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Making it in America

The Atlantic Monthly has an excellent article on the future of manufacturing in the United States, which is also something of a meditation on declining opportunities for workers with low and moderate skill levels:

This may be the worst impact of the disappearance of manufacturing work. In older factories and, before them, on the farm, there were opportunities for almost everybody: the bright and the slow, the sociable and the awkward, the people with children and those without. All came to work unskilled, at first, and then slowly learned things, on the job, that made them more valuable. Especially in the mid-20th century, as manufacturing employment was rocketing toward its zenith, mistakes and disadvantages in childhood and adolescence did not foreclose adult opportunity.

For most of U.S. history, most people had a slow and steady wind at their back, a combination of economic forces that didnt make life easy but gave many of us little pushes forward that allowed us to earn a bit more every year. Over a lifetime, it all added up to a better sort of life than the one we were born into. That wind seems to be dying for a lot of Americans. What the country will be like without it is not quite clear.

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We need people to take care of people, to babysit, do after-school care, drive older people to appointments, keep company to the very elderly and help them get around, cook for them or help them eat. We need more people to help parents of young families. We need unskilled workers in hospitals to alleviate the workload of nurses and make the hospital more humane. Manufacturing work may be disappearing, but there is, to my eyes, a clear need in many places for workers with low and moderate skill levels. There ought to be many opportunities.

Nice two paragraphs, nicely written. Will read the article. Thanks. Excellent magazine - but I can't tell whether it just keeps getting better or is beginning to go downhill.I don't think a highly ethical society can accept a situation in which scut work is all that's left to the slow, undisciplined, and undereducated. But I wonder whether we're capable - as a species - of seeing that and making a conscientious effort to prevent it.Another way of thinking about this leads to where I think we may be heading anyway - to societies in which work is no longer the only honorable way to survive. As machines replace people in producing products and performing services, it seems unlikely that there will always be enough "work" for all the potential "workers" to do.

Just finished the article. Not as good as it might have been, but enlightening.Here's the paragraph before the two you quoted:

I came to realize, though, that Maddie represents a large population: people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need. Luke doesnt have children, and his parents could afford to support him while he was in school. Those with the right ability and circumstances will, most likely, make the right adjustments, get the right skills, and eventually thrive. But I fear that those who are challenged now will only fall further behind. To solve all the problems that keep people from acquiring skills would require tackling the toughest issues our country faces: a broken educational system, teen pregnancy, drug use, racial discrimination, a fractured political culture.

That seems to be the crux of the dilemma - bad schools, unwed mothers, drugs. I'm not sure what he meant by "a factured political culture"; racial discrimination may be thrown in just to be politically correct; I suspect it's no longer anywhere near as big a problem as the first three. And those three come down to one: broken families. If families taught kids responsibility, honesty, discipline, and the importance of hard work, there wouldn't be bad schools, which are a direct result of the discipline problems caused by kids reared badly. Problems caused by sexual irresponsibility and drug use aren't new to our times. What's new is the failure of the culture to teach its children not to yield to them.I guess that sounds naive and old school. But, I think, it's just common sense. If so, a simple solution might be to set high standards for families and do everything possible to grow them. The more difficult of those two might be setting high standards. How, in a society that's come to believe everyone has the right to behave badly, can you start telling people that behaving badly is unacceptable?

These 2 paragraphs remind me of the malaise speech given by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. He missed it, and I think The Atlantic has too. People of a certain downbeat temperament seem to congregate together, and often in journalism. Misery does love company, after all.Meanwhile, the majority of Americans have the wind at their backs, that wind being their optimism in America, and the future in general. That's why they chose to be led by another man, making Carter the first president to lose a re-election bid since...well, I can't even rememer the last one before him.

Until her senior year of high school, Maddie seemed to be headed for the American dream [...] When she was 17, she met a boy [...] Around Christmas, she found out she was pregnant. She did finish school and, shes proud to say, graduated with honors. [...] The father and Maddie didnt stay together after the birth, and Maddie couldnt afford to pay for day care while she went to college, so she gave up on school and eventually got the best sort of job available to high-school graduates in the Greenville area: factory work.I wonder if the father also had the same raw deal?Certainly, Maddie made plenty of mistakes that limited her options in life: she chose to have sex, to not use contraception, and to not have an abortion. From the viewpoint of her economic welfare, those were three big mistakes back-to-back. In addition, the social fabric is not supportive of teenage mothers, so she is doomed by her mistakes.

It's lovely to see Mark channeling Emile Coue ("Every day in every way I am getting better and better"). Coue was extraordinarily popular before the Depression, but then, well, it got a little hard to see improvement in the handouts. The gospel of optimism made a comeback during the 1980s -- at about the same time the trends observed in the Atlantic article became irreversible.Well, now, Chipper Ones, President Obama promises you that green technology will put a wind at our back. But if that were going to happen, computer technology would have put a wind at our back. Green production, like computer production, no doubt will be outsourced to the lowest-wage country. That is the genius of capitalism maximizing return on investment. President Obama's would be successors hope to emulate Greece, Spain and Italy, where unemployment is rising and growth has stopped. So all we have left is our optimism. Unless we decide to get realistic, as, I am afraid, the authors of the Atlantic article are.

There has been a neglect on the nations infrastructure and by that I don't just mean the big bridges stuff. A lot of our Housing is now about 50 years old. The fringe suburbs were built fast and not too well.. Plumbing, heating, electric are all needing upgrades by repair workers that can't be outsourced , I just met a gas heating repairman who makes about $200,000 a year.. call up one and get a quote.. new college grads eat your heart out.

" Manufacturing work may be disappearing, but there is, to my eyes, a clear need in many places for workers with low and moderate skill levels. There ought to be many opportunities. "But will these new kinds of job come remotely close to replicating the wages and benefits that manufacturing jobs delivered post-WWII? Will they enable a stable middle class to raise a family, own a home and raise and educate children?$5-$15 per hour jobs will not do that. $20 per hour jobs will not do that.

These 2 paragraphs remind me of the malaise speech given by Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. He missed it, and I think The Atlantic has too. People of a certain downbeat temperament seem to congregate together, and often in journalism. Misery does love company, after all.So, are you suggesting that this should be the new national anthem? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGqfGJds5fE

Will they enable a stable middle class to raise a family, own a home and raise and educate children?Not clear, but is that the first concern? My first worry would be to see the ranks of the unemployed swelling. The first priority is for people to be able to get a job even without skills, the next one is for those jobs to provide fair living wages, and the next one is for workers to have a realistic shot at improving their situation. There won't be social unrest if people can get jobs and if they have a chance of getting better jobs. Maybe "owning a home" is a dated XXth century dream. Why is that so important in the absolute? Maybe its was a transient value and will soon become historical.

The first priority is for people to be able to get a job even without skills, the next one is for those jobs to provide fair living wages, and the next one is for workers to have a realistic shot at improving their situation.

Seems to me the author thinks the first priority might be getting serious job training for the unskilled workers who can't afford either the cost or the sabbatical from work they'd need.Of course, that would do nothing for those who are untrainable, who simply don't have the native aptitude to become skilled machinists.

Claire, owning a home means putting down roots, having a piece of the earth to call your own. In America, with a superabundance of land within the reach of people of modest means, that's been an important goal, since well before the last century. We're a strongly induvidualist culture. It's one of the perduring things that define us.

owning a home means putting down roots, having a piece of the earth to call your ownIt's a natural desire, but that doesn't make it worthwhile or a top priority. Especially for Christians, why does it matter so much? There's nothing inherently good about owning a home, it seems to me.

Claire 01/15/2012 - 7:29 pm :

Theres nothing inherently good about owning a home, it seems to me.

Do you see it as bad? Unhealthy attachment to material things?

Possibly, especially if it becomes an obsession. When I saw Jimmy Mac's comment, Will they enable a stable middle class to raise a family, own a home and raise and educate children? I was struck to see owning a home put at the same level as family and children, which I think of as much more important.

I have often growled to myself about the raise-yourself-by-your-bootstraps crowd who say we can prosper if we only buck up and do it. One thing I always remember is that half of the American population falls below the median IQ. It is great for the intellectually and physically blessed to do well, but the rest? I don't think our society has a clue about how to give the less privileged half a life with dignity. There are no structures, no plan, no priorities. This needs a lot more discussion than we have been willing to give.

I dont think our society has a clue about how to give the less privileged half a life with dignity. There are no structures, no plan, no priorities.

We talk as though society were a person, with a philosophy and a plan. It's a collection of individuals and a horrible number of laws constricting them in thousands of ways. Government isn't a producer that can go out and make money. All it can do is confiscate your money. There will never be an end to need. Fill one hole, and you'll discover a myriad others that need filling. Whatever "we" do will never be enough. Governing isn't about making everything nice and right and just - it's about preventing the worst abuses. For making everything perfect, you need a dictator. Alas, all we have is a democracy.

Fr. Taylor --A psychologist friend assured me years ago that psychological studies have shown that with the right teaching methods people of ordinary intelligence can learn a lot more difficult material than is commonly assumed. I assume that this is true of at least some people of lower than average intelligence. The method used to be called "mastery instruction". It involved teaching the simplest concepts of a subjectfirst, but not letting a student progress until those simple matters have been mastered. Then, in very small incremental steps, more and more difficult material is introduced and mastered at each level of difficulty before the student is allowed to progress.. I used the method in a freshman logic course and was was amazed at how ordinary students can master difficult material if they can learn it their own rate of speed.My psychologist friend said that the best news is that the less than brainy people, once they learn a subject, retain it just as well as the brainier ones. In other words, it seems that the difference in learning ability is at least partly a matter of how quickly one learns -- and how well one is taught.I don't know whether those findings have held up, but given my own experience, I have a lot of faith not only in the ability of ordinary intelligence, but some of the not so bright folks as well. And for theological reasons I cannot believe that the Lord put a majority of people on Earth without the ability to do what they need to do to live a decent life.

"Thats why they chose to be led by another man, making Carter the first president to lose a re-election bid sincewell, I cant even rememer the last one before him."Mark, you sure show your political colors. So George Bush Sr. did not get re-elected because college grads and mba's could not find work during his watch. Clinton got the country rolling again which W ruined by removing all controls.

This is the story of my hometown in Vermont as well. It was a machine-tool town. (Machine tools are machines that make machines, essentially, so engineered with great precision. Another name for the region was "Precision Valley.") In high school, there was a track for students to begin learning the skills needed to work in the shops, while others were groomed to go on to engineering degrees. So business and education worked together, and people had solid jobs, if only in a limited area. Even less-educated shop workers with families could make enough to own a modest home, the marker of economic security and respectability at the time. The jobs were outsourced, and little is left. The town cut a deal to let a new prison (a growth industry!) be built in exchange for a community rec center, but even that didn't generate many jobs. A couple shops remain, but they're not enough to be the economic engine that the industry once was. A town that was once enough of a player to be high on the list of cities the Germans planned to bomb when they invaded, (a backhanded compliment, to be sure,) now is best known as the town that hosted the premiere of the Simpson's movie a few years back (another backhanded compliment, I suppose, but one not associated with actual jobs.) So Vermonters can work in ski areas, cleaning up after tourists, in resorts mostly owned by non-Vermonters, whose money leaves the state. Or they can join the military--Vermont has suffered disproportionate casualties from the recent wars due to the state's economic travails. There's no shame in janitorial work, but there's something sad when that's one of your best job options. And don't get me started on our "all-volunteer" military. Not to glamorize the past--not a lot of opportunities for women, e.g.,--but it was a system that protected workers at many skill levels, and provided decent wages.

Richard Russo's novel, Empire Falls, is about the people in just such a town in New York State. Some of his other works also are about the effects of unemployment on people's psyches. Fine book. Won a Pulitzer Prize. Sad to say, now the rust belt is starting to understand what the South was like economically for generations.

I used the method in a freshman logic course and was was amazed at how ordinary students can master difficult material if they can learn it their own rate of speed.

Ah, yes, Ann. And the one-size-fits-all classes in universities aren't made with the slow - like me - in mind. We need to learn in our own way, at our own pace. Unfortunately, what you discovered either hasn't been learned by the education-policy people or it's been discarded as not beneficial to a great enough number. Perhaps its time has come, but I wonder. The examples given in the Atlantic article suggested that the people most likely to be given training are the fast learners. Faster payback, of course. Makes sense. Also, faster learners can deal more easily with dumber machines, which are no doubt cheaper to make. And, of course, faster learners can adapt much better to changing circumstances or unexpected events. The slow may soon find more doors opening, but there'll always be far fewer for them than for the fast.I imagine that in a work environment that because of never-ending technological innovation is constantly evolving, the fast learner will always have the advantage. Seems inevitable - and hardly unfair - except in the sense that life is unfair.Eventually, perhaps, we'll reach a place where working to survive will be something people did in ancient, primitive times. Wouldn't it be nice if we eventually return to a situation like that of classical Greece, with machines taking the place of the slaves. We'd all be free to think and talk all day, every day.

Peter, thanks for calling attention that Atlantic Monthly piece. It's a very good primer on the state of manufacturing in the US.The unskilled worker, Maddie, certainly seems educable. If community college education is all that is required to operate the Gildemeister system, then that shouldn't be beyond her reach. It seems clear to me that, despite her excellent employee qualities, her position is terribly at risk; she is a cost adjustment away from having her job shipped overseas. It is incumbent on her to make herself more marketable. What would it take for her to enroll herself in the same classes that Luke took? Perhaps the most important thing would be an adequate support system for this single mom.

Jim Pauwels 01/17/2012 - 10:41 am :

The unskilled worker, Maddie, certainly seems educable. If community college education is all that is required to operate the Gildemeister system, then that shouldnt be beyond her reach.

Except that according to the author - at least implicitly - it is, because she can't afford to stop working and study for two or three years. That would be far too expensive for her, both in time and work experience lost and in the cost of the schooling. That seems to me the main point of the article: that a great many people have failed to take the necessary early steps to succeed financially in life at the time when they had to take them. Now, they have to catch up, and now, it's much harder to do that than it would have been at the time that society had allowed for that.Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it), the time society allots for learning the necessary things (math, language skills, correct attitudes and behavior) is extremely long - about twelve years, from age four to age eighteen. Unfortunately, so many families are so dysfunctional that all during that long period they fail to engage their children in that learning, and the children not only fail to learn but they learn self-destructive thought and behavior patterns, instead. The fundamental problem lies in the child's early formation, and the responsibility for that is almost always a family, not "society".

Accepting the Bain Capital approach means we devalue the lives of local citizens and rush to destroy what may be redeemable by other means. We consign people to low minimum wages and limit severely their ability to even survive in a cruel social and economic Darwinism. Our society can do much better than that. All it takes is to stop blaming the victims and begin mitigating their suffering and offering a way for them to recover not only economic but personal dignity. We have so many things that need to be done - we certainly kind find ways to put these folk to work doing so. And pay them living wages with real benefits and a future!

David S - we'd need more information in order to understand whether Maddie would need to give up working in order to take the classes needed to move up to a skilled classification. My observation is that programming an industrial system doesn't require a full degree - perhaps just a handful of technical courses would suffice. Also, community colleges (and a lot of four year institutions) usually are pretty good about offering evening classes to accommodate working adults.It would also be good to understand whether the employer subsidizes work-related college courses, and gives preference to qualified internal employees when filling job openings. Those are employee benefits that we can reasonably demand of employers.