America is working pretty well for the top third of society. It’s the other two-thirds who are struggling.
I came to this conclusion after reading Robert Putnam’s stunning book Our Kids. After seeing the growing class divide separating American society, I also started to ask: how does the working class see their work?
As I spend nearly all my time working with and for professionals (those with a four-year college degree), in a recent article I confessed that as I grew older, I realized I didn’t have a single working-class friend. Their world was foreign to me. And so was their work.
Joan C. Williams is a law professor at the University of California, Hastings who studies social class. Her book The White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America explains how differently professionals and the working class see their daily work. Her research is a wise, honest look into working class values, beliefs, and opinions about their families and work.
Here are six differences between how professionals and the working class see their work.
Discernment versus discipline. For professionals, the spiritual and occupational challenge of work is discernment. There are so many good things we could do with our lives, how do we choose? The challenge is to stay inspired for eleven-hour work days without burning out.
But for the working class, endless choice isn’t a luxury they have. Instead, getting and keeping a good job through discipline and moral integrity is the higher priority. Consistently Williams research shows working class families value honesty, having integrity, and being hardworking, while they look down on dishonesty, being irresponsible, and being lazy.
“Hard work for elites is associated with self-actualization; ‘disruption’ means founding a start-up,” writes Williams. “Disruption, in working-class jobs, just gets you fired.”
For the working-class, self-control, discipline, and saying no to temptation is the only way out of the maze.
Achievement versus struggle. Professionals see work as a chance to achieve and prove yourself. Many college educated young adults, says David Brooks in The Road to Character, see work as the arena to maximize financial and psychological benefit while minimizing discomfort.
The working class, however, sees work as a constant struggle for survival. Job insecurity, dropping wages, and balancing child care put constant stress on working class families. Many working class families feel at a constant disadvantage. Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, decided to join the working-class by taking jobs as a waitress, nursing home aide, Wal-Mart sales clerk and living in the motels and cheap trailer parks. She found that no job is truly “un-skilled,” that enormous mental and physical effort is needed to survive, and that often one job isn’t enough – two is necessary if you want a roof over your head.
Networks versus “real work.” Many professional jobs involve social skills and managing networks of influence. Yet the working class feel that their work, which often involves technical expertise, is both more down-to-earth than the work of professionals, and more practically valuable.
Many in the working class also feel a deep sense of pride in their work. Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soul Craft, points out the dignity the manual laborer feels after a day’s work. “He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on.”
One values relational influence, the other tends to value practical usefulness.
Work-identity versus Communal-identity. In professional communities, work-a-holism and busyness is a sign of success. Missing your kid’s swim meet is honorable, if it’s for a deposition (or a writing assignment.) For professionals, you are what you do. They derive their identity from their work.
But the working-class dismiss work devotion as narcissism. One technician criticized people who are “so self-assured, so self-intense that they really don’t care about anyone else. It’s me, me, me.” Ambition is seen as trying to get ahead, a way to leave behind the community that cared for you in pursuit of personal success.
Instead, the working-class prizes traditional values and family loyalty. If you’re from professional family, moving to Silicon Valley is a fun opportunity. But if you sell toilets, it’s safer to hang out with people who won’t judge you for your dirty job. “Familiar faces provide a buffer against humiliation,” writes Williams.
Creativity versus dependability. Professionals value entrepreneurial initiative, boundary breaking, and creativity. They signal initiative by “breaking the rules.” But the working-class values dependability and stability, which are useful dispositions if you’re an order-taker rather than an order-maker.
At one electrical contractor in Denver, there are three characteristics of successful apprentices: show up on time, have a good attitude, and be willing to learn. Creativity just might get you electrocuted.
Take a look at this list of questions as ask which you more identify with:
|How can I stay inspired?||How can I keep my job?|
|How can I make an impact?||How do I get through the week?|
|Who can you connect me to?||Who will notice what I’ve made?|
|“What do you do?”||“Where did you grow up?”|
|How can I challenge the status quo?||How do I get me and my family out of the maze?|
My guess is that nearly all of you reading this will identify more with the first list than the second. If you’re reading the second list and say, “Yes, that’s me,” leave a comment below.
I’d like to meet you and learn more about your world.
One of the most compelling books I’ve read, with implications for working and professional class differences among adults, is “Unequal Childhoods” a sociological examination of 4th grade kids from a range of SES groups. I’d highly recommend it – double benefit of making you think carefully about how and why you parent the way you do.
Will check it out. Thanks Denise. And great job at the conference this last weekend.
I am 3 working class questions vs. 2 professional ones. I grew up in a stable family with 2 working class parents, who modeled a lot of the working class characteristics you described. Yet, they worked and sacrificed and put their 4 kids through college. My next birthday will be #60, and looking back I can see why I didn’t always connect with my white-collar, professional colleagues. It also explains why I connect easily with the poor where I now live and work in East Africa. Meanwhile, many other westerners (mostly with professional backgrounds) struggle to understand them or relate to them.
David, thanks for these insights. Really appreciate you sharing your story.
I answered 3 professional and two Working Class Questions, I would like to identify more with the professional class though than the working class as I want to create, and leave an impact, at the same time I don’t know how to get out of the maze.