With the world heading into a supply-chain tailspin, it’s worth remembering that we’ve only been given the sour headlines thus far. Soaring energy prices, threadbare nursing staffs, languishing shipping containers — it all looks rather bleak.
But the harbingers of our globalized economy owe us an apology. Ceaselessly touting the “knowledge economy” and the value of a university diploma in validating one’s social worth, they all but shoved blue-collar Americans into the pouring rain. Remote work and the pandemic only accelerated this fetishization; as one Forbes columnist proclaimed, 2020 was “The Year of the Knowledge Worker.”
It’s not entirely their fault. Many blue-collar strongholds, such as manufacturing and mining, have declined in recent decades. Timeless concerns over health and safety remain. And the golden age of national self-sufficiency, stuck in the halcyon glow of post-war America, now seems hopelessly distant. Following stagflation and trade deficits, blue-collar sectors lost not only profits but, perhaps more important, social prestige. Yet in the rush to usher in the “future of work,” we prematurely signed the death certificate of blue-collar America, and we’re now reckoning with the cost of our mistake.
Lost in the talk of knowledge workers and their “YOLO economy” was that we (shockingly!) needed other people, too. Indeed, despite initial impressions that white-collar America’s hankering for new horizons and better work–life balance was driving “The Great Resignation,” the blue-collar Others didn’t much like how they’d been treated — and they were right. While life as a knowledge-worker bee hummed along relatively seamlessly, free of commutes and wasteful meetings, life ratcheted up for blue-collar America.
The pandemic underlined the social inequality of “essential work” — the jobs most of us rely on but cannot imagine doing — often staffed by ethnically diverse workers from low-income households, though not exclusively. The journalist Eyal Press’s latest book, Dirty Work, explored this emerging tension: “Dirty work is work that society in a sense depends on and tacitly condones but doesn’t want to hear too much about and certainly doesn’t want to see.” For Press, this covers a wide range of occupations, from slaughterhouse workers to prison guards and military-drone operators.
Unlike their well-compensated white-collar peers, front-line workers often had little to hook them to their jobs. Overworked and underrespected, from retail and shipping to health care and hospitality, many decided enough was enough. Six months into the pandemic, over three-quarters of surveyed American health-care workers reported feeling burnt-out and exhausted. The following year, McKinsey revealed that well over a third, and in some cases nearly half, of surveyed employees in the teaching, manufacturing, health-care, hospitality, and transportation sectors were at least “somewhat likely” to leave their jobs in the near term. Consequently, in April 2021 alone, nearly 650,000 retail workers quit.
These developments thrust the “dirty work” most of us kept at arm’s length from daily life into the fore. Truck drivers, long prophesied by pundits to be the earliest victims of automation, are having the last laugh now. The United Kingdom, “short tens of thousands of truckers,” is deputizing the military to help alleviate a nationwide fuel and logistics crisis. The United States was short 60,000 truckers two years ago, with projections soaring to a 100,000-driver deficit by 2023. Canada is experiencing much the same. Identical labor shortages among health-care, retail, railroad, and dock workers are now cropping up everywhere.
The story of truck drivers today is the story of blue-collar America. Our disdain for manual labor led us to ignore the contributions of blue-collar America, particularly their crucial role in modern economies. Speaking with NPR, Garret Morgan, an ironworker, explained that he was given the advice most teenagers hear today: “All through my life it was, ‘If you don’t go to college you’re going to end up on the streets.’ . . . Everybody’s so gung-ho about going to college.” Mike Rowe, known for hosting the show Dirty Jobs, acknowledged much the same during a PBS Newshour interview. “The push for one form of education, in my view, really was the beginning of a long list of stigmas and stereotypes and myths and misperceptions that to this day dissuade millions of kids from pursuing a legitimate opportunity to make six figures in the trades.”
Now, thanks to the blue-collar job boom, many are doubting the myth of success on the one-way road through college. “Blinded by taboos,” Amitai Etzioni wrote in 2010, white-collar workers overlook the possibilities and potential of blue-collar work. Indeed, Chris Cortines of the educational-research organization National Student Clearinghouse points to such misconceptions as one of the driving forces behind university dropout rates. Lack of awareness and the social taboo of ducking college, Cortines fears, lead many to ignore other worthwhile options, such as trade school.
The stigma is now coming home to roost. By 2017, Associated General Contractors of America found that 70 percent of firms were having trouble finding qualified craft workers. A similar survey of retailers found that 94 percent of them expressed difficulty filling staff vacancies, with roughly a third viewing it as a “significant challenge.” Trucking HR Canada reported in the second quarter of 2021 that over 75 percent of employers expected a driver shortage to be a challenge over the coming six months, with 50 percent classifying it as a top priority.
Faced with the prospect of a Christmas-shopping shortage in a year sorely in need of a good pick-me-up, we are finally beginning to confront the legacy of our blue-collar blind spot. Once they were underappreciated and overlooked, but now the economy is clinging for dear life to the backs of nurses and truckers, dock workers and tradesmen — no longer distant, dirty jobs, but indispensable essential workers making our world hum. That’s a decent comeuppance for white-collar America.
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