The Class Project 4: On the Job

Work — what’s it good for?

For the lower class, work is one way of getting money and keeping the Man from hassling you.  It’s not necessarily the best way, but it works.  Taking pride in one’s work is not likely.  Jobs are transitory.  Work is an option.  Your job is no part of your identity.

For the working class, on the other hand, taking pride in one’s work is important.  In fact, pride is generally a very significant thing for the working class.  Making money is important, and that’s a solid reason to work, but turning down added money in order to be proud of what one does is perfectly normal.

It doesn’t matter all that very much what the work is.  Oh, it’s best to have a job you enjoy, but whether you love your job or hate it, it’s important to do it well.  If you’re a plumber, then by God you want to be a good plumber.  If you’re flipping burgers, then you want them to be good burgers.

And this pride in one’s work is one of the major divides between working class and lower middle class.  Some people make no distinction between those two classes, and economically they’re pretty interchangeable, but behaviorally they’re not.  Working class people work to survive, because it’s what people do, and they try to do it well; middle class people work to get ahead, and if they try to do it well, that’s usually to impress someone so they can get a better job.

Generally speaking, the middle class hates work.  Work is necessary to acquire money and status and all the other good things in life, but work itself sucks.

The fact that an awful lot of middle-class jobs are mind-numbing pointless crap may have something to do with this.  It’s hard to take pride in pushing paper.

In the middle class you choose your job on the basis of how much it pays and where it is and who you’ll be working with, not generally on what you’ll actually be doing — because for one thing, you expect to be doing something different a few years down the road, because you’ve been promoted or downsized or gotten a better offer elsewhere.

But then when you get to the professional class, work is once again something you take pride in — but you may still have the middle-class obsession with getting ahead, moving up the ladder.  You work in one field, and you want to be the best in that field — law, medicine, programming, teaching, whatever.  (Some teachers are professionals, some are middle class.)

And for the upper class, work is an option.  It’s something you do when you need money, or want to please your family, or are bored.

You may notice a certain symmetry here.  Ask people, “Who are you?” and the answers will depend on class:

Lower class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I live down on Howard, ‘cept when my old lady throws me out.”

Working class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I’m a welder.”

Middle class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I work for IBM.”

Professional class:  “I’m Joe Smith.  I’m a lawyer.”

Upper class:  “I’m Joe Smith, of the Philadelphia Smiths.  The cadet branch out of Upper Darby.”

Notice, also, that the middle class is made up of employees — people who work for other people, or for corporations, not for themselves.  Working class and professionals are a mix of employees and proprietors.  Upper and lower class can be anything, depending on their exact circumstances at the moment, but the default is unemployed.

I could have a lot more to say about attitudes toward work, actually — one attitude in particular:  the fear of unemployment.

The lower class isn’t afraid of unemployment; that’s their natural condition.  They’ll often just stop showing up for work because they’re bored or got a better offer or hell, it was too nice a day to sweep floors.

The working class doesn’t have too much trouble with unemployment.  It’s rough, but layoffs happen and they’re not a reflection on anyone’s personal worth as a human being, and there will be other jobs.  Skilled, dedicated workers are always in demand.

The middle class is largely terrified of unemployment.  Losing a job is a horrible stressful event to be avoided if at all possible — you may never find another one as good, you’ll lose all your seniority, all your contacts and the network you’ve built up to handle the office politics, your benefits will be endangered, you might miss a car payment.  It’s a vicious blow to self-esteem.  When you’re working, you’re somebody, you have a place in the world; when you’re downsized you’re just wastepaper, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

The professional class doesn’t have too much trouble with unemployment.  Oh, it’s a blow, but educated, experienced people are always in demand.

The upper class isn’t afraid of unemployment; why should they be?

6 thoughts on “The Class Project 4: On the Job

  1. That’s a spot-on distinction between the working class and the “lower class”, and something that gets missed a lot in the What’s Wrong With Kansas?-type discussions.

    I think you’re off on the professional class’s attitude toward unemployment, though. Everyone that I know who’d qualify in that class has been pretty worried when they lost their job.

  2. I think it comes down to how much of your personal identity is tied into your work. I’ve known retirees who’ve pretty much floundered after they stopped working because they had little else in their lives besides their jobs.

  3. My theory, when I wrote this, was that how much of your identity is tied to your job is largely a matter of your class attitudes.

  4. Interesting articles. I found Robert Kiyosaki’s definitions different and interesting: Employee, Self-Employed, Business Owner, and Investor. I’m sure he got them from somewhere else. But attitudes to lots of things are going to be quite different between the business owner (with employees) and the employee at similar income levels. I’ve puzzled since how that fits into traditional notions of class.

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