The End of the Working Class and What Comes Next

The working class was a creation of the industrial era. The challenge is finding respected and valuable contributions for it descendants to make.

Detail of a New Deal-era mural in the Coit Tower of San Francisco, California, January 6, 2009
Detail of a New Deal-era mural in the Coit Tower of San Francisco, California, January 6, 2009 (Thomas Hawk)

Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rising popularity of the National Front in France have all been explained as working-class revolts against urban, liberal elites (including by me.)

The Niskanen Center’s Brink Lindsey argues in The American Interest that this isn’t quite right. These democratic expressions of discontent should rather be understood as the convulsions of a working class that is dying.

Disintegration

The “working class” was a creation of the industrial era. As information technology supplants smokestack industry at the vanguard of technological progress, and demand for labor shifts in favor of high-skilled workers, the working class isn’t just in decline, according to Lindsey; it is disintegrating.

We can see this in declining attachment to work, declining participation in community life, declining marriage rates and declining life expectancies due to alcohol and opioid abuse.

Bondage

Lindsey cautions against nostalgia for the postwar era. Even then, blue-collar existence was a kind of bondage, he writes:

[T]he class system created by industrial capitalism divided people along very stark lines: those who work with their brains and those who work with their bodies; those who command and those who obey; those who are treated as full-fledged human beings and those who are treated as something less.

Factory work was always dehumanizing when it treated people as machines. But it did make workers class-conscious.

Pride

There was some solace in that. Industrial workers could struggle personally to endure their fate for the sake of their families. They could struggle collectively to better their lot. Existence was hard, but workers had a sense of identity and pride.

Today’s “precariat” doesn’t even have that. There is little sense of commonality and no pride in drifting from one dead-end job to the next.

Having failed to acquire the educational credentials needed to enter the meritocracy, they are excluded from modern society.

Being ill-used gave industrial workers the opportunity to find dignity in fighting back. But how does one fight back against being discarded and ignored? Where is the dignity in obsolescence?

Challenge

The challenge Lindsey sees is twofold:

  1. Finding respected and valuable contributions for people without abstract analytical skills to make; and
  2. Mending fraying attachments to work, family and community.

He is optimistic. Technological advances hold out the promise of a radical reduction in the average size of economic enterprises, he writes, creating the possibility of work that is more creative and collaborative at a scale convivial to family and community.

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