“If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone ... There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it.”
Regular New York Times readers may recognize this passage, with its gee-whiz enthusiasm for unbridled “individual aspiration and persistence,” as the product of flat-world enthusiast Thomas Friedman. This particular column, from April, starts with Friedman’s admonition that, “we now live in a 401(k) world ... where everyone needs to pass the bar exam and no one can escape the most e-mailed list.”
It’s easy (and fun!) to mock Friedman for his bizarre mixed metaphors, his apparent reliance on the taxi drivers of the world for insights into foreign relations and, yes, his silly, silly mustache. But his vision of the U.S. economy is authentically frightening because at bottom it reflects conventional wisdom that’s accepted uncritically by many of the nation’s agenda-setting pundits and politicians.
The central premise of much of Friedman’s writing is that technological forces beyond our control have created a world where we all have to work harder, learn more and be more creative, but if we do, we can achieve things unimaginable to previous generations. That’s a pretty attractive thought, particularly for anyone who hasn’t had to work too hard to achieve things so far. For a lot of working-class people, though, the Friedman worldview represents a fun-house mirror version of a much more depressing daily reality.
Like Friedman, Karl Tiedemann, who lives down the street from me in Nashua, N.H., sees the next generation inheriting a very different economy from the one he grew up in. He sees it up close. He and his wife now have three of their kids and two other 20-somethings living with them because they don’t have the money to get their own places.
Karl moved out of his parents’ house at 17. For a while, he painted houses. Sometimes he’d get in an argument with a boss at a worksite and just walk away.
“Back then, I used to go job to job,” he said. “I would quit and I’d have a job the same day, or the next morning.”
Then, in 1988, when he was 22, he got a job in the maintenance department at St. Joseph Hospital in Nashua. At first, he said, he didn’t know much about the hospital’s mechanical systems, but he learned on the job and took classes. Today, he tests emergency systems, works with contractors and sits in on meetings with higher-ups to talk about the physical plant.
“I have a boss but he leaves me alone,” he said. “I know what I need to get done.”
Friedman says that today everyone needs to “find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment.” Karl said that’s a fair way to describe what’s expected of new hires in his department. On the rare occasions that someone leaves one of the coveted jobs, he said, “They’re looking for people that are more qualified than what they need for that job.”
Karl’s job has paid enough for his wife to be a stay-at-home mom, and to support his three stepkids and his biological daughter. But when the kids left home in their late teens, their story was different. Over the years that followed, several of them, along with their own children and significant others, ended up moving back in with Karl and his wife. At one point, they had eight adults and three kids packed into a three-bedroom apartment with one bathroom.
These days, Karl owns a six-bedroom house on a tiny dead-end street that he and his brother renovated from a duplex to a single unit. Some of the young people have moved out, but others have moved in. He has two daughters, a son, a grandson, a young woman who’s a close family friend and her boyfriend and daughter living in the house with him and his wife. On most summer afternoons, some of the group gather outside the front door, along with various friends and family members who stop by. On chairs arranged on the tiny front porch and in the narrow street in front of it, they chat, smoke and tease each other mercilessly.
One recent afternoon, one of the young women living in the house told Karl he wouldn’t know what to do once all his temporary housemates move out. “I’m going to remove bedrooms so you can’t come back,” he answered with a grin.
Karl does worry they’ll keep coming back, because, for the most part, the work young people in his family have found is low-paid service-sector jobs. And here’s where Karl’s view of the world really diverges from Friedman’s. The columnist basically defines these jobs out of existence.
“There is increasingly no such thing as a high-wage, middle-skilled job — the thing that sustained the middle class in the last generation,” Friedman writes. “Now there is only a high-wage, high-skilled job. Every middle-class job today is being pulled up, out or down faster than ever. That is, it either requires more skill or can be done by more people around the world or is being buried — made obsolete — faster than ever.”
It’s a subtle sleight of-hand that draws on things we all know — lots of decent working-class jobs have left the country or been automated out of existence. The twist is that he acts like this is true of all low- to middle-skilled jobs. Factories are increasingly automated, iPhones are made in China, a table-side console could replace waiters, and, voilà, the only work remaining in the country is being a super-innovative techie of some sort.
This is not an oversight. Friedman doesn’t ignore low-wage jobs just because they’re beneath his notice. Pretending that they simply don’t exist is the product of a worldview that treats corporate decisions, and government support for corporate needs, as a fact of nature: Decent jobs that demand little formal training haven’t been transformed into bad jobs by the erosion of the minimum wage, the decline of unions and the upward redistribution of companies’ budgets. They’ve simply disappeared in a puff of technology.
In reality, of course, there are lots of low- and middle-skilled jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, four of the five projected fastest-growing jobs between 2010 and 2020 — retail salespersons, home health aides, personal care aides and general office clerks — don’t demand a college degree. (Friedman might be surprised to hear that the exception is not high-tech start-up founders but registered nurses.)
These kinds of jobs — varied, hands-on work dealing with live human customers — are probably some of the things advanced technology is least equipped to deal with. But the typical annual wages for those four fast-growing jobs are all below $27,000. Three of them pay less than $21,000.
As Karl and his family could tell you, that’s not enough.
Sarahann Gorham moved into Karl’s place in April with her boyfriend and 4-year-old daughter. She said living there has been a “kind of grace period” for the family. She’s grateful to Karl, whom she thinks of as an uncle although they aren’t blood relatives, for taking them in, giving them a room with low rent where they’ve been able to save some money.
Sarahann’s work history is the polar opposite of Friedman’s vision of the economy in some ways: low-tech work running cash registers, cleaning hotel rooms and moving furniture, among other things. She started working at 16, taking shifts at the Dollar Tree for as much as 20 hours a week after school and on the weekends.
At 28, Sarahann has had at least nine jobs (more on her story can be read here). That’s the part that fits with Friedman’s narrative — a world where no one can count on a long-term relationship with an employer. In fact, one of Sarahann’s favorite jobs was the sort of thing he delights in describing, a call center that took drive-through customers’ orders from Wendy’s restaurants all over the country. Having never had a chance to travel, she liked hearing customers’ different accents.
“It almost made you feel like you were there,” she said.
She said she liked her co-workers too. “I would probably still be there, but they ended up packing up and moving to Delaware,” she said. “We come in one day, and they said at the end of the week you can find new employment or move with us.”
That job notwithstanding, most of the time Sarahann hasn’t left her jobs because they went offshore or were taken by robots. She has never been paid enough to afford a car, so whenever she’s moved she’s had to find a job she can walk or take a bus to. She left one position, as a housekeeper at a Holiday Inn, when she was eight and a half months pregnant and the walking, bus riding and physical work got to be too much.
In any case, for workers like Sarahann, staying in a job long-term isn’t a particularly good strategy for getting by. “You could be in customer service your whole life, but you’re still going to make the minimum,” she said.
“Finding your extra” and being self-motivated look a lot different to Sarahann than to Friedman. The best way she’s found to differentiate herself is working night shifts. By skipping sleep, she’s sometimes been able to make $13 an hour instead of $7.25. Other kinds of advancement have been elusive. Getting to a management position at the jobs she’s held means a supervisor has to leave, and that doesn’t happen often.
“It kind of makes you feel crappy, especially if you try to put in 110 percent and it goes unnoticed,” she said.
Today, Sarahann is receiving disability benefits after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. She’s glad she worked for so many years, and paid into the Social Security system so she can get the benefits now, but she thinks the night shifts and the instability created by not having enough money exacerbated her mental illness.
The stories of other people in Karl’s house echo Sarahann’s experiences. Karl’s daughter, Ashleigh Tiedemann, is 23 and has a 3-year-old son. Last year, she was working three jobs: 40 hours a week at Home Depot, 20 at Honey Baked Ham, “and then whatever I could pick up at Shaws,” she said
Many days she worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., didn’t sleep much, and saw her son even less. Eventually, she reduced her schedule to just working the full-time job at Home Depot. At a starting rate of $9.30 an hour, it paid better than either of the others.
Like her father, she made a point of learning on the job. “Home Depot wants people with experience,” she said. “I walked in and I wanted to learn everything ... The more you know, the more secure you are.”
Still, even paying just $300 a month to her father for rent, and despite the fact that her son’s dad takes care of him three days a week, she spends everything she makes on the basics. “As soon as I get my paycheck, it’s gone,” she said.
I asked Ashleigh what she thinks when someone says that poor people just need to work harder, or get better training.
“I think that they’re ignorant,” she said. “I think they’re very ignorant. A lot of those people are people that were just handed things.”
Among them, she said, is her grandmother, who worked for years at a Massachusetts Air Force base. “She’s slowly coming to the realization that it’s not that easy for us,” Ashleigh said. “I don’t know one person that wouldn’t switch places with my dad in a second.”
Like Friedman, Sarahann and Ashleigh believe in education as a way to a better life. They plan on insisting their kids go to college, though they don’t know how they’ll pay for it. They’re also both thinking of going back to school themselves when their kids are a little older, but they’re struggling with the cost-benefit analysis. College would mean a lot of debt, and no guarantee of a job.
A best-case scenario might be represented by Sarahann’s friend Julie, who stopped by Karl’s porch one day recently and delivered a profanity-laced rant about her job.
“I wipe butt for a living,” she explained to me, cleaning up her language a bit.
Julie started working at a nursing home eight years ago, making $10.50 an hour. She took a training course and got her license as a nursing aide, and her pay is now up to $11.69. She’s considering taking an eight-week, $1,400 class to take the next step up her career ladder. Her time and money are both limited, but, between car payment, gas and childcare, what she’s making now is barely enough for her and her two kids. And she doesn’t pay rent.
“I’m 28 years old, and I live with my mother,” she said.
And Julie’s job is one of the fastest-growing kinds in the economy.
For individuals, it’s true that getting better educated is usually a reasonably good plan for better wages. Unemployment is far lower for college graduates than the less-educated, and they make significantly more money, although real pay for young college grads is on the decline.
On a societal basis, things look a little different. The U.S. economy could probably benefit from a certain number of workers getting more education. But that can only go so far. As the workforce becomes more educated, the wage premium that a degree offers tends to fall thanks to good old-fashioned supply and demand.
There’s also no real reason to think that high-skilled jobs are more stable than any others. Lawyers’ work can probably be automated as easily as waiters’. And robots will have a hard time replacing the aides in a nursing home. If higher education becomes universal, maybe it will be MBAs wiping butts.
The really easy thing to do about low-wage jobs is blame people for having them — for not going to college, for having a child while poor, for just not having enough individual aspiration and persistence. The hard thing is to wrap our minds around the idea that low wages aren’t the natural product of a (mythical) free market but of business and government decisions.
Talking about expensive colleges and tight-fisted employers, Sarahann sighed and said she worries maybe she’s being paranoid. But, she said, “Sometimes I feel like they make it hard on purpose.”
Given his inclination to treat powerful interests as a force of nature, that’s a statement Friedman might not understand. But when it comes to treating their workers decently, maybe there’s an argument to be made that corporations need to find their extra.