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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Monday, March 27, 2017

The other thing that the factories did

I think the nostalgia for the Good Factory Jobs is as much about the anxieties of A Certain Professional Class as it is about the anxieties of those in genuinely precarious positions.  You see, nobody in my professional class knows "what to do about" people who don't go to college.  We know that America can only be a stable, prosperous country if opportunities to contribute to and benefit from that prosperity are broadly-distributed, but none among us actually know what a person can do for a decent living without a college degree.  OK, we know that there are plumbers who make good money, and a number of other highly specific occupations that can lead to a comfortable middle-class life without a college degree.  But beyond that, most of us (me included) aren't entirely sure what else can be done.

I think we have the vague sense that success in a lot of the better manual/mechanical jobs requires the right combo of mechanical aptitude, general people skills, and business sense.  We aren't entirely sure how people develop these skills; we assume it's in a vocational track at the right high school or community college.  We also have the vague sense that some kids get that from their upbringing, from parents who had those things and imparted them.  However, the continued existence of an underclass tells us that there are plenty of kids who aren't being raised by/for that kind of middle class.  So we aren't entirely sure what should be done by/for/with/about the kids who aren't college material.

Well, we tell ourselves that we'll just send more people to college and adopt some sort of Best Practice to promote their success, but we aren't entirely sure what that means (and privately we sort of realize that it's a foolhardy idea, even though we'll never say it in front of policymakers).

Now, it is an empirical fact that while we do indeed have an underclass, we also have a working class that sits above the desperate underclass but below the guy who owns a highly successful plumbing business.  They are doing something, but people in my professional class don't really know what it is.  The truth is that it's thousands of different things, with varying levels of compensation, varying prospects for advancement, varying degrees of steadiness or precariousness, varying amounts of physical strain on the body, etc.  From the dentist's assistant to the guy who fixes your tire to any number of other people, these jobs are out there.  They aren't a perfect solution to anyone's problems in life, they don't always spread around prosperity and opportunity as broadly as one might hope, but they're out there and people do these jobs.  Some of these jobs are better than others, but people like me don't necessarily know which ones are better.

Also, we don't know how people get these jobs, how they prepare.  And, of course, there isn't one single answer.

But people in my professional class need A Single Answer.  We write Strategic Plans.  We draft Mission Statements.  We work in institutions charged with Training The Workforce and Providing Opportunity.  How can we do that if the world doesn't have An Answer?

Now we get to The Good Factory Jobs.

The Good Factory Jobs told older versions of me exactly where working-class kids went after high school.  The factory was there.  It was very visible.  You could see it from the road on your morning commute to the corporate office or government bureau or academic institution where people like me work.  We might not have ever set foot in those places, but they were right there, so we assumed that that was What Was Being Done About It.

But then The Good Factory Jobs left.  That was a genuine setback for a lot of people. At the same time, they didn't all go on welfare; many of them found jobs of numerous sorts. But we don't see those jobs.  Mind you, I'm not trying to minimize that by making this all about me and my colleagues.  I'm just trying to explain how little my colleagues and I understand this.

So even though people in my professional class would never (openly) vote for Trump, we all secretly hope that he brings those factories back.  Partly because, hey, however unrealistic it might be, wouldn't it be nice if it worked?  (Yeah, I'm not holding my breath either.  I'm just saying.)  And partly because then the factory would be The Answer.  We would know where the working class kids go.

But we don't know.  So we flounder on about how Higher Education Will Fix All.  Even though it won't.

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