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Reading List: Stories From the Working Class

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Emily Perper is a word-writing human for hire. She blogs about her favorite longreads at Diet Coker.

I read a brilliant piece, "Zen and the Art of Cover Letter Writing," that reminded me that I had not yet featured the stories of those suffering under the yoke of this abusive economy.

These are stories about injustice, about broken promises, about frustration and desperation and of course, debt. This is a list for anyone caught in a gross transition period, in a dead-end job, who is trying to make something, anything work out long-term. This is a list for anyone who has been told to “just find a job” or “you can do anything you set your mind to” or “your generation is so lazy/narcissistic/vapid.” This is a list for anyone who has been late on their rent, or hassled by credit card companies, or received overdue loan warnings. You’re not alone.

1. "Young, Multi-Employed, and Looking for Full-Time Work in San Francisco." (Lucy Schiller, The Billfold, May 2013)

The Billfold is my go-to site for voyeurism, empathy, financial advice, and great storytelling. Schiller and her friends attempt to “ford the murky river of the hiring process” of self-employment, multiple part-time jobs and internships—anything but traditional full-time work.

2. "Retail Workers Need Rights, Too." (S.E. Smith, This Ain’t Livin’, Febraury 2013)

Retail workers work long hours for practically minimum wage, with hidden physical and emotional abuses, few benefits, and intolerant leave policies.

3. "How She Lives on Minimum Wage: One McDonald’s Worker’s Budget." (Laura Shin, Forbes, July 2013)

A single mother of four shares the harrowing experience of living on her part-time job’s minimum wage.

4. “‘We’ve Got Ph.D.s Working as File Clerks.” (Will Owen, The Washington Blade, June 2013)

The recently founded Association of Transgender Professionals (ATP) works to further transgender equality in the workplace in the U.S. and abroad. ATP helps trans* individuals prepare for interviews, apply for jobs, and find employment; it also assists companies in recruiting LGBTQ folks.

5. "The Burdens of Working-Class Youth." (Jennifer M. Silva, The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 2013)

Silva spoke to over a hundred working-class citizens in Lowell, Mass. and Richmond, Va. She found that education for working-class teens is no path to success; rather, these students have no one to advocate for them or explain the labyrinthine bureaucracy of higher education and financial planning, which ends in a dead-end of debt and frustration.

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How the U.S. lost out on iPhone manufacturing work, and what it means for the future of job creation in the United States: 

But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke, President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?
Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.
Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.
Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.


"Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class." — Charles Duhigg, Keith Bradsher, The New York Times
See also: "The Untold Story of How My Dad Helped Invent the First Mac." — Aza Raskin, Fast Company Design, Feb. 14, 2011

How the U.S. lost out on iPhone manufacturing work, and what it means for the future of job creation in the United States: 

But as Steven P. Jobs of Apple spoke, President Obama interrupted with an inquiry of his own: what would it take to make iPhones in the United States?

Not long ago, Apple boasted that its products were made in America. Today, few are. Almost all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other products Apple sold last year were manufactured overseas.

Why can’t that work come home? Mr. Obama asked.

Mr. Jobs’s reply was unambiguous. “Those jobs aren’t coming back,” he said, according to another dinner guest.

"Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class." — Charles Duhigg, Keith Bradsher, The New York Times

See also: "The Untold Story of How My Dad Helped Invent the First Mac." — Aza Raskin, Fast Company Design, Feb. 14, 2011

On modern manufacturing in the U.S. and the unskilled-skilled labor gap—with 92-year-old Standard Motor Products serving as a case study: 

Across America, many factory floors look radically different than they did 20 years ago: far fewer people, far more high-tech machines, and entirely different demands on the workers who remain. The still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age. It’s a story with much good news for the nation as a whole. But it’s also one that is decidedly less inclusive than the story of the 20th century, with a less certain role for people like Maddie Parlier, who struggle or are unlucky early in life.

"Making It in America." — Adam Davidson, The Atlantic
See also: "The White House Looks for Work." — Peter Baker, New York Times, Jan. 19, 2011

On modern manufacturing in the U.S. and the unskilled-skilled labor gap—with 92-year-old Standard Motor Products serving as a case study: 

Across America, many factory floors look radically different than they did 20 years ago: far fewer people, far more high-tech machines, and entirely different demands on the workers who remain. The still-unfolding story of manufacturing’s transformation is, in many respects, that of our economic age. It’s a story with much good news for the nation as a whole. But it’s also one that is decidedly less inclusive than the story of the 20th century, with a less certain role for people like Maddie Parlier, who struggle or are unlucky early in life.

"Making It in America." — Adam Davidson, The Atlantic

See also: "The White House Looks for Work." — Peter Baker, New York Times, Jan. 19, 2011


The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity—the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

"The Book of Jobs." — Joseph E. Stiglitz, Vanity Fair
See more #longreads about the economy

The parallels between the story of the origin of the Great Depression and that of our Long Slump are strong. Back then we were moving from agriculture to manufacturing. Today we are moving from manufacturing to a service economy. The decline in manufacturing jobs has been dramatic—from about a third of the workforce 60 years ago to less than a tenth of it today. The pace has quickened markedly during the past decade. There are two reasons for the decline. One is greater productivity—the same dynamic that revolutionized agriculture and forced a majority of American farmers to look for work elsewhere. The other is globalization, which has sent millions of jobs overseas, to low-wage countries or those that have been investing more in infrastructure or technology. (As Greenwald has pointed out, most of the job loss in the 1990s was related to productivity increases, not to globalization.) Whatever the specific cause, the inevitable result is precisely the same as it was 80 years ago: a decline in income and jobs. The millions of jobless former factory workers once employed in cities such as Youngstown and Birmingham and Gary and Detroit are the modern-day equivalent of the Depression’s doomed farmers.

"The Book of Jobs." — Joseph E. Stiglitz, Vanity Fair

See more #longreads about the economy


In the weeks since the immigration law took hold, several hundred Americans have answered farmers’ ads for tomato pickers. A field over from where Juan Castro and his friends muse about the sorry state of the U.S. workforce, 34-year-old Jesse Durr stands among the vines. An aspiring rapper from inner-city Birmingham, he wears big jeans and a do-rag to shield his head from the sun. He had lost his job prepping food at Applebee’s, and after spending a few months looking for work a friend told him about a Facebook posting for farm labor.
The money isn’t good—$2 per basket, plus $600 to clear the three acres when the vines were picked clean—but he figures it’s better than sitting around. Plus, the transportation is free, provided by Jerry Spencer, who runs a community-supported agriculture program in Birmingham. That helps, because the farm is an hour north of Birmingham and the gas money adds up.
Durr thinks of himself as fit—he’s all chiseled muscle—but he is surprised at how hard the work is. “Not everyone is used to this. I ain’t used to it,” he says while taking a break in front of his truck. “But I’m getting used to it.”


"Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs." — Elizabeth Dwoskin, Bloomberg Businessweek
See more #longreads from Bloomberg Businessweek

In the weeks since the immigration law took hold, several hundred Americans have answered farmers’ ads for tomato pickers. A field over from where Juan Castro and his friends muse about the sorry state of the U.S. workforce, 34-year-old Jesse Durr stands among the vines. An aspiring rapper from inner-city Birmingham, he wears big jeans and a do-rag to shield his head from the sun. He had lost his job prepping food at Applebee’s, and after spending a few months looking for work a friend told him about a Facebook posting for farm labor.

The money isn’t good—$2 per basket, plus $600 to clear the three acres when the vines were picked clean—but he figures it’s better than sitting around. Plus, the transportation is free, provided by Jerry Spencer, who runs a community-supported agriculture program in Birmingham. That helps, because the farm is an hour north of Birmingham and the gas money adds up.

Durr thinks of himself as fit—he’s all chiseled muscle—but he is surprised at how hard the work is. “Not everyone is used to this. I ain’t used to it,” he says while taking a break in front of his truck. “But I’m getting used to it.”

"Why Americans Won’t Do Dirty Jobs." — Elizabeth Dwoskin, Bloomberg Businessweek

See more #longreads from Bloomberg Businessweek