Defining Work

Rob Meltzer

Its really weird that Obama travels around the country proclaiming that we need to create middle class jobs. Middle class jobs are really defined as a level of work above traditional blue collar work and below traditional professional work. But its been about 20 years since anyone really did a comprehensive survey to ascertain what Americans actually do for “work,” and without blue collar work as a basement level, you can’t have a middle class classification. There comes a point where urban policy collides with work policy, and it works like this: in the old days, low paid work was “concentrated,” meaning that you might have 600 people working in a factory across the street or next door to factories that had similar number of employees, so you could have 5000 people working and living in a concentrated area, all of them needing the kinds of goods and services that can be satisfied by the income level of the local workers. Coal mines are another example. Today, lower level work is “disbursed,” meaning that most of the low paying jobs are today found in places of business with fewer than 10 employees per shift. this means that instead of 5000 people in a five block area, you find 250 people. without “concentration,” you don’t get compact working class neighborhoods with compact goods and services. worse yet, people often need cars to get to these disbursed jobs, and cars can eat up more of a pay check than housing. When you lose compaction, you also lose the need for the middle class managers and professionals who support compact communities. so when Obama talks about “middle class jobs,” he leaves out the notion that you need “worker bees” because not everyone can be a middle manager. Its been a long time since Studds Terkel asked what people do for work. Its really something we need to know. It makes sense that you can’t make policy for 1945 if the work force no longer reflects that paradigm. Equally, it makes sense that you can’t use a middle class paradigm for improving the economy if no one even knows what that means any longer.