In a recent moment of downtime, I happened to catch the last half of the movie Breaking Away on television. You may know the 1979 Oscar winner: It tells the story of a small-town teenager who uses bicycling to escape the hopelessness of blue-collar Bloomington, Indiana. The town is divided between haves and have-nots … wealthy business types and their polo-wearing university-bound children pitted against hardscrabble families sustained by work at the local limestone quarry. By some accounts, this rivalry is nonfiction. The movie portrays stone-mill labor as particularly demoralizing and unfulfilling.
Countless other movies, from Charlie Chaplin's Depression-era Modern Times to 1980s cult classics All the Right Moves and Flashdance to hip-hop drama 8 Mile (starring Eminem) tell roughly the same story: In these and other American narratives, blue-collar work carries stigma, and is often associated with the compromised lives of previous generations, to be escaped by the protagonist, whether through skill, luck, or pluckiness.
A flip side also exists, at least on cable and satellite television: Proliferating programs, including American Loggers, Factory Made, Dirty Jobs, and How It's Made, glorify engineering and manual labor. However, most of these popular half-hour programs give sweeping views of production lines, or focus on work functions that allow meaningful personal freedoms. Covering redundant tasks would make for poor TV, but the large-scale coordination of making goods and the creative completion of missions are fascinating.
What does this all mean? There seems to be conflict between two aspects of the collective American identity. Namely, our country distinguishes itself with innovation and manufacturing, but largely associates their execution with limiting blue-collar functions. It's too bad that these occupations don't (or didn't) get more respect, because even jobs generated by new manufacture scale-up (for products just out of R&D) sometimes don't seem to align with the all-American pursuit of a “better life,” or notions of what meaningful on-job influence entails. Not that it always matters: Expanding companies often choose offshoring or, when building new U.S. plants, automation: The latter is fast, accurate, and cost-effective over the long run … and eliminates what's considered dangerous or mundane (and sometimes strike-inducing) work.
Concerns abound: In April, David Autor, of the MIT Department of Economics and National Bureau of Economic Research, authored a report titled, Polarization of Job Opportunities in the U.S. Labor Market. A free PDF is available online. In the study, Autor cites data that details accelerated polarization of U.S. jobs into low and high paying, while those in the middle, often manufacturing jobs, have dwindled. It's a story that's all too familiar. The report specifically fingers robotics among the main culprits of the shrinking middle class.
Ironically, with national unemployment hovering at 9% (and “underemployment” rates around 22%) many would welcome the blue-collar work of yesteryear. Obviously, we need other solutions.