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Forum: A Path for Blue-Collar Workers in the 21st Century

Forum: A Path for Blue-Collar Workers in the 21st Century:

Over the past 35 years each recession has seen the loss of factory jobs that haven’t reappeared. During the 2008 recession, 70 percent of positions lost belonged to men; only 59 percent were regained. Their disappearance is just one reason the average male income has not experienced a sustained increase since 1968.

Technological progress is the most obvious culprit. Our digital age may do wonders for Silicon Valley pocketbooks but not for the workingman’s. Automation puts blue-collar jobs across all industries—not to mention the collective authority unions once guaranteed—at risk. As such, women now command the skill set to thrive in our postindustrial age, but don’t believe doomsayers and pundits spinning apocalyptic narratives about the end of men and the middle class just yet.

What do those prophecies entail? Blue-collar jobs are toast, we’re told; men won’t be able to provide for their families, and their place in the economy looks bleak next to their better-educated counterparts. It’s a narrative ignited by writer Hanna Rosin with her Atlantic cover story and subsequent book, The End of Men, in which she argues that the collapse of our manufacturing-based economy has allowed for the rise of women as bread-winners and leaders in a country that no longer has a place for male skills. Countless bloggers, economists, writers and commentators have echoed her since.

Nobody is arguing that sexism and wage disparity have disappeared, however. Educated men still reap the greatest rewards from the modern economy. But blue-collar workers, who once made up our vanishing middle class, face an uncertain future. A survey from the Pew Research Center this February found that 87 percent of Americans describe themselves as middle class, but only half fit the definition. Furthermore, the share of Americans living in middle-income households shrank from 61 percent to 51 percent between 1970 and 2013.

Women’s wages, however, are rising—up 78 percent since the 1970s, while men’s wages have stagnated—though women still earn less than men. In the 1970s the average woman contributed 27 percent to her household’s income; in 2011, she contributed 37 percent. It won’t be long before middle-class women outearn their male peers, given the growth of female-dominated industries and advanced education. The latter, especially, is where women are lapping men. Fifty percent of women between the ages of 24 and 39 have completed a degree after high school, versus 41 percent of men.

But over the past 400 years, from agrarianism to small-scale manufacturing to the factory to corporate capitalism, men have adapted at every economic turn, creating short-term winners and losers. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz thinks that when the economy shifts, those who lose out experience “retroactive unemployment” in pursuit of jobs that no longer exist; however, he anticipates a bright future for men in the new economy. As an expert in the ways technology affects the middle class, Katz predicts the rise of the “new artisan” as a substantial trend in middle-class employment.

His theory holds that technology will commoditize and cheapen products in all industries but that artisanal workers will offer a superior interpersonal experience coupled with unique goods and services, commanding premium prices in turn. Men, he notes, are especially well suited to such roles. “These kinds of jobs go back to colonial times,” Katz says. “Individuals brought their own ingenuity and creativity to provide small-scale, high-quality products. In the 19th century they were displaced by mass production, but technology is already bringing a resurgence of this type of work.”

Edward Galla is just one example. For years, the construction contractor plied his trade on Martha’s Vineyard, underbidding competitors on high-end materials and pocketing the profits. Then, the internet democratized the information behind his market. “Suddenly, everyone knew where to go,” he says. His margins tanked.

Galla embraced change, teaching himself how to use design software such as Autodesk, and his team today includes independent craftsmen from around the world. He drafts projects in 3-D, allowing the people in his network to make bids, submit proposals and complete higher-quality work than was possible before—and they can do it without setting foot in Massachusetts. “Space is expensive in New England,” he notes. By contracting with a custom cabinetmaker in Minneapolis, for example, he’s taking advantage of cheap Midwestern real estate.

If Katz’s prediction about new artisans comes to pass, the ways men and women fit into the economy will come to complement each other. Their roles will change, in some ways becoming more traditional and in others less: Women may be likelier to spend their careers in nine-to-five corporate positions, enjoying the regular hours, benefits and predictable pay those jobs entail. Forty-nine percent of women already work in firms with more than 500 employees, compared with 43 percent of men, and their share of the corporate pie is growing. That certainty will empower men to take on less predictable but possibly higher-paying work in self-employment.

A world in which men strive to learn new skills and take on riskier, entrepreneurial household roles may even prove more fulfilling than office work—but this requires changing our definition of a “good job.” Expecting men to be better-educated, office-work-oriented breadwinners is an outmoded idea. The artisan of the future will still be skilled and possess just as much potential to provide for his family. The technological revolution is yet another turn in the cycle of economic progress, and workers of both genders must learn to adapt. The end of men is not nigh; the end of our dated notion of work, however, is.


Editor’s note: We don’t currently have a comment section on Playboy.com, but there is an interesting comment thread for this article over at the Marginal Revolution blog.Over the past 35 years each recession has seen the loss of factory jobs that haven’t reappeared. During the 2008 recession, 70 percent of positions lost belonged to men; only 59 percent were regained. Their disappearance is just one reason the average male income has not experienced a sustained increase since 1968.

Technological progress is the most obvious culprit. Our digital age may do wonders for Silicon Valley pocketbooks but not for the workingman’s. Automation puts blue-collar jobs across all industries—not to mention the collective authority unions once guaranteed—at risk. As such, women now command the skill set to thrive in our postindustrial age, but don’t believe doomsayers and pundits spinning apocalyptic narratives about the end of men and the middle class just yet. What do those prophecies entail? Blue-collar jobs are toast, we’re told; men won’t be able to provide for their families, and their place in the economy looks bleak next to their better-educated counterparts. It’s a narrative ignited by writer Hanna Rosin with her Atlantic cover story and subsequent book, The End of Men, in which she argues that the collapse of our manufacturing-based economy has allowed for the rise of women as bread-winners and leaders in a country that no longer has a place for male skills. Countless bloggers, economists, writers and commentators have echoed her since.

Nobody is arguing that sexism and wage disparity have disappeared, however. Educated men still reap the greatest rewards from the modern economy. But blue-collar workers, who once made up our vanishing middle class, face an uncertain future. A survey from the Pew Research Center this February found that 87 percent of Americans describe themselves as middle class, but only half fit the definition. Furthermore, the share of Americans living in middle-income households shrank from 61 percent to 51 percent between 1970 and 2013.

Women’s wages, however, are rising—up 78 percent since the 1970s, while men’s wages have stagnated—though women still earn less than men. In the 1970s the average woman contributed 27 percent to her household’s income; in 2011, she contributed 37 percent. It won’t be long before middle-class women outearn their male peers, given the growth of female-dominated industries and advanced education. The latter, especially, is where women are lapping men. Fifty percent of women between the ages of 24 and 39 have completed a degree after high school, versus 41 percent of men.

But over the past 400 years, from agrarianism to small-scale manufacturing to the factory to corporate capitalism, men have adapted at every economic turn, creating short-term winners and losers. Harvard economist Lawrence Katz thinks that when the economy shifts, those who lose out experience “retroactive unemployment” in pursuit of jobs that no longer exist; however, he anticipates a bright future for men in the new economy. As an expert in the ways technology affects the middle class, Katz predicts the rise of the “new artisan” as a substantial trend in middle-class employment.

His theory holds that technology will commoditize and cheapen products in all industries but that artisanal workers will offer a superior interpersonal experience coupled with unique goods and services, commanding premium prices in turn. Men, he notes, are especially well suited to such roles. “These kinds of jobs go back to colonial times,” Katz says. “Individuals brought their own ingenuity and creativity to provide small-scale, high-quality products. In the 19th century they were displaced by mass production, but technology is already bringing a resurgence of this type of work.”

Edward Galla is just one example. For years, the construction contractor plied his trade on Martha’s Vineyard, underbidding competitors on high-end materials and pocketing the profits. Then, the internet democratized the information behind his market. “Suddenly, everyone knew where to go,” he says. His margins tanked.

Galla embraced change, teaching himself how to use design software such as Autodesk, and his team today includes independent craftsmen from around the world. He drafts projects in 3-D, allowing the people in his network to make bids, submit proposals and complete higher-quality work than was possible before—and they can do it without setting foot in Massachusetts. “Space is expensive in New England,” he notes. By contracting with a custom cabinetmaker in Minneapolis, for example, he’s taking advantage of cheap Midwestern real estate.

If Katz’s prediction about new artisans comes to pass, the ways men and women fit into the economy will come to complement each other. Their roles will change, in some ways becoming more traditional and in others less: Women may be likelier to spend their careers in nine-to-five corporate positions, enjoying the regular hours, benefits and predictable pay those jobs entail. Forty-nine percent of women already work in firms with more than 500 employees, compared with 43 percent of men, and their share of the corporate pie is growing. That certainty will empower men to take on less predictable but possibly higher-paying work in self-employment.

A world in which men strive to learn new skills and take on riskier, entrepreneurial household roles may even prove more fulfilling than office work—but this requires changing our definition of a “good job.” Expecting men to be better-educated, office-work-oriented breadwinners is an outmoded idea. The artisan of the future will still be skilled and possess just as much potential to provide for his family. The technological revolution is yet another turn in the cycle of economic progress, and workers of both genders must learn to adapt. The end of men is not nigh; the end of our dated notion of work, however, is.


Editor’s note: We don’t currently have a comment section on Playboy.com, but there is an interesting comment thread for this article over at the Marginal Revolution blog.

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