is hardly controversial. Indeed, we have seen it play out in many parts of the country. But at the time, it was a vital point to make, since the public discourse insistently framed the problem as a kind of moral failing on the part of the poor. Either that, or some sort of negative cultural attribute was blamed. And, of course, all of this was racially coded. But as more and more communities succumb to this process, the explanations relying on personal responsibility or cultural traits seems less and less plausible. This is a structural problem.

This is not to say that Wilson is against using culture as an explanation. To the contrary, in the first part of this book, where he relies on surveys and interviews performed by his team, he notes how living in such an environment can cause adaptations that are maladaptive elsewhere. This can become a self-reinforcing cycle, since negative stereotypes are sometimes borne out, and used to further stigmatize the community. One of the most fascinating sections are a series of interviews with employers in the area, many of whom give excuses and justifications for not wanting to hire black employees, particularly males. But even more striking is that most of Wilson’s respondents endorsed the basic American value system of individualism and personal responsibility. Those on welfare did not relish a life of ease, but longed for work that could support themselves and their children.

The second part of this book looks at larger trends and solutions. Wilson notes that the sort of urban poverty widespread in American cities is virtually nonexistent in Europe, and credits the strong safety net there. His own proposals for improving the lives of the urban poor are familiar by now—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, more funding for education—but they do not seem much closer to reality now than in 1996, when this book was published. We can start moving in direction at any time. All that is lacking is the political will.

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Quotes & Commentary #70: Graeber

Quotes & Commentary #70: Graeber

Economies around the world have, increasingly, become vast engines for producing nonsense.

—David Graeber

Humans are strange creatures: we can twist any event to reinforce the beliefs that we already hold. One would hope that this were not the case; after all, the entire premise of science is that experiences can correct beliefs. But it seems that this is not always the case. The coronavirus crisis is showcasing this tendency in all its irrational glory. Everyone—from progressives to conservatives—is convinced that this crisis reveals why the other side was wrong. Yet this mental phenomenon does not even have to take a political form. Exercise fanatics, for example, will use the crisis to reinforce their obsession, while doomsday preppers must feel awfully vindicated right about now.

I suppose I should join this crowd and offer my own little pet theory. A few months ago I read the book Bullshit Jobs, by David Graeber, and was entranced. It describes a widespread phenomenon: that many people harbor the secret conviction that their job is absolutely pointless. Reading this was an immense emotional vindication for me, since I myself had worked a job that I found to be pointless, and I experienced many of the harmful psychological effects that Graeber describes. But the problem is more than psychological. I think all of us have run into people whose jobs seem to serve little to no socially beneficial function. This can take many forms. A secretary whose only job is to answer the phone three times a day; an administrator whose job is to get college professors to upload their syllabuses into a central database; or the many hundreds of thousands of people employed in the United States processing health insurance claims.

Now that so many sectors of the economy are essentially shut down, perhaps this will give us an opportunity to reflect on which jobs are bullshit and which are not. I am not suggesting, of course, that everyone who has been sent home has a useless job. To the contrary, I think that most parents with kids at home would agree (I hope) that teachers have quite a challenging and important job. Likewise, now that we are sorely missing the pleasures of bars and restaurants, we must be grateful to all the people who made that possible. During this dark time, the humble cashiers in our grocery stores have become heroes. And this is not to mention the garbage collectors, police officers, and above all the doctors and nurses.

My point is that so many jobs which are commonly seen as low-skill and which are thus badly paid are now the ones we are relying on, or missing, most of all. Meanwhile, the sorts of jobs that are lampooned in Graeber’s book—the corporate lawyers, the college administrators, the creative vice presidents—I suspect are not sorely missed. Perhaps, then, this will motivate us in the future to better compensate those in these normally overlooked professions. Of course, I must pause and remind myself of the basic economic principle of supply and demand. The market is not a moral machine (fortunately or unfortunately); and rewards are not given away for merit.

Still, we have the means to make people’s lives easier. One way—popularized most recently by Andrew Yang—is Universal Basic Income: simply giving every citizen a certain amount of money each month that would be enough to cover basic expenses. In attenuated form, this is what the government is already proposing to do during the crisis: mailing every American a check for $1,000 dollars to help the many people who are out of work. David Graeber is also in favor of the idea, partly because it would allow so many people to escape the world of bullshit work. That is, having a financial cushion would give people the freedom to leave their work when they feel they are not doing anything productive or valuable. And this freedom would make a big difference in the job market in general, since it would give employees far more negotiating power. Jobs would have to be reasonably appealing if they wished to attract people who already had enough money to live on. Thus, this could benefit those with highly-paid but useless work, as well as those with badly-paid but useful work.

Maybe it is inappropriate to think of utopian schemes while we are in the midst of a crisis. And of course I am guilty of the same sin of seeing the situation through my own ideology. I ended my review of Graeber’s book by calling for a movement dedicated towards the expansion of leisure time. Ironically, nowadays I greatly miss the freedom to go to work. When you actually believe that you are contributing to society, working becomes a great source of meaning in your life. A world without work is not one I want to live in. But if we can dream for a few moments, I would ask you to imagine a world where work is more flexible, more negociable, and more meaningful. Will this crisis edge us in that direction? Perhaps I can be indulged for a moment of optimism at a time when all the news is bad news.

Review: Working

Review: Working

WorkingWorking by Studs Terkel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They ask me if it’s true that when we bury somebody we dig ‘em out in four, five years and replace ‘em with another one. I tell ‘em no. When these people is buried, he’s buried here for life.

—Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger

It is not really accurate to call Terkel the “author” of this book. The real authors are the 133 subjects of Terkel’s interviews. Terkel serves as a stenographer and redactor, recording interviews and editing them into readable format. This is no mean feat, of course. The ability to get everyday people to open up and share their private thoughts is an uncommon skill. And considering how messy, faltering, and scatterbrained most ordinary speech is, rare talent is required to edit it into readable form while preserving the subject’s voice. Terkel is the ideal person for this task, able to ask probing but open-ended questions, creating interviews that follow the train of the subject’s thoughts without straying off topic. The result is a panoramic view of people and professions, encompassing nearly every imaginable attitude towards work, representing a wide swath of the public without reducing variation to a single narrative.

Books like this are especially valuable, considering how prone we are to taking work for granted. Work, as an institution, is a fairly recent phenomenon, the child of the Industrial Revolution. Back when the vast majority of the populace were farmers, “work” did not exist. Farmers work very hard, of course, but the rhythm of their work is dictated by the seasons; there are no set hours and no salary. The way we make our living is radically different from how our ancestors did; and yet work, nowadays, seems like the most natural thing in the world, more eternal and more important than marriage. This lack of scrutiny is especially striking, considering that our jobs dictate our social status, consume most of our time, and are usually the number one thing we complain about.

So what are the common themes of these interviews? One is boredom. Adam Smith famously proclaimed the economic benefits of the division of labor, which allows workers to be orders of magnitude more productive by dividing up tasks. But Smith was also wary of the dangers of this division:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Well, as Terkel shows, this is not quite accurate. Even the workers who have worked their whole lives doing very repetitive work show themselves thoughtful and humane in their interviews. Mike Lefevre, an astonishingly articulate steelworker, says “It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” The real danger is not stupidity, but profound boredom, which is arguably worse. I know this from experience: though apparently harmless, boredom can be hellish, and can wreak serious harm on your psyche. And it is a ubiquitous malady, either from repetition or simple inactivity. Nora Watson, an editor in an advertising agency, says:

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Connected to this boredom is a kind of brutish narrowness. Every person, even the most ordinary, is radically unique, with their own perspective, talents, and propensities. Jobs, on the other hand, often require only a very limited set of skills, forcing the worker to neglect a large part of their potential and to put aside their own priorities and preferences. Thus workers in this book often report feeling like “machines” or being “dehumanized,” such as Eric Nesterenko, a hockey player:

I know a lot of pro athletes have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself.

Some workers feel dissatisfied because of the disconnect between their jobs and the rest of their lives. Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative, says: “I see us living in a completely schizophrenic society. We live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third. You have to talk differently depending on who you’re talking to.” Other workers lament the separation of their work and the final product, such as Mike Lefevre: “It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.” The common theme is social compartmentalization and the feeling of isolation that results, something that the philosopher John Lachs thinks is responsible for modern alienation.

It goes without saying that inequality—economic, social, political—is a major source of concern. Roberto Acuna, a farm worker, has this to say:

I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. In fact, they treat their implements better and their domestic animals better. They have heat and insulated barns for the animals but the workers live in beat-up shacks with no heat at all.

Curiously, the bosses and elites on the other end of the differential, though more satisfied with their work, sometimes displayed alarmingly unhealthy or superficial mindsets:

My interest in motorcycles was for the money originally. I saw this was going to be a big field. Later, business becomes a game. Money is the kind of way you keep score. How else you gonna see yourself go up? If you’re successful in business, it means you’re making money. It gets to the point where you’ve done all the things you want to do. There’s nothing else you want to buy any more. You get a thrill out of seeing the business grow. Just building it bigger and bigger…

In America, where our jobs are one of the main determinants of our social standing, it is no surprise that status anxiety plays a big role in worker dissatisfactions. Dave Stribling, who works in an automobile service station, doesn’t like telling people what he does:

What really gets you down is, you’re at some place and you’ll meet a person and strike up a conversation with ’em. Naturally, sometimes during that conversation he’s going to ask about your occupation, what you do for a living. So this guy, he manages this, he manages that, see? When I tell him—and I’ve seen it happen lots of times—there’s a kind of question mark in his head.

And then there is that universal blight of modernity, the lack of meaning. The feeling of being useless, of wasting your talents, of working solely for profit or a paycheck, plagued many of the subjects in this book. This was most heartrending when expressed by the older subjects. Steve Dubi, a steelworkers, says: “What have I done in my forty years of work? I led a useless life. Here I am almost sixty years old and I don’t have anything to show for it.” And here is Eddie Jaffe, a press agent: “I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, ‘What does a press agent do?’ you force me to look back and see what a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations—what I did with them. What being a press agent does to you. What have I wound up with? Rooms full of clippings.”

The modern remedy for this feeling of meaninglessnes, to “follow your passion,” also left many feeling lost and confused. Here is Sharon Atkins, a receptionist: “I don’t know what else I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit this job. I really don’t know what talents I have. I’ve been fostered so long by school and didn’t have time to think about it.” And some, like the unforgettable Cathleen Moran, a hospital aide, are just annoyed by the idea: “I don’t know any nurse’s aid who likes it. You say, ‘Boy, isn’t that rewarding that you’re doing something for humanity?’ I say, ‘Don’t give me that, it’s a bunch of baloney. I feel nothin’.’ I like it because I can watch the ball games in the afternoon.”

By the end of this list, it is easy to see what Studs Terkel means with his opening lines: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” But Working is not totally bleak. There are many workers, often in very ordinary jobs, who report great satisfaction. This seemed to be associated with jobs that require a lot of social interaction. I experienced this myself, when I switched from a desk job to teaching. It is hard to feel isolated and useless when you’re constantly dealing with people. Dolores Dante, a waitress, enjoys the constant waves of new customers: “I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me?”

Another obvious source of satisfaction is expertise. One of the most satisfied subjects in this book is Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker. She is satisfied with her work because she does it well. In the days before barcodes and digital cash registers, Babe memorized all the prices in the store: “I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform and nurse’s shoes and that I got varicose veins. I’m makin’ an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, they’re lower than I am.”

But perhaps the biggest source of satisfaction is the feeling of helping others. This is what Jean Stanley, a cosmetics saleswoman, takes pleasure in, despite not considering her job very important: “You would have liked to do something more exciting and vital, something you felt was making a contribution. On the other hand, when you wait on these lonely old women and they leave with a smile and you feel you’ve lifted their day, even a little, well, it has its compensations.”

This book certainly shows its age. There are many professions which no longer exist, mostly due to automation. But as a portrait of work, as a modern institution, Terkel has given us something timeless.

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