A few weeks ago I met a guy in Kentucky who’d lived through every trend of deindustrializing America.
He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories – making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings.
Every few years as the economy would shift, or jobs would go to Mexico, he’d get hit with a layoff. But the periods of unemployment were never longer than six months and he pieced together a career.
He’s in semiretirement now, but he hasn’t been able to take a vacation for four years because he and his wife take care of her elderly mother, who has trouble swallowing. He’s saved her life 10 times so far with the Heimlich maneuver, and they have to be nearby, in case she needs it again.
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His best job came in the middle of his career, when he was a supervisor at the sheet metal plant. But when the technology changed, he was no longer qualified to supervise the new workers, so they let him go.
He thought he’d just come in quietly on his final day, clean out his desk and sneak away.
But word got out, and when he emerged from his office, box in hand, there was a double line of guys stretching all the way from his office in back, across the factory floor and out to his car in the lot. He walked down that whole double line with tears flowing, with the guys clapping and cheering as he went.
We hear a lot about angry white men, but there is an honorable dignity to this guy.
Some of that dignity comes from the fact that he knows how to fix things. One of the undermining conditions of the modern factory is that the workers no longer directly build the products, they just service the machines and software that do.
As the sociologist Richard Sennett once put it, “As a result of working in this way, the bakers now no longer actually know how to bake bread.” But this guy in Kentucky can take care of himself – redo the plumbing at home or replace the brake pads.
He also had a narrative about his own life. It’s not the agency narrative you often find in the professional segments of society: I found my passion and steered my own ship. It’s more of a reactive, coping narrative: A lot of the big forces were outside my control, but I adjusted, made the best of what was possible within my constraints and lived up to my responsibilities.
There’s honor to that, too. Still, over the past many months speaking with people in these situations, I can’t help feeling that society is failing them in some major way, and not just economically.
There is often a sad, noncumulative pattern to working-class lives. In some professions as you get older, you rise to more responsible positions. And that was true under the old seniority-based work rules in factories.
But now there is a stochastic, episodic nature to many careers. As workers get older, potential employers become more suspicious of their skills, not more confident in them. As a result, you often meet people who had been happiest at work in middle age, and then moved down to a series of positions they were overqualified for and felt diminished in.
Furthermore, I often run across people who have gone back to menial work in their 60s and 70s because they just want to get out of the house. When you ask them more questions, you find that they are devoted to home and work, but that they often don’t have rich connections outside these spheres.
Many of their friends came through work, but those friendships tend to fade away when the job ends. There are older people who feel unneeded. There are younger people who feel lost. Somehow these longing souls never find each other.
Suburbia isn’t working. During the baby boom, the suburbs gave families safe places to raise their kids. But now we are in an era of an aging population, telecommuting workers and single-person households.
The culture and geography of suburbia are failing to nurture webs of mutual dependence.
We are animals who can’t flourish unless we can’t get along without one another. Yet one finds too many people thrust into lives of semi-independence.
These are not the victims of postindustrial blight I’m talking about; they are successful people who worked hard and built good lives but who are left nonetheless strangely isolated, in attenuated communities, and who are left radiating the residual sadness of the lonely heart.
The writer is a columnist for The New York Times.