Economy & Business

Why Workers Are Angry


Gary wasn’t mad at his ex-employer. A self-employed contractor for years, Gary joined a new company as a contracting manager because he believed it would enable him to fulfill what he saw as a solemn duty towards his son: giving him a more secure future. So when Gary was suddenly laid off, despite the company’s apparently handsome profits, it came as a shock to him. But he was mainly mad at himself, not the employer, for making what he called “the biggest mistake of my life”: joining the company in the first place.

He was mad at “females.” Twice divorced, and now in a long-term relationship, Gary says he no longer trusts marriage. “The hurt that’s been caused to me by a lack of commitment on the part of other people, I know how devastating that can be,” he said, lamenting that “Marriage can be tossed out like a Pepsi can.” Allison Pugh, who tells his story in her book The Tumbleweed Society, reads “duty” in his words, though she suggests that his “keen sense of duty makes him see and name betrayal at home but not at work.”

But Pugh doesn’t believe Gary when he says that he isn’t angry at his employer. She says that Gary “displaces” his feelings of anger toward his employer toward the women in his life. In other words, the real site of his anger is at work, and his keen sense of betrayal by women is just a manifestation of pent-up anger about his layoff.

“Displacing,” Pugh says, “is a way for workers to feel their feelings, but without aiming them at the forces at work that they view as more implacable, impervious, and inevitable. Instead, they aim these feelings at their intimate partners, animated by a powerful sense of other people’s duty at home.”

As I detailed in my last piece, I found illuminating Pugh’s description of the “one-way honor system” – the way most of her interviewees did not expect loyalty from their employers, even as they held themselves to high standards of dedication to their employers. But this was one place where Pugh lost my trust: The distance between her own interpretation of Gary’s attitudes and the facts of Gary’s life story was too great to overcome.

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Gary’s mother was forced to give him up to foster care because of her struggles with substance abuse, and he never knew his father. “I’m trying to break the cycle and start being normal from here on,” he told Pugh. But it had been a difficult journey. His first marriage ended for unspecified reasons, his second marriage ended after his wife left him, and now – despite being in a long-term relationship with a woman – he is not interested in marriage. “I have a very set opinion of relationships and how females handle them,” Gary said. “It’s what I’ve seen consistently throughout my life.” He seems to be saying that his lack of interest in marriage stems from very real and repeated experiences of betrayal at the hands of women in relationships.

Pugh reports his story, but remains unfazed in proffering her own interpretation: Betrayed by employers and women, “Gary recognizes the failings of one and not the other, using a very particular configuration of duty to displace feelings of anger, disappointment, and outrage away from work and onto his intimate life.” She asserts that his work experiences are the true source of his anger with no evidence to back her argument and in flat contradiction to how Gary himself appears to make sense of his story – not to mention the fact that Gary first experienced betrayal in his family of origin, not at work. Where Gary told an interesting story rooted in a real sequence of events, Pugh interrupted with theoretical musings about displacement. Why not just follow Gary’s own story and see where it takes us?

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Regrettably, it wasn’t the only time Pugh dismissed her own interviewees’ stories and explanations in order to advance her thesis that insecure work shapes people’s attitudes in relationships.

She does it again when she tells us about Fiona, who has worked at least eleven jobs since her teenage son was born, and has had at least four serious, long-term relationships, including one with her now-husband. “If something was bad, we just moved on,” Fiona said, referring to her and her son. “If it was a bad job, I got a new job. If it was a bad boy – . . . relationship, I moved or got out of it or whatever. I don’t believe in sticking with something that’s not working.” In the face of insecurity at work and in relationships, Pugh says, Fiona adopts a stance of “independence,” defiantly insisting that “it’s me and [my son] against the world.”

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Why does Fiona do this? Pugh notes that she “dates her understanding of the perils of commitment to her childhood,” in which she watched her mom stay with her stepfather, despite his infidelity and their high-conflict marriage. It’s watching her mother make commitments like this, Fiona says, that has “driven a lot of my flexibility and adaptability, because I didn’t want to get stuck in this situation.”

But Pugh doesn’t see it that way. She points out that what every interviewee who adopted an independent stance toward work and relationships had in common was job precariousness, and points to “the devaluation of care work and job precariousness that helped to generate [Fiona’s] situation.”

#share#But what I see is what Fiona herself noted: that her stance of independence toward relationships and marriage was born from watching her mother stay in a bad marriage to an adulterous husband, and that she adopts the same attitude in her jobs. Moreover, it’s not that surprising that Pugh’s interviewees who fell into her “independent” category experienced job precariousness: If, like Fiona, they have a low tolerance for sticking with unhappy jobs – and therefore a low tolerance for compromise – we should expect a lot of job turnover.

It’s possible that Fiona’s attitude about work stems at least partly from faithless employers. Considering the stories I’ve heard from low-wage workers in my own interviews, I’m very sympathetic to that idea. But I’m not persuaded that everything flows in one direction: from bad work experiences to bad relationship experiences.

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Pugh’s insistence on this point is unfortunate, because I suspect it stymied what conclusions could have organically emerged from following more closely her interviewees’ own stories and explanations. Combine Gary and Fiona’s accounts of themselves with Pugh’s insight about the ability to compromise as the mechanism by which the stably employed (regardless of class) are able to keep their jobs, and we may have a better theory: It could be the case that traumatic experiences in childhood coupled with bad relationship experiences of one’s own weaken one’s ability to compromise, and thereby damage prospects for keeping stable employment.

If children from unstable families find it more natural to adopt the “screw it” attitude, then family fragmentation has taken a toll on the workforce.

There is some evidence that suggests such a possibility. As Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur point out in Growing Up with a Single Parent, research shows that children from fragmented families are one and a half times more likely to be “idle,” defined as “out of school and out of work,” in their late teens and early twenties, compared with children from intact families. If they are more likely to be idle, might they also be more likely to churn through jobs? Perhaps Gary’s early experience of betrayal by his mom made it more difficult for him to trust people – and therefore more difficult to compromise and more difficult to keep a job.

In our own conversations with working-class young people, my wife and I have seen hints that this dynamic may be real. Just in the past couple weeks, one low-wage worker told me that he thinks his “anger issues” sometimes get the best of him at work, and another cited his struggle with bipolar disorder when explaining why he suddenly quit his job after an argument with his manager.

I also think of Anthony, who once had what he regarded as a good job, making $13.25 an hour as a cook at a nursing home. His employer saw a lot of potential in him, and promised that he would help Anthony pay for a culinary school education. But Anthony quit that job because he found it too boring, and his relationship with his fiancée subsequently fell apart. Instead of doing what the stably employed in Pugh’s sample did – give up searching for the “perfect” job – Anthony opted to look for something more rewarding.

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His decision to quit didn’t happen in isolation: He also struggled with alcohol abuse and depression. Moreover, he thinks that his family past – his parents divorced when he was a child – contributed to his difficulties in young adulthood. As he said, when explaining why he thinks kids from intact families have an advantage over kids from fragmented families, “You always have that love, you don’t have that feeling of, ‘Why did my dad leave? Why is this? Was it something I did?’ Like a child doesn’t know that. It always sticks with you, and it makes you rebellious to an extent.” From his experience of growing up with other kids from fragmented families, he thinks that kids from “broken homes” (his words) have to “grow up really quick,” and “you get into sex, you get into drugs. I feel like a lot of people [from intact families] – they’re more into sports, into education, they’re more into those things. Where we were just like, ‘Screw it.’”

To be sure, the low-wage economy takes a toll on young adults, and we can’t ignore that. But if Anthony is right, and children from unstable families find it more natural to adopt the “screw it” attitude, then family fragmentation has taken a toll on the workforce.


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