The Employment Challenge of the White, Blue Collar Worker

So here we are in the midst of the 2016 Presidential race, an election cycle that is likely to go down in American history as one of the most unusual and unpredictable contests ever for selecting our next president. A chief factor contributing to the volatility of this election concerns a rarely seen and powerful reaction coming from a cohort that has been with us for well over a hundred years-the racially white, economically middle class, high school-only educated worker, often referred to as the blue collar worker.

The anxiety, fear, uncertainty, and anger of this significant electoral group has shaken up and defined this cycle’s race in a way that most of us, including the political pundits who follow this stuff for a living, didn’t see coming. This class angst has led to the rapid rise of at least 2 presidential candidates, who were not expected to be major players when they entered the fray, and is driving much of the conversation among all of those still contending for the big prize.

There are concrete and measurable reasons for the white, blue collar worker to be apprehensive and they fall across economic, racial/ethnic, demographic, and educational domains. Technology is eliminating many low and mid-skilled jobs. Globalization is increasing competition. Whites are seeing minorities increase in numbers and power sharing. Having less than a college degree puts one at a greater employment disadvantage. When members of this contingent, particularly males, see that their fathers had an easier time achieving the middle class dream than they can, then a deep demoralization sets in.

A report by two economists that received much attention at the end of last year showed that death rates for white, less-educated Americans aged 45-54 have increased since 1999. Drug/alcohol-related deaths and suicide are propelling this boost. Clearly something is amiss and it appears to have reached a breaking point in this election.

The social and economic causal conditions mentioned are colossal and not reversible. Oversimplified diagnoses coupled with over-promising, which is what presidential candidates largely seems to be offering, will not allay the real fear people are feeling past the campaigns. Strong leadership that empathically acknowledges the discomfort, unease, and confusion people are feeling is a start. But rather than offering unrealistic and bombastic “solutions” it needs to be recognized that as a country we need to rally around outcomes that do not pit one class, race, or ethnic group against another, but instead meet these complex challenges with national resolve.

In a word, jobs is at the crux of this issue. It is reasonable to ask, what is the white, blue collar worker with only a high school education to do? To begin answering this I go way back to Aristotle who said that in order to achieve true happiness we must depend on ourselves. Of course collective action politically and economically is important, but most fundamentally each of has to assess on our own the world we are now in and determine for ourselves the best course of action to take for sustainable employment given the daunting headwinds we face. This takes clear, critical, and reflective thinking, resulting in high quality decision making.

Each of us needs to think of ourselves as an entrepreneur. No, we’re not all going to start businesses, but we are going to be approaching our careers similarly by developing, organizing, and managing the enterprise of “myself”. This involves initiative, risk, and when done well, reward. A good entrepreneur finds the opportunities from among many distractions, they are innovative when conventional approaches don’t work, and they are organized and productive in meeting their goals. Does being like an entrepreneur require a college degree? For many yes, for others no.

There is a lot of need in the world. We are far from saturating all of the actual and potential jobs that are or will be available. Triggering an action with an uncertain outcome is not easy and it is fraught with unpredictability, but our careers depend on it-even for the white, blue collar worker.

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