My dad, who died in 2004, was a typical blue-collar man of his generation. He dropped out of school after the eighth grade and when he was 17, he took the GED, joined the Navy, trained as a mechanic, and spent the next 20 years in the Seabees, eventually retiring as a chief petty officer. He was stationed near Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a suburb of Paris, when he met my mother in a bar one night. She also had ended formal schooling after reaching the age of 13, after which she trained as a domestic.
Though my father had minimal formal education, and though he was not particularly ambitious or hard-working, he was able to support a family of five in a way that was dignified. And though I was not conscious of it at the time, I believe my parents had a sense of hope that their progeny would fare better than they had.
Dad was, in every respect, typical of his class and generation, and his modest education was enough to keep us respectably bobbing along in the blue-collar class for my entire childhood. Even after he retired and had a massive stroke a year later at the age of 38. He spent the next 10 years living off of social security disability and his Navy pension, along with a scattering of small-business ventures—raising rabbits, boarding horses, owning a feed store, owning a small-town newspaper— until my parents moved to the Merced area.
They both found employment working for the Merced County Office of Education, jobs which enabled them to climb past the blue-collar rung on the status ladder, achieving finally the rank of middle class when I was well into my 20s. They were in their late 40s by then, but they had finally made it—they owned a home in a nice neighborhood.
It was not until late in his life that the job skills my father learned in the 1940s became obsolete. My father had kept the family cars and trucks running throughout our childhoods, and kept my cars running throughout my 20s, without ever having to read a manual or take a class to stay current. The cars of the 1970s operated pretty much the same as the cars of the 1940s. Whenever I suspected something was wrong with my car, all I had to do was pick up the phone and call my dad.
And then one day in the mid-1990s, I called my dad about a problem with my Jeep.
“That’s a ’96,” he told me over the phone. “These new cars are all computerized. I can’t fix it. You’d better take it into the dealer.”
Even though he had come to a point when his knowledge of automotive mechanics was no longer relevant, the change in automotive technology had been slow enough that my father had managed to make do for most of his life with the skills he had learned as a teenager.
But that is not the world we live in today. Technology has ramped up the pace at which skills become obsolete. Technology has always replaced jobs, of course. Progress marches along, indifferent to the detritus left behind. The difference is that now the march has become more of a sprint and it is impossible to keep up without periodically updating old skills or, with increasing frequency, learning entirely new skills you could not have imagined needing only a year before.
And that, I think, is the foundation of the class tensions we are seeing so much of today.
The old model, when a person could learn skills early in life and depend on them for the entirety of a career, has been replaced by a new model, one requiring life-long education to stay current. Today, there is barely time to learn and practice one job skill before another comes along.
During the next 10 years, there will be sharp decline in many industries that were once the staple of the blue-collar worker. Jobs in manufacturing have been declining for decades, of course, and they will continue to disappear. Trends in the economy suggest that the fishing industry will see sharp decreases due to climate change and continued progress in automation, and anyone who shops at Raley’s can see that jobs in cashiering will soon be obsolete. Some studies estimate that within a decade 70 percent of construction jobs and 95 percent of transport and trucking jobs will be replaced by automation, including of course self-driving vehicles.
But I think the problem for today’s blue-collar workers goes deeper than lost jobs. My father, an FDR-style Democrat who benefited from government programs for all of his adult life—a strong military and its pension program, a social security system that helped him to keep his family fed and clothed through the darkest period of his life, and a vast educational system that provided employment to him and his wife and gave his daughter an opportunity to find a place on the social ladder a few rungs above his—lived in a country where he felt protected by his government. But now those fundamental programs, such as social security, pensions, and college accessibility, have uncertain futures. Many blue-collar workers have, for good reason, lost faith in the protections my father never had reason to doubt. And until the working class can find that faith again, and some sense of security and hope for the future, the divide between the classes will continue to spread.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.