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Ideas | Rob Walker

The end of manly labor

Detail from “The Wealth of the Nation,” by Seymour Fogel, 1938/Wikimedia Commons

It may be simplistic, or even wrongheaded, but the working-class man has become a political obsession. President Trump won this voting bloc with promises of resurrecting the “good jobs” of America’s industrial heyday, ostensibly by toughening trade rules and jawboning individual companies. Democrats agree on the need to appeal to working-class men, but the party’s strategy for doing so hasn’t changed much since Nov. 8: Mostly we hear about addressing income inequality by raising the minimum wage, improving family leave, and making college more affordable.

But it’s not clear that those issues resonate with the archetypal Rust Belt factory worker displaced by globalism, technology, or both. For starters, there’s no grand-gesture proposal — no modern heir to the job-creating Works Progress Administration, let’s say — to capture the imagination. The minimum wage doesn’t mean much to this group, and family leave is more of a “new working class” issue, says Lance Compa, who teaches US labor law and international labor rights at Cornell University. After all, we’re talking about a theoretical voter who once earned up to $30 an hour and could support a family without advanced skills or education beyond high school — and basically wants that life back.

And maybe there’s another factor lurking in the background: This guy — you pictured a guy, right? — frames his concerns more bluntly. “Manly dignity is a big deal for most men,” argued Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in a November essay for Harvard Business Review. “So is breadwinner status: Many still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck. White working-class men’s wages hit the skids in the 1970s and took another body blow during the Great Recession. . . . For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal).”


Let’s acknowledge the obvious: The collision between 21st-century economic realities and the male ego makes an odd topic for think tank symposiums or congressional hearings. To consider “manly dignity” in the context of economic policy is no excuse to bring back a “when men were men” vision of Manhood 1.0 — much less to embrace the alt-right tweeters raining hatred upon women.

But just because an issue is awkward for scholars and politicians to address doesn’t mean it isn’t shaping our economy and our politics. “Look,” Williams wrote, “I wish manliness worked differently.”

Ultimately, men who are truly stuck in the past are going to find out that sloganeering and braggadocio won’t revive it. Economist Betsey Stevenson has a point when she argues that “Manly Men Need to Do More Girly Jobs,” as the title of her recent Bloomberg View column put it.

Still, as a straightforward matter of both policy and rhetoric, courting any group involves understanding, not belittling, its core concerns and addressing them in ways that make sense specifically to members of that group. Boosting an industrial policy that speaks to this class of men on its own terms “has just not been on the radar of the Democratic Party or progressives in general,” Williams said in an interview.

After all, the wave of post-election attention notwithstanding, blue-collar men have been or felt under assault for decades. Writing in The Baffler, author Susan Faludi recently revisited some of her reporting for her 1999 book, “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man.” Her subjects, bitter about lost jobs, declining status, shifting gender values, and untrustworthy elite power structures, seem remarkably familiar.


It’s not quite right to suggest that no one before Trump paid attention to these men. One popular and pragmatic-sounding solution is retraining: taking workers from sectors that economic change has destroyed and equipping them with the skills to participate in those it is creating. The problem is that men often don’t seem to want those newer jobs. “These are working-class people,” Ohio congressman Tim Ryan told NPR not long after the election, when he was challenging Nancy Pelosi for the Democratic House leadership role. “They don’t want to get retrained, you know, to run a computer. They want to run a backhoe. They want to build things.”

Moreover, newer job categories often involve work that has been dominated by women. Janette Dill, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Akron, has researched lower-level jobs in the health care industry — a fast-growing category, according to government statistics — such as medical and nursing assistants. Very few men pursue such work. “There’s some stigma around doing these kind of feminized job tasks,” Dill says, such as helping a patient get out of bed or use the bathroom. While it’s often physically demanding, it’s “seen as women’s work,” she adds.

At the same time, Dill has seen some evidence of an uptick in younger male workers embracing health care positions with “more of a technical dimension.” A gig as a surgical technician, respiratory therapist, or occupational therapist can pay $40,000. The proliferation of jobs like these may not sound as exciting as lightning-bolt gestures toward new car plants. But these new health care jobs generally require a two-year degree, not a four-year baccalaureate, and they “seem more masculine,” as Dill carefully puts it.


Meanwhile, manufacturing itself isn’t a lost cause, even if its golden age is unlikely to return, argues Timothy Bartik, a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo, Mich. Bartik advocates several ideas that could appeal to the working-man crowd: a more demand-driven approach to retraining; manufacturing extension services designed to help existing smaller manufacturers grow; and economic “empowerment zones” — a Bill Clinton-era policy that provided block grants to regions that devised plans to deploy them according to strategic local needs. These involve federal help but, importantly, play out at regional levels.

This could be more effective than doling out company-specific tax breaks or deploying the blunt instrument of tariffs on the one hand and a more macro-oriented, top-down approach on the other. Empowerment zones are an unlikely successor to the Works Progress Administration — the Depression-era federal agency that put unemployed men to work on public building projects — but could be positioned as a WPA-like expression of tangible government action.

Bartik notes the importance of “rhetorical emphasis” — selling these ideas as specifically beneficial to communities built on old-school working-class economics. Hillary Clinton did propose policies (including some that overlap with these ideas) to help US manufacturing, but for whatever reason, he says, “that didn’t seem to get much attention.”

What’s missing is a more sweeping vision that gives alienated men — and others — a sense that the economy has a use for the kind of work they want to do.

Williams, of UC Hastings, says this is where progressives have been misguided and failed to think big and advocate a comprehensive industrial and educational policy. She points to the Markle Foundation’s Rework America initiative, which calls for better matching of skills and training with real job demand. Germany’s approach, involving apprenticeship programs and educational structures that also produce middle-skill workers that industry actually needs, offers an example. The point is to think beyond a one-size-fits-all advocacy of the four-year college degree — a “delusory” solution, as Williams puts it, that leaves some workers cold. “The kind of work that college grads do doesn’t appeal to them,” she says. “That’s not their skill set.”


Clearly this shift would take time, but Compa, the Cornell labor scholar, adds a couple of practical suggestions that could speak directly and immediately to displaced manufacturing workers. One is an effort to reinvigorate workers’ compensation laws, which have withered in many states. Another is to improve COBRA policies, which allow laid-off workers to hang onto health benefits, by extending their duration and forcing companies to pay for them. “I don’t want to stereotype,” he says, “but men want to feel that they’re providing for their family, and one way to provide for your family is to make sure they have health insurance.” (Bartik further suggests considering ways of bridging later-career manufacturing layoff victims to retirement if retraining isn’t a realistic possibility.)

Finally, Compa thinks we should embrace another facet of America’s industrial peak: unions. Building bonds among working-class people as they take their own interests into their own hands, unions can still help provide the sense of dignity that some feel is lost. “The idea that we’re going to stand together against this powerful force on the other side,” he says, “I think that gives a sense of meaning and purpose.”

That basic idea speaks to lost manliness, but also transcends it. Compa mentions that he was surprised to learn how little the sorts of low-level health care workers that Dill studies earn — maybe $12 an hour. “I understand they didn’t go to college,” he says. “But their work is so important, and requires the same skill and care and attention that a machinist job requires. They should get those kind of wages.” Since the market’s not making that happen, maybe organizing could.


Dill herself points out that these low wages are symptomatic of a direct link between the “stigma” of feminized labor that those manly men avoid and its direct economic consequences: “The kind of work that women do is often not as valued, by society.” So more broadly, maybe this suggests that policy could speak to “the working man” in a way that’s also heard by the broader and more diverse working class.

For all her frustration with the way she feels Democrats have ignored or misunderstood seekers of “dignity (male varietal),” Williams thinks so, too. “I don’t think this is a zero-sum game,” she says. Aggressively advocating for ways to create more and better middle-skill jobs will benefit workers of any race or gender.

But doing that will require progressive policy thinkers to dream bigger and push harder — to man up, you might say.

Rob Walker writes The Workologist, a New York Times column.