I’ve talked with many young people lately. They’re mostly guys in their early 20s. They’re young enough to be my children.
Just about all of them are pursuing “careers” which seem impractical and even a bit far-fetched. I recall one guy who wants to be a music producer. Another is determined to make films. Still, another hopes to race motorcycles for a living. A few aspire to be professional poker players.
Pursuing one’s dreams is certainly a positive thing. Each of us should aspire to jump higher, to move forward, and achieve the goals we set for ourselves. But those goals must also be realistic.
The last few generations, I fear, we’ve lost all sense of reality. We’ve made “working for a living” a stigma rather than a source of pride. Labor has become a dirty word.
Discussions with these young men revealed something else that’s troubling. This trend isn’t gender-specific. They alleged that girls were far more attracted to guys who wanted to be music producers, filmmakers, motorcycle racers, and poker players. Presumably, that made them more interesting. The girls didn’t want to go out with guys who wanted to be plumbers, electricians, machinists, and auto mechanics. They certainly didn’t want to date cooks, construction workers, and bus drivers.
So, it appears career choice isn’t just shaped by individual ambition. A pervasive collective bias against the working class has mushroomed out of control. This shift illustrates an alarming disconnect in American culture from reality that is both dangerous and in the end, self-defeating.
Let’s face it. We need more bricklayers than basketball players. We need far more dental technicians than disc jockeys. What we need is — a lot more common sense.
During the first half of the 20th Century, working-class occupations weren’t merely the manifestation of self-identity, but also a tremendous source of personal pride. Highly-skilled, mostly unionized workers manufactured cars, constructed bridges, paved highways, and essentially built the America we live in today. When I was 21, I remember working one blazing hot summer as a unionized sheet metal worker in Dallas when all the high-rise buildings were springing up all over the city, and the workers pointing at and bragging about the skyscrapers they had “built.” Call it what it was — working-class pride.
Of course, lots of highly-skilled jobs have disappeared since then, the casualties of both automation and global corporatism. Union-busting has devasted the middle class. Stock shareholders and bonus-chasing CEOs demand that every last farthing of profit be squeezed out of each division, project, and worker. Wall Street has totally undermined the economic foundations of the once-great heartland and torpedoed what used to be called “The American Dream.” Shortsighted short-term gains have metastasized into a long-term nightmare for the working class, which has seen wages stagnant since the horrors of “Reaganomics.” No one wants to work at a low-paying dead-end job, with no benefits, nor economic security. Thanks a lot, Laffer.
But working-class stigmatization goes much deeper than that. It’s not just an economic and cultural trend, but now a social reality brought on by the way we interact and communicate, and ultimately how we judge one another.
America has become one giant reality television show with 320 million cast members all vying for the starring role in the “hey, look at me!” category. Every single thought, experience, meal, party, toothache, and personal encounter now gets tagged and then blasted worldwide across social media. Our identities have become almost entirely digitized. Posting selfies at the nightclub have become the credit line of cultural value, a sort of twisted Kardashian cryptocurrency No one posts selfies of themselves replacing the hot water heater.
Democratic Socialists want to make college tuition-free. I agree with this ambitious vision, at least in principle. More than any other metric, education is the ticket to upward mobility. Not enough poor people have either the means to rise out of systematic poverty. So, we must collectively do what we can to promote greater opportunity for everyone.
But let’s ease into the “free tuition” idea one step at a time. First, let’s make vocational and trade schools, rather than universities, free to those who want to pursue their education and training. I think lots of people, of both sides of the political spectrum, would get behind that idea. Let’s also target poor areas and populations which desperately need more workers to build and renovate their communities.
Fact is, we don’t need more MBAs and so-called marketing gurus. We don’t need more realtors. We don’t need fast-talking con-men in rented hotel ballrooms “teaching” seminars to gullible suckers on how to be successful. We have more than enough “experts” on how to make money, already. Instead, we need pipefitters and concrete masons actually working in depressed areas, making money with the sweat of their brow and then spending their paychecks locally. That’s how an equitable society is built.
Restoring pride in working-class values demands that we first admit there is a serious class division within America that is widening. It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse. It’s not a class division just of income, but of a mangled distortion of misplaced priorities and the way workers and occupations are perceived.
We need to work towards a far more egalitarian society where a bunch of young guys can hang out together and talk about pursuing their dreams — which are entirely achievable, productive, prideful and won’t leave them with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt to parasitic banks and loan companies.
What we desperately need are more working-class heroes along with a heavy dose of realism.