Don’t Count on Tomorrow: The New Credo for the Unemployed

Stephen Franklin

Long ago, on New York City’s docks, Frankie drilled into me the Amer­i­can cre­do about climb­ing the lad­der to a bet­ter life. Kid, you got­ta fin­ish col­lege,” he would say. You got­ta do bet­ter than this. All you need is to work hard­er and you can get there.”

Frankie, a mas­sive fel­low who had spent his life on the Man­hat­tan docks, was my pro­tec­tor and career advi­sor. He would find a clean place to hide my col­lege books in the morn­ings when I showed up. And when a fight broke out, he would warn me.

If you ever worked in a steel mill in Ohio, a lum­ber camp in Alaba­ma, a din­er in Maine, a cot­ton mill in North Car­oli­na, or any blue-col­lar, back-break­ing job any­where and it was clear that you had a good chance to move on, you prob­a­bly heard the same lec­ture about the Amer­i­can worker’s cre­do: If you get knocked down, stand up and try again. Yeah, life’s is tough. So what. You have it in you. Set your goals high and you’ll wind up some­where near where you want to be.”

One of the many things we seem to have lost in the Great Eco­nom­ic Bust is a wide­spread belief among those down and out that they will ever get back up on their feet. This find­ing comes from a recent sur­vey on the unem­ployed called The Shat­tered Dream: Unem­ployed Work­ers Lose Ground, Hope and Faith in their Futures” (PDF link).

It was pro­duced by the John J. Heldrich Cen­ter for Work­force Devel­op­ment at Rut­gers University.

How deep is the dis­ap­point­ment of the unemployed?

Near­ly 60 per­cent of the unem­ployed polled by the orga­ni­za­tion said that hard work and deter­mi­na­tion are no guar­an­tee of suc­cess for most persons.

Iron­i­cal­ly, a sim­i­lar poll con­duct­ed at the same time by the Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion, Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and the Wash­ing­ton Post found that 60 per­cent of peo­ple say that most per­sons who want to get ahead can make it if they’re will­ing to work hard.

It seems to me these dif­fer­ent points of view of the road ahead for Amer­i­can work­er offer a good reflec­tion of the baf­fling dis­con­nect shown by many Amer­i­cans toward an econ­o­my of crip­pling and unprece­dent­ed dead-ends for mil­lions of workers.

How do the unem­ployed, accord­ing to the sur­vey, view their future?

  • Only one-third think they will recov­er financially.
  • Two-thirds think the econ­o­my is under­go­ing fun­da­men­tal and last­ing changes.
  • More than half think it will be hard­er for young peo­ple to afford college.
  • Near­ly half say they will nev­er feel as secure at work as they once did and they will have to take jobs pay­ing below their skill levels.

Some of what the job­less tell us is the bit­ter taste of feel­ing cut off from the a pay­check, a job inter­view and the chitchat about an econ­o­my on the mend. But some of it also is quite real­is­tic. What made this eco­nom­ic col­lapse so dif­fer­ent was the dis­ap­pear­ance of so many jobs, and the down­ward pres­sure on wages and ben­e­fits that crossed over into jobs where there is no jus­ti­fi­able rea­son for such reductions.

Indeed, among the unem­ployed tracked in the Rut­gers study, only one out of four has found work in the 15 months since they were first polled. And near­ly all of the new­ly employed were tak­ing home less pay or wages.

Remem­ber the eco­nom­ic col­lapse of the 1980s, when auto and steel work­ers fled their rust belt Mid­west towns for jobs? Many found new jobs and many wan­dered home even­tu­al­ly. Remem­ber the dot​.com bust about a decade ago? Many of those folks floun­dered, but many also wound up back on their feet.

What’s dif­fer­ent today is that the past is a painful mem­o­ry for many work­ers whose indus­tries have col­lapsed, whose skilled are no longer need­ed or who are more defense­less on the job to pro­tect their liveli­hood than ever before.

They are like the dock­work­ers I knew decades ago, before machines took their jobs and the docks them­selves vanished.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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