Whatever happened to the “working class”? A recent search on Google News Canada netted 176,000 hits for the term, with the first few pages listing sources like The Guardian, BBC News, Jamaica Observer, Al Jazeera America, and the World Socialist Website. There were only a scattering of North American news outlets.
In comparison, the term “middle class” nets 166,000 hits from sources closer to home, including The National Review Online, Salon, New York Magazine and the Prince George Free Press.
Media-wise, the people who harvest our food, clean up after us, and take care of our ailing kids and grandparents occupy a Twilight Zone of pity and parody, when they get any attention at all. This is particularly true for television: Larry the Cable Guy, Honey Booboo, and a range of nasty reality shows in Britain like Benefit Scroungers offer viewers funhouse mirror images of working class lives. (And how many times have we seen store clerks, shelf stockers, and employees in store mascot suits represented as bumbling fools in TV commercials?)
According to the Media Education Foundation, television frequently portrays working class people “as either clowns or social deviants — stereotypical portrayals that reinforce the myth of meritocracy.”
Years ago, it wasn’t unusual for broadsheets and broadcasters to have labour reporters on their beats. No longer. As unions have shrunk in number and influence, those who rely the most on protection from corporate exploitation have seen their pop culture profile descend from Roseanne to Shameless.
It’s like the working poor live in a different country. Yet most of us find comfort in believing that that upward mobility offers everyone opportunities for advancement, through hard work, networking, or a winning lottery ticket. Yet this Horatio Alger plot line has lost its lustre for millions in the new millennium.
Stats from the U.S. show social mobility is at its lowest ebb since the turn of the 20th century, in the first Gilded Age. Canada has also drifted in that direction (particularly B.C., the province with the highest child poverty rate), though not as far as our neighbour to the south.
There are no shortages of editorials and commentaries insisting — correctly, I believe — that a strong economy and resilient democracy depend on a large middle class. Yet the fortunes and misfortunes of the working class rarely figure into the media mix. The tough times for U.S. homeowners after the credit crisis of ‘08 were widely observed, but only a few American journalists, notably Barbara Ehrenreich, have pointed out that what’s been difficult for those in the middle has been a catastrophe for those on the bottom.
Only when the problematic outliers of the bottom tier start acting up — with mental health or drug abuse issues that spill into the streets — are we treated to the predictable puzzlement of well-compensated commentators. That holds true from Vancouver, B.C. to Venice Beach, California.
Yet do class distinctions even hold like they used to? A plumber in Vancouver can pull in a six-figure income, while a graduate with a master’s degree can be burdened with student debt of half that size — along with limited prospects of work in his or her field. Canada’s workforce is now largely defined by three groups: overworked information workers; low-paid service-sector workers labouring at multiple part-time jobs; and those displaced by outsourcing or automation, with little prospect of work appropriate to their background.
With lifelong careers and company loyalty a distant memory, a surplus population of workers is confronted with new challenges and new opportunities. That includes discovering the virtues of unalienated labour. In his book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Enquiry Into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford describes leaving a white collar cubicle farm for a motorcycle repair shop. He finds mechanical puzzles engage his hands while exercising his brain. As an added bonus of developing “manual competence,” Crawford gets positive feedback from pleased customers, something he never experienced when he wrote summaries of academic papers for a Washington think tank.
In today’s information age, the road to riches is supposedly paved with ones and zeroes. Yet there is dignity in getting one’s hands dirty in the non-virtual world, if only because the outcomes are often more difficult to fudge. Either the lights come on, the taps flow, the motor starts up… or not.
The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 31