Today's Factory Workers Are Doing Much Better Than Their Parents

Today's Factory Workers Are Doing Much Better Than Their Parents
Tom Sherlin/The Daily Times via AP
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An article in the New York Times last week provided a close look at the anxieties felt by many blue-collar workers. It also made it hard to avoid the conclusion that many will not be able to get what they want – because what they want doesn’t exist, and perhaps never did.

The article by Nelson D. Schwartz examines the mill town of Neenah, Wisconsin, a place that has seen much economic change. While the unemployment rate is only 2.8 percent, and the leading foundry recently raised hourly wages for chippers and grinders, people in Neenah (and presumably old economy towns all over the United States) are feeling deep anxiety. As a local elected official is quoted as saying: “People are working similar jobs to what their parents did, but are not able to maintain the same lifestyle.”

No, they are able to maintain a better lifestyle. Like virtually everyone else in the industrialized and industrializing world, they are economically better off than their parents, just as their parents were better off than theirs. Let’s not forget, the purpose of a job is to earn the money that makes it possible to buy things. People are able to buy more goods today than ever, for the simple reason that more goods exist.

The Times summarizes the feelings of the people they spoke to in Neenah, saying they want what their parents had. But they should ask themselves: If they want what their parents had, are they also prepared to give up what their parents didn’t have? One of the reasons many find it hard to maintain a middle-class lifestyle today is because a middle-class lifestyle offers the potential for far more than it did 40 years ago. Some middle-aged baby boomers might like the idea of returning to the 1970s, when they were much younger. But would they want to do so without their smart phone, desktop or laptop, internet access, online shopping, HDTV, Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Studios – much less modern medical technologies, medications, devices and procedures? 

Many Americans, of course, worry because losing their job will also lead to losing their health insurance, an understandable concern. But one of the reasons health care is so valuable today, and so costly, is because considerable technologies and procedures have been devised over the past few decades.  In the 1970s, for example, MRIs were in their initial stages of development. A study of six large integrated health systems from diverse regions of the United States between 1996 and 2010, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found dramatic increases in utilization of the highly versatile imaging technique, which is used for diagnostic medicine and biomedical research.

Since 1980, technology has given us the lithotripter, surgical robots, commercially available statins, the first vaccine for hepatitis A and B, laser cataract surgery, lithotripters capable of fragmenting kidney stones in less than an hour, bionic eyes, stem cell research and the first human liver grown from stem cells, among many medical innovations.

According to the Times article, there is a “creeping sense (in Neenah) of having to work harder just to stay in place.” But people are not staying in place, they are getting ahead. Much of the anxiety in Neenah, according to the article, stems from the fact that things are changing – including stores that are open on Sunday and malls that are open on Christmas eve. But the world is changing mainly because it is getting better. The things that are available to us today seem more expensive and harder to hold on to because there are more of them, and they offer far more. In the process of developing more efficient ways of doing things, new technologies replace many jobs. But they also spawn others. And the paycheck we get for them buys us more, because more is available to buy.

It is ironic that the Times article is based on circumstances in Neenah. This is a town that has seen the need for change in the past, and adjusted to it. As the article points out, Neenah was founded about 150 years ago when a family from Norway started a business making cast-iron stoves and carriages. When new technologies made that obsolete, the town turned to what would become its dominant industry, mills. Then the mills started to close. Change costs some their jobs, and causes anxiety for others. A local foundry is investing $75 million in robots. The family that founded the town has turned successfully to car sales and real estate. Some hang on to their mill jobs, while others seek openings in the new economy.

But a new company that has set up shop employs 2,000 people in Neenah and nearby, manufacturing complex electronic equipment. Many workers have been obtaining two-year degrees from nearby colleges, in fields like metal fabrication, automation and advanced manufacturing – jobs that didn’t exist when the parents of workers in Neenah were in the workforce. They now pay $50-60K per year, and the people who perform them are known as gold-collar workers.

Why then do so many yearn for the good old days? Mainly because they imagine them to be a lot better than they actually were. We engage in retrospective glorification, painting false memories of an idyllic and easier past. But we didn’t make a better living in the past; we just did it differently. In fact, we live much better today.  And we are able to do so largely because the same forces of globalization – including new technologies – that change the way we work, also change the way we live.

Allan Golombek is a Senior Director at the White House Writers Group. 

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