Livia Gershon | Longreads | March 2018 | 8 minutes (1,950 words)
Over the past few months, Starbucks, CVS, and Walmart announced higher wages and a range of other benefits like paid parental leave and stock options. Despite what the brands say in their press releases, the changes probably had little to do with the Republican corporate tax cuts, but they do reflect a broader economic prosperity, complete with a tightening a labor market. In the past couple of years, real wages hit their highest levels ever, and even the lowest-paid workers started getting raises. As Matt Yglesias wrote at Vox, “for the first time in a long time, the underlying labor market is really healthy.”
But it doesn’t feel that way, does it? From the new college graduate facing an unstable contract job and mounds of debt to the 30-year-old in Detroit picking up an extra shift delivering pizzas this weekend, it just seems like we’re missing something we used to have.
In a 2016 Conference Board survey, only 50.8 percent of U.S. workers said they were satisfied with their jobs, compared with 61 percent in 1987 when the survey was first done. In fact, job satisfaction hasn’t come close to that first reading in this century. We’re also more anxious and depressed today than we’ve been since the depths of the recession, and we’re dying younger — particularly if we’re poor.
So maybe this is a good moment to stop and think about what really good economic news would look like for American workers. Imagine for a moment that everything goes right. The long, slow recovery from the Great Recession continues, rather than reversing itself and plunging us back into high unemployment. Increased automation doesn’t displace a million truck drivers but creates new, more skilled driving jobs. The retirement of the Baby Boomers reduces labor supply, driving up wages at nursing homes, call centers, and the rest of the gigantic portion of the economy where pay is low.
Would this restore dignity to work and a sense of optimism to the nation? Would it bring back the kind of pride we associate with the 1950s GM line worker?
I don’t think it would. I think it would take far more fundamental changes to win justice for American workers. But I also think it’s possible to strive for something way better than the postwar era we often remember as a Golden Age for workers.
Let’s start by dispelling the idea that postwar advances for American workers were some kind of natural inevitability that could never be replicated today. Yes, in the 1940s, the United States was in a commanding position of economic dominance over potential rivals decimated by war. And yes, companies were able to translate the manufacturing capacity and technological know-how built up through the military into astounding new bounty for consumers. But, when it comes to profitability, business has also had plenty of boom times in recent decades, with no parallel advances for workers.
This is the moment to stop and think about what really good economic news would look like for American workers.
Let’s also set aside the nostalgia about how we used to make shit in this country. Page through Working, Studs Terkel’s classic 1972 book of interviews with a broad range of workers, and factories come across as a kind of hellscape. A spot welder at a Ford plant in Chicago describes standing in one place all day, with constant noise too loud to yell over, suffering frequent burns and blood poisoning from a broken drill, at risk of being fired if he leaves the line to use the bathroom. “Repetition is such that, if you were to think about the job itself, you’d slowly go out of your mind,” he told Terkel.
The stable, routine corporate office work that also thrived in the postwar era certainly wasn’t as unpleasant as that, but there’s a whole world of cultural figures, from Willy Loman to Michael Scott, that suggest it was never an inherent font of meaning.
The fact that the Golden Age brought greater wealth, pride, and status to American workers, both blue- and white-collar, wasn’t really about the booming economy or the nature of the work. It was a result of power politics and deliberate decisions. In the 1930s and ‘40s, unionized workers, having spent decades battling for power on the job, at severe risk to life and livelihood, were a powerful force. And CEOs of massive corporations like General Motors were scared enough of radical workers, and hopeful enough about the prospects of shared prosperity, to strike some deals.
A consensus about how jobs ought to work emerged from these years. Employers would provide decent pay, health insurance, and pensions for large swaths of the country’s workers. The federal government would build a legal framework to address labor disputes and keep corporate monopolies from getting out of control. Politicians from both parties would march in the Labor Day parade every year, and workers would get their fair share of the new American prosperity.
Today, of course, the postwar consensus has broken down. Even if average workers are making more money than we used to, the gap between average and super-rich makes us feel like we’re getting nowhere. We may be able to afford iPhones and big-screen TVs, but we’ve got minimal chances of getting our kids into the elite colleges that define the narrow road to success.
And elite shows of respect for workers ring more and more hollow. Unions, having drastically declined in membership, no longer have a seat at some of the tables they used to. Politicians celebrate businesses’ creation of jobs, not workers’ accomplishment of necessary and useful labor. A lot of today’s masters of industry clearly believe that workers are an afterthought, since robots will soon be able to do anyone’s jobs except theirs.
But let’s not get too nostalgic about the Golden Age. As many readers who are not white men may be shouting at me by this point, there was another side to these mid-century ideas about work. The entire ideological framework defining a job with dignity was inextricably tied up with race and gender.
From the start of the industrial revolution, employers used racism to divide workers. And union calls for respect and higher wages were often inseparable from demands that companies hire only white men. The Golden Age didn’t just provide white, male workers with higher wages than everyone else but also what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “public and psychological wage” of a sense of racial superiority.
Just as importantly, white men in the boom years also won stay-at-home wives. With rising male wages, many white women — and a much smaller number of women of other races — could now focus all their energy on caring for home and family. For the women, that meant escape from working at a mill or cooking meals and doing laundry for strangers. But it also meant greater economic dependence on their husbands. For the men, it was another boost to their living standard and status.
Golden Age corporate policies, union priorities, and laws didn’t create the ideal of the white, breadwinner-headed family, but they did reinforce it. Social Security offered benefits to workers and their dependents rather than to all citizens, and excluded agricultural and domestic workers, who were disproportionately black. The GI Bill helped black men far less than white ones and left out most women except to the extent that their husbands’ benefits trickled down to them.
Let’s also set aside the nostalgia about how we used to make shit in this country.
Today, aside from growing income inequality, unstable jobs, and the ever-skyward climb of housing and education costs, a part of the pain white, male workers are feeling is the loss of their unquestioned sense of superiority.
So, can we imagine a future Golden Age? Is there a way to make working for Starbucks fulfill all of us the way we remember line work at GM fulfilling white men? Maybe. With an incredible force of political will, it might be possible to rejigger the economy so that modern jobs keep getting better. It would start with attacking income inequality head-on. The government could bust up monopolistic tech giants, encourage profit-sharing, and maybe even take a step toward redistributing inherited wealth. We’d also need massive social change to ensure people of color and women equal access to the good new jobs, and men and white people would need to learn to live with a loss of the particular psychological wages of masculinity and whiteness.
But even all that would still fail to address one thing that made work in the Golden Age fulfilling for men: the wives. Stay-at-home moms of the mid-twentieth century weren’t just a handy status symbol for their men. They were household managers and caregivers, shouldering the vast majority of child-raising labor and creating a space where male workers could rest and be served. And supporting a family was a key ingredient that made otherwise draining, demeaning jobs into a source of meaning.
Few men or women see a return to that ideal as a good idea today. But try imagining what good, full-time work for everyone looks like without it. Feminist scholar Nancy Fraser describes that vision as the Universal Breadwinner model — well-paid jobs, with all the pride and status that come with them, for all men and women. She notes that it would take massive spending to outsource childcare and other traditionally unpaid “female” work — particularly since those jobs would need to be good jobs too. It would also leave out people with personal responsibilities that they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hand over to strangers, as well as many with serious disabilities. And it certainly wouldn’t solve the problem many mothers and fathers report today of having too little time to spend with family.
A really universal solution to the problem of bad jobs would have to go beyond “good jobs” in the Golden Age model. It would be a world where we can take pride in our well-paid jobs at Starbucks without making them the center of our identities. That could mean many more part-time jobs with flexible hours, good pay, and room for advancement. It could mean decoupling benefits like health care and retirement earnings from employment and providing a hefty child allowance. Certainly, it would mean a social and psychological transformation that lets both men and women see caring work, and other things outside paid employment, as fully as valuable and meaningful as a job.
As a bonus, this kind of solution would also make sense when we do fall back into recession, or if the robots do finally come for a big chunk of our jobs.
All this might sound absurdly utopian. We are, after all, living in a world where celebrity business leaders claim to work 80-plus hour weeks while politicians enthusiastically deny health care to people who can’t work.
But the postwar economy didn’t happen on its own. It was the product of a brutal, decades-long fight led by workers with an inspiring, flawed vision. And today, despite everything, new possibilities are emerging. Single-payer health care is a popular idea, and “socialism” has rapidly swung from a slur to a legitimate part of the political spectrum. Self-help books like The 4-Hour Work Week — which posit the possibility of a radically different work-life balance, albeit based on individual moxie rather than social change — have become a popular genre. Young, black organizers in cities across the country are developing their own cooperative economic models. And if there’s any positive lesson we can take from the current political moment, it’s that you never know what could happen in America. Maybe a new Golden Age is possible. It’s at least worth taking some time to think about how we would want it to look.
Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for the Guardian, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, Aeon and other places.