Sunday, July 20, 2014

Men, women, work and careers. Work in the age of certification

Recently there was some discussion on the nature of modern life and work on the excellent 1870 to 1918 blog.  This came about due to discussion on the entry regarding Newfoundland's soldiers on the Somme, although it isn't directly related to the contexts of that post.  The basic observations that inspired this post had to do with the decline in rural occupations, and indeed the yielding of those occupations to tourist based ones in some instances, and the change in the career and employment options available to women.  A couple of the older posts on this blog, including the one on Romanticizing the Past and Women in the Workplace were linked in, and they are relevant to this post, but already contained posts so I won't go back over and restate what's in those posts.

 Really rosy view of the availability of work from a British motivational series of the 1920s.  The campaign was obviously somewhat naive, but it did come in an era when there was less delineation between categories of work.

The comments to the thread developed a couple of significant themes, one being the nature of modern opportunities in general, and the other being the increased opportunities for women.

This blog, as we know, tries to explore the turn of the prior century, and often compares that period (and others) to the present one. We stray from that quite a bit, but this is a topic, albeit, a big one, that might be explored a bit here, as there are global changes to the nature of work in the US, and of course there's been a huge change in the nature of work for women.  And it raises some massive questions.  Has the nature of lifelong work improved, or declined?  Can that question even be asked when put in a gender context?  Has there been any changes for those entering employment, or sustaining employment, at all?  Was the motivational poster above really reflective of that period and how about now?

Let's start with the topic of female employment.

The entry of women into the non farm, and non domestic, workplace.

The story might not be quite the one that common folklore would have us believe.  We all know that story, which basically holds that women didn't work outside the home prior to World War Two, and the reason for that was both societal, and unfair.  Upon closer examination, that story doesn't hold up.  Rather, what we'd find is that the rise of women in occupations outside the home had been going on since at least the mid 19th Century, and it expressed itself first in occupations that had a close association with with existing female roles.  And the change, as we've already explored somewhat, was more than a little due to technology.  And as we can also see, it was partially due to the spread of wealth somewhat as well.  We can also see that women weren't exactly living a life of leisure prior to this slow shift, or during it.

A World War Two era poster saluting female workers, only one of which would have been in a "traditionally female" occupation at that time.  That tradition was actually quite thin, however, as even females secretaries, such as portrayed in the bottom left hand corner of the print, had only been around for a little over twenty years at that time, and only entered that field following the introduction of the typewriters. As already explored here, we take the position that the introduction of machinery, both domestic and in the office, brought about the introduction of women into the workplace, not World War Two.

a.  The mid 19th Century up to the mid 20th Century

Readers of this blog know that it is our view that the common story about World War Two bringing about a revolution in female employment outside the home is a myth.  Women were not employed in industry for the first time during World War Two and women by and large didn't stick with their industrial occupations post war.  That they were employed during the war is true, but as we've earlier noted, it was domestic machinery that changed their status, and indeed men's status, in regards to household duties.

Woman oiling machine tools, Colt Manufacturing, World War One.  Women occupied wartime industrial jobs during the Great War just as they did during World War Two.  It's just been forgotten.

Female English mechanic, World War One.  Supposedly Germany didn't have a female mechanic until after World War One.  This mechanic probably elected to leave her job after the Great War ended.

 British poster using the efforts of women as a YWCA campaign theme.  Women occupied an incredibly broad number of occupations during World War One.

Concerning machines, and as we need to start somewhere in this tale, something we've touched on only a little in regards to this story, is the introduction of a business machine that had a role in this revolution, although we have addressed it a bit before. That machine was the typewriter, and it's really the typewriter that started the revolution in "word processing" that's ongoing today.  When I first went to work in the law, a quarter century ago, typewriters were still in use and even now our office has one for limited use.  But when they came in, they were truly revolutionary.  One of their impacts was that they introduced women into the office.  We'll start this part of this story there.

 A photograph of a revolution.  Black tenant farmer's wife learning how to type, in hopes of off the farm employment.  This photograph comes right at the point in which thousands were making this transition, from necessary farm employment, now made easier due to mechanization and domestic machinery, to business employment.

The exact process of this is murky, but prior to the typewriter secretaries were generally male.  Certain types of secretaries, such as legal secretaries (scriveners) were specialist. Whey they were all males, as a rule, is something that's not clear to me, and it may in fact have been an accidental product of the domestic labor conditions at the time.  That is, scriveners were all day at their desks and in an era, as already explored, when there had to be by necessity people who were all day at their domestic tasks, perhaps that's just the way it is.  Be that as it may, however, the arrival of the typewriter and the arrival of the female secretary happened simultaneously and drove scriveners out of work fairly rapidly. The extent to which this bucked the general trend is hard to overestimate, as here we have a male job, with no domestic female equivalent job, in which women burst on to the scene, and took over the role, fairly rapidly.

More generally, however, taking into account what we know from earlier discussions, and adding to it what we've sent out above, what we can say is that the general effect of this process was that, at some point prior to World War One, and taking place over a very long time, a series of occupations had slowly opened up to women. They were very limited.  Nursing was one such profession.  Teaching was another.  Industrial seamstresses a third.  And starting around World War One, but more the case by the 1920s, secretaries were an exceptional forth.

Red Cross recruiting poster for nurses serving in the rural United States.  This poster shows the extent to which female occupations were already emerging in their own right. Public Health Nurses frequently operated without the assistance of doctors and largely on their own.  This nurse is shown mounted, and is riding in the conventional fashion.  Indeed, with the short stirrups she's actually riding in the English or Military fashion of the time, a fairly advanced seat.

All of this, of course, in addition to one of the most overlooked of traditional female occupations, that being the female unit of the farm family. That may sound odd, but it's amazingly overlooked. We should take a look at all of this a little more closely, starting with farming.

When people look back now, and say their "ancestors" were farmers, they often are more accurate than they know.  Farms were family units, male and female.  From antiquity to the up until even the present, it's really pretty much impossible to efficiently run a farm, if not outright impossible, as a single individual.  Our collective memories of pre World War Two farms, formed by such dramas as Little House on the Prairie or The Walton's, is very far off the mark.  Those who like the "Little House" series probably ought to read Giants In The Earth for a more realistic view of farming the north country.

 Greek peasants at Marathon. While this photo was obviously taken for another reason, it shows the ancient nature of farming still ongoing in this location at the time this photo was taken. Farmers in their field, including a woman.  The same scene no doubt existed at Marathon in the time frame of the famous battle.

More than any other occupation, women were involved in farming to an extent that made their role indispensable in the pre mechanization era.  Indeed, it was so critical that the conscription and enlistment of farmers during World War One drove Europe the brink of starvation and women were required to carry on farming alone, or with underage youth. Female farm workers were brought from Canada to farm in Great Britain and France to take up the slack.

Woman farmer, World War One.  Women from cities were trained to farm during World War One and World War Two, but no doubt the more common event was that they simply took over their husbands roles as their children picked up the slack for them.

"Freedom, Work, Bread!"  A German communist recruiting poster appeals to a German landser to turn his bayonet fixed rifle and hand grenade against the government.  Part of the appeal is scene by the depiction of work he doesn't have (farm and train in background) and to poor women working the fields alone.

Now, we know things were changing by the 1920s.  And we know things were changing before then. Perhaps we ought to stop and synthesize things a bit here before moving on. With all of the above in mind, what do we know?  Running up to, let's say, 1910, we know the following:
  • Farming was the dominant industry everywhere, and labor on farms was so heavy, no one person could do it themselves.
  • Domestic work was so heavy that no one person could do it themselves either.  Men at work had to reply at somebody at home just to live.
  • Addressing something we hadn't earlier, there was no public assistance for anything, so the byproduct of male female unions, putting it delicately, had to be the duty of those engaged in that activity.
This leaves us, whether people care to like it or not, with a world in which it's going to necessarily be the case that almost all office and industrial employment is male and all domestic work is female. This wasn't, contrary to what some later theorist would like to imagine, the result of inherent male prejudice, but rather because of the way of the world and the nature of work a the time.

Now, starting in the late 19th Century, things began to change. We've seen that. Women began to have a few occupational roles outside the home.  Nursing came in first, teaching second, seamstresses third, secretarial work fourth, and then by the mid 20th Century, many other occupations. Why was that, and why those roles.

Here too, we can see the hand of mechanization at work.

Mechanization really began to hit farming mid 19th Century, although we generally fail to appreciate that.  Prior to that, the number of mechanized implements in farming was quite small. But by the mid 19th Century engineers had turned their talents to farming machinery, and farming machines began to come in. They still required a vast amount of heavy labor to be used, but it wasn't quite as heavy as before.  A slight decrease in labor on the farm resulted, and it was slight.

Wealth also increased in society, and with wealth comes leisure.  Indeed, some have claimed that leisure is the true measure of the success of a society. At any rate, this opened up the door a bit for some women to take up careers, even if only briefly in their lives.  It was natural that the first careers that opened up were ones they were already associated with.

Nursing has been associated with women forever, and probably due to the fact that in the homes, women filled that role, with that sort of nursing equating really with being a type of physician.  They very rarely became physicians as that career wasn't open, as the education for it also wasn't open.  But that when nursing developed as a career in its own right, that women would enter it isn't too surprising.  Aiding in that, in Europe it had long been the case that nursing was associated with nuns, both Catholic and Protestant, and the word for nurse in many countries outside the US is in fact "Sister", taking that title from nuns.  Even in English, outside the US, nurses are commonly called "Sister" and their clothing for many years mimicked that of nuns.

 Nuns of the Battlefield Monument, Washington D.C.

This also raises a topic that's very much overlooked, in that an extremely long standing female career option was the religious life.  For women in the Christian world, if they were Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans or Anglicans, an option always existed to take religious vows. As has already been seen, women who had taken vows were also often in other roles, the most noted examples being educational and nursing roles.  In much of the Western world female religious (nuns) have decreased in numbers since the 1950s, so it's now easy to forget the role they once played, but in terms of the teaching and medical fields, they were pioneers having a very strong presence long before their secular compatriots occupied the same fields.

Teaching has a similar history.  Early on almost all school teachers were men, but most people were educated at home, and the person doing that teaching was almost always female.  Even in wealthy families that role was usually assigned to a female member of the household.  Theodore Roosevelt, for example, was primarily educated by an aunt.  Patton was educated at home by the female members of his household.  When women began to have the opportunity to work outside the home a bit, being a teacher was a natural role for an educated woman, although early on they were mostly assigned to grade school.  Prior to World War One it was already the case that women were becoming a force at the high school level, and also about that time the self segregation that society entered into in teaching whereby primary school teachers were almost always female had also set in.  This displaced, it should be noted, that role for men, where they had formerly been prominent (and not always too popular).

 Woman schoolteacher in early 20th Century, with pupils on field trip in Washington D. C.

Interestingly, the education of the young had not only been something that women had conducted at home for generations, but here to their role was anticipated by female religious, as nuns, together with monks had fulfilled this role for quite some time.

Nun escorting children to school.

A grimmer role was that of garment worker, or industrial seamstress.  Also leaning on a traditional role, when it remained common for wives to sew the clothing worn by their families, this work was grueling and dangerous.  It tended to be the domain of poor women, who had the skills to do it, but whom lacked the opportunity or education to do anything else.

Seamstress strike. These strikers might not actually be poorer garment workers, but perhaps a more skilled class of tailor.  They are certainly well dressed.

All of this is demonstrate, in a long roundabout fashion, that women had started to enter some pioneering female employment roles by the turn of the prior century.

At that point, mechanization, and wealth in society, began to change things at a more rapid pace. Agricultural mechanization started to increase.  Domestic machinery began to be introduced.  And societal wealth increased to the point where the hiring out of some domestic chores began to occur.  None of this was rapid, but by the end of World War One, it was relatively well established.  Women accordingly were freed from some of the labor that they'd previously been required for, and their presence in the workplace increased. They also began to attend colleges and universities in much greater numbers.

Western College for Women University, 1904.

This takes us to about 1920 or so, at which point women really began to move into the workplace, albeit in roles where they already had a toehold.  In the 1920s, 30s and 40s, things would really take off, setting the stage for what would happen in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. but that isn't all that occurred that would impact women in society long-term, the hard objectification of women also began in earnest.  This is a party of the story that has also been widely misconstrued.

An automobile calendar for the year 1908.  Note how the woman in this calendar is portrayed, just on the cusp of widespread photography and movie film.  A stark contrast to later portrayals.

The portrayal of women as objects has a long history, but modern mechanization really boosted it beyond any measure ever previously seen, and it also gave the means to do it in a mass distribution method that had never previously been encountered. As this directly impacts women at work, it's part of the story.

Photography, most particularly  the moving image, took the image to a new level that it had never before existed in.  No longer slow, and capable of portraying motion, movies and high quality black and white film really burst forward in the decade following World War One.  Nearly entirely unrestricted in any fashion, it also gave the means to distribute images of women in an alluring state, and the means to do so was very rapidly exploited.  The 1920s proved to be a decade in which women were portrayed in this fashion to an extent only recently rivaled, and unfortunately now surpassed.  In the 1920s this received push-back, and while the movie production codes and the like were now ridiculed, it did put the brake on the depictions of women in a purely objectified form, although not before the genie was out of the bottle.  At the very point, therefore, at which women were entering the general male workplace, their objectification as objects had begun. This stands on its head the later notions of Victorian naivete, and instead gives rise to the rather unseemly nature of the dual view of women in Western society that has existed ever since, and which has never been overcome.  The situation which, in a few short years, would give rise to one portrayal in war production posters, and quite another on war machines, and a short while later in glossy magazines, and then ultimately sporting magazines and advertising.

b.  The mid 20th Century until today

 Depression era employment poster seeking (apparently cheerful) female domestics.

From the 1920s until the early 1960s is pretty much a rising slope, in terms of women employment.  It was a steady rise, tied closely to the rise of domestic machinery, as we've already explored.  At no point was it really a dramatic spike, as so often claimed in regards to World War Two, and at no point was there a dramatic decline, as sometimes claimed about the 1950s.  It simply increased, spurred on or depressed by economic conditions or war, but never arrested not never diverted, just as the progress of domestic machinery, along with other machinery, improved.  Today (and I'm obviously taking huge leaps in time and omitting a great deal here) there are few jobs that women cannot pursue, and few careers that they cannot entertain. So, after over a century of transition, everything should be rosy, right?

Well, certainly not uniformly.

c.  Having to work

Articles celebrating the "progress" of women in the workplace, which would be better addressed toward transition in their work roles combined with some progress, generally tend to note what other articles addressing economic distress do, that being that many women must work, and much of that work isn't of a "fulfilling career" variety, even taking into account that the "fulfilling career" comments themselves are much overdone.

Truth be known, even going back a century many women "had" to work, especially if we take into account the high percentage of women who lived on farms. All farm women worked, and by necessity. They weren't the only women working by necessity even then, however.  Certainly every seamstress employed in a garment factory was there by necessity.  But over time one of the grim realities of the progress of women in work is that many women now work by necessity, rather than by election.  This doesn't mean that they've gone from no labor to labor, by compulsion, but rather that they've gone from heavy domestic labor to business labor typically combined with retained domestic labor. And, as we'll note below, the fortunes of the middle class have somewhat in recent years, they've picked up a bigger share of the family labor burden, whether they wished to or not.

And due to societal changes, a certain percentage of women find themselves bearing 100% of a family budget.  The phenomenon of the "single mother" is actually no more common now than it was in the 19th Century, but the reasons are completely different, and the economic impact accordingly quite different.  In the 19th Century the condition of being a single mother tended to be due to industrial and farming accidents which could result in at least some outside effort to provide assistance to the mother left behind, or in the case of farm wives, left them with at least a share of their husband's farm (if he solely owned it) by operation of law.  So, while things were grim for them, they tended to be not quite so long term desperate as typically today.  The situation of the father simply being absent was quite rare, and scandalous. 

By and large, no doubt, women are now left with greater employment options than ever before.  They are also left with greater economic burdens and expectations. And because their options are nearly as great as mien's, they share in the actual nature of the male employment reality, there no longer being a male and female one. So let's take a look at that.

 Depression era poster urging girls to consider career options, with those careers being seamstress, secretary, teacher and something else I'm not sure of.

 Depression era poster urging you men to consider their career options, an early example of something that's become part of education generally today.

The evolution of the workplace for men.

Great Depression era WPA poster.  Frankly, this Depression Era poster is sort of scary in a nearly Nazi like way.

"Man may work from sun to sun but woman's work is never done."  

That old proverb is no doubt heard less now, but while it went to praise the work of women, it was pretty true of male work for most of the pre World War One era. As Henry Fairlie described in his classic essay, The Cow's Revenge, most men worked at least six days a week, and pretty much ten hours a day, if they had jobs in town. And for most people, that was pretty heavy labor.  People educated enough to work in offices were pretty fortunate in that urban setting, which probably gave rise to the comment you'll hear even today of "at least you're indoors" from people who are also working indoors.  Most work in the 19th Century was very physical, to say the least, and working conditions were grueling.  As part of that, the typical calculation of risks was much different than it is today, and the acceptance of industrial accidents was much greater.

 Poster urging employers to hire the returning veterans of World War One.

Of course, a very high percentage of men prior to World War One (and after) worked on farms and the opportunity to own a farm was much higher than it is today.  Indeed, the chance of ultimately owning your own business of any kind was much higher than today.  That's what got us rolling, really, on the thread about the Somme, as Newfies by and large had outdoor employment at that time, although it was focused on the fishing industry.

 Depression Era Farm Resettlement Administration poster. The FRA sought to resettle farmers who had lost their lands during the Depression on new lands, but the program was not widely subscribed to and not greatly successful.

While the rural population began to decline as a percentage of the population, it still remained surprisingly large well into the 1950s.  It was at that time that the impact of mechanization really began to take hold in farming and ranching, with there being a revolution in machinery and transportation, in part because of the impacts of the war.  The peak year in farm income in the United States was actually 1919, and more homesteads were filed during the teens than in any other decade, in part because of the Great War.  This was followed, of course, by a disastrous farm depression following the war, but it was really the onset of mechanization in the full form, fueled in part by the advances in machinery brought about by World War Two, that caused the last of the horse powered machinery to basically go out in the 1950s, to be followed by a decline in small machinery in the decades thereafter.

At the same time, the United States came out of World War Two as the only intact industrial nation in the world.  This greatly eased this transition as many well paying industrial jobs were available in the United States and for the first time many Americans went to college and universities who would not have been able to otherwise. Entire demographics, such as Catholics, started going to university. A university degree had such value that any university degree translated into a well paying job depending upon where a person located themselves.  The professions retained and indeed gained a status such as they'd never had before.  The onset of full scale unification of retail markets had not really started so it still remained the case that small shopkeepers could and did do well. This situation went on up until the 1970s, at which time economic forces ground the country to a halt.  By the time the economy started emerging for the doldrums of the 1970s, the economy had begun to greatly change.

Starting in the 1970s, manufacturing jobs in the United States began to decline in number and in quality in a way that the country had never experienced.  Having really started to emerge as an industrial nation after the Civil War, the US was a latecomer to the industrial revolution and saw the beneficial, as well as the destructive, aspects of industrialization last well into the 1960s.  In the 70s, heavy industry began to shift overseas where nations had never experienced it, or which had their industry destroyed during World War Two, began to emerge and new industrial forces.  The decline has never ceased and industry in the US is a mere shadow of its former self, with its former well paying blue collar jobs a thing of memory only for the most part.  This occurred, moreover, just as women began to enter the workplace in massive numbers.

The resulting new economy was a "service economy", driven by the needs of urban consumers.  Entire classes of retail businesses disappeared as the emphasis developed on economies of scale.  Computerization brought in an entire new industry, but in some ways it accelerated the process.  In the mean time, economies of scale also played themselves out in the farming industry, while an increase in surplus wealth in the upper sectors of the economy became a factor in the ranching industry.  During the depressed 1970s, and even into the 1980s, it remained possible for a person with financing to purchase a working ranch in the United States. By the 1990s that had started to die and by the late 1990s that had died.  It then followed with farming. For the first time in the nations history buying a working quantity of agricultural land became an impossibility, a radical shift on the nation's nature which the nations has refused to acknowledge.


Added to this, starting at some point in the 1970s, and probably due to the increasing number of college graduates being in the workforce, we entered the Age of Certification, which we are full in now.

As you'll recall from earlier in this lengthy post, it was once the case that a college degree, any college degree, was the ticket to a while collar career.  It was quite common for a college graduate with a degree in darned near anything to walk through the door of a company and obtain employment in a managerial role, irrespective of what his degree was in.

There were occupations, of course, which required specific educations.  Engineering, for example, always did.  Indeed, the lack of trained engineers in the US gave rise to West Point, as the military lacked a sufficient pool of trained engineers to draw from.   Generally individuals in scientific fields had the appropriate degrees. And of course physicians, dentists and veterinarians did.  By the post war period, lawyers almost all did (the actual requirement for a degree didn't come until surprisingly late).  It's interesting to note, however, that very few of these pursuits, with the medical and legal ones providing the notable exceptions, required a degree beyond a bachelors degree.

By the 1980s, this had really started to dramatically change. With college attendance having gone in the 1970s from a hope to nearly an expectation, the number of individuals with degrees dramatically increased.  In the sciences it became the case that the entry level degree for employment went from the bachelors degree to the masters degree.  Masters In Business Administration became very common for those with a serious desire to pursue a business degree.

Beyond that, many occupations that had never required any degrees started to, or otherwise required certification. Some of this was simply due to the march of technology, which now required special training.  By the time of this writing certification has become very widespread.

For example, policemen and fireman now typically have degrees and are certified. The average policeman has at least a community college degree and has been through a law enforcement academy.  Only a couple of decades ago many were able to enter police forces by virtue of having been veterans of military service, which is now no longer the case.  One highway patrolman in Wyoming actually has a law degree, something that was previously only common in law enforcement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Firemen typically have associates degrees and are certified in their field.  Even many blue collar degrees require certificates.  To find that somebody is "OSHA Certified", or something of the type, is not uncommon at all.  Certifications have even spread into many recreational endeavors.

While the increase in education that certification reflects is not a bad thing by any means, a byproduct of it is that skills are generally not terribly transferable in the modern world, or at least not perceived to be.  When looking back on the lives of men in prior eras, it's not uncommon at all to find men switching back and forth between widely varying careers.  You'll often find that somebody worked as a sheriff's deputy, then went to work in a business, then went on to something else.  Examples of firemen becoming policemen and vice versa are not uncommon.  And what has particularly changed is that the hiring of high school graduates, or even non high school graduates, for what are now white collar jobs is nearly non existent.

As an example of the latter, some time ago I listed to a podcast in which the author of a book detailed an interview with a World War One veteran. The veteran related that just before the US entered the Great War, he had graduated from high school.  Somebody had told him about an insurance agency in a neighboring town needing an office worker, so he went there and obtained the job.  Save for his period of service, he'd stayed with the insurance company his entire life and had risen up to a fairly high local position in it.  He'd never gone to university, and he'd never seen the need to. Today, that couldn't happen.

Or, for some personal examples, my great grandfather on my mother's side started working as a boy for a large insurance company in Canada.  He stayed with it, his talents were appreciated, and he rose up to be the head of the Canadian branch of the company.  My grandfather on my father's side started working for packing houses when just a teenager, and was moved to the office where he rose up in the management of one such company, until he opened his own.  In both of these examples, this just could not happen today.  Indeed, given the ages both of these men commenced work (13 years in my grandfather's case), their entry into employment might even have been illegal by today's standards.

So where does that place us today?

 Depression era WPA poster urging worker safety.

The initial question, raised in regards to the posting regarding the Newfoundland troops who served at the Somme, was:
The symbolic change has been farms (usually not far from urban areas) that partially depend on tourism, kids having their pictures taken with the farm animals, and so on. Hay rides, etc . At the other extreme, you have enormous enterprises growing corn or wheat for the “agribusinesses.” I am not either for or against either of these particularly (you can easily see the political fault lines here). Do we just live in an unfortunate period of history?
The answer to that of course depends very much on your prospective and position. We live in a period, without doubt, where  the impact of poverty in the Western world has been so greatly reduced that even the American poor would not generally be regarded as such in most of the world.  Indeed, Europe and North American are so wealthy that it gives a person pause to consider the injunction that "it's easier for a camel to pass through an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven".  We can hardly grasp the poverty of other regions of the world, but then it is also the case that we can hardly appreciate the extent to which some of those regions are rocketing into prosperity  For the first time in its history, for example, the majority of Mexican citizens are middle class, and in spite of our fears to the contrary, immigration from Mexico into the United States has basically ceased, and even possibly reversed, with more people coming south over the border than going north.

But at the same time the profusion of university degrees has resulted in a huge number of Americans being able to only enter basic white collar jobs even though they have an education.  Jobs that in 1919 went to men who had high school degrees only now require two year and even four year degrees.  Individuals with college degrees in fields without directly application to a business need, or sometimes even with directly application, sometimes must enter jobs that are at the basic entry level and be content with them.  The classic "degreed barrista" at Starbucks isn't really a joke.  In the professions, consolidation has started to come in, in some quarters, and an oversupply of once safe jobs has lead to a decline in employment combined with a return to their historical, pre World War Two status, as solidly middle class, rather than upper middle class, occupations..  That is most pronounced right now in the law, which was a vehicle for lower middle class Americans to enter the upper class for much of the nation's history, but which sees a fair amount of unemployment in the ranks now.  Those who do obtain employment without full four year degree often find themselves in a certification cycle that ultimately determines a career path for them with some permanence, or at least potentially so.

Making matters worse, the big box cubicle environment of much of American urban work has lead to a dissatisfaction rate with employment in the US which is well up over 50%.  As American employers have become more and more remote from their employees, the employees, it seems, who have less and less of a chance of owning anything of their own, care less and less for their work.  Hopes of starting up their own enterprises, still portrayed as an American Dream, are increasingly in the nature of pipe dreams, and in some sectors, such as agriculture, they approach the level of fantasy.  Former rural occupations have dried up in the face of the inability to buy into them, mechanization and the outright disappearance of many such jobs.  Men and women who dream of owning their own farms, fishing boats or appliance stores probably have to be content with that forever being a dream.

Enter back into this picture the plight of women again.  Throughout the 70s and 90s it was still common to hear the feminist rhetoric about "fulfilling careers", something that was also said to young men but with little actual enthusiasm for the most part except by starry eyed boosters on any one career sector.  Now women have largely come into the same situation as men, in which competition for career spaces is a fact of life, and the fulfillment aspect of that having little to do with reality.  For women without an education, and particularly for those with children but no spouse, the burdens faced in life are substantial.

Oddly, that this has occured seems to be poorly understood in the economy at large, or even somewhat denied.  Occasionally, it's explained away as a good thing, on purely economic terms.  Part of the problem here is that the voice of any one occupational field tends to be dominated by its oldest members, who often have very little connection with things at the entry level.  Taking law, for example, the depth to which institutional changes are being forced upon the field has been slow to be grasped, even as a crisis in certain sections of the field set in.  The voice of the law is probably on average much older than in most industries, so those who claim to speak for the profession often came up in it decades and decades ago, in a completely different environment.  So we've seen law schools continue to churn out new graduates who are lured with promises of lucrative careers and with a degree that "can be used for a lot of things" when the reality of that passed long ago.  In other areas, I've recently seen it claimed by a happy economist that the destruction of rural occupations is a good thing, really, as the displaced workers have been more overall productive in the urban cubicle jobs that some (but certainly not all) have obtained, which may be true in terms of pure efficiency, but which apparently isn't sufficiently appreciated by workers as to change their views towards their individual occupations.  The dominance of large retail outlets in that sector is commonly asserted to be a good thing even though its quite obvious that it has virtually eliminated the small "mom and pop" shop that once existed in nearly ever sector of the retail economy. That prices are lower for consumers is obvious, but that those same consumers now have no hope of every owning a retail outlet of their own is seemingly less appreciated.

On the other hand, working conditions are much better in every manual occupation than they used to be.  We don't have very many Hanna Mine disasters anymore, for example.  And we don't have hundreds of poor women jammed into urban warehouses with poor ventilation sewing close for starvation wages either.  And by and large, while the poor remain with us, we don't have nearly as much desperate starvation level poverty as existed in prior eras.

Some of this is, of course, a pretty grim conclusion, if taken too far, and depending upon your view.  If you dream of owning your own fishing boat, or owning your own farm, or owning your own radio store, things are probably not terribly rosy.  If you are a woman, and entered any one field hoping that field would be "fulfilling", depending upon how suited you were for it naturally, you may have found that the occuaption amounts to work, and by and large it may in fact be the case that leisure, rather that labor, is the basis of an intellectual and fulling society.  But perhaps it need not be as grim as it might seem.  Industrial and farming accidents, dictatorial labor bosses, left vs right strikes, and the like, are all things mostly of the past now.  If work is not as fulfilling as people once hoped for, the old work probably wasn't either.  But at the same time it is distressing that Americans have fewer and fewer personal options, and for many their work-lives will necessarily involve working for remotes bosses they care little about and who care little directly for them.  This can be addressed, of course, but it's doubt that people can conceive of doing that now.  Having benefited so directly from the type of corporate capitalism Americans essentially pioneered, doing anything else brings up claims of "Socialism", that being the system which we so clearly ran into the ground, and which was so clearly unworkable.  But perhaps a little Distributism, that system advocating the principal of Subsidiarity, might be in order.  That "third way", championed by Chesterton and Belloc  during the mid 20th Century, advanced the thesis of an economy geared towards the individual family, a goal everyone claims to always support but which very rarely actually is.


Jenny Bennett said...

You hit on a great number of interesting points: the real story of women’s advancement into the workplace, the improvement of working conditions (I think of the horrific conditions of female textile workers at 19th century mills), and conversely the loss of mobility in employment. We are so oriented toward the standard credentials these days, as opposed to just realizing that an intelligent man or woman could easily learn the job without having an advanced degree and X number of years of experience. And consequently the requirement for people to move in a linear, predictable line of employment: first get the B.A., then get the graduate degree, then go into the job and stay in that field for the rest of your life (that is, until you get laid off due to corporate downsizing, and replaced by part-timers with uncertain hours and no benefits). The lack of discretion or imagination in an employer’s decision reminds me of the current situation in the publishing world: due to consolidation and the corporate mindset in the publishing industry, there are no longer any lone insightful editors recognizing that an unknown writer has promise and deserves to be nurtured (but that’s another story). There has been a loss of individual judgment in favor of standardized procedures. Right now we have an image of creative young folks doing start-up companies that make tons of money by “thinking outside the box.” But that’s all in a very narrow area of human experience, having to do with certain possibilities in the Internet. It doesn’t mean that we can all go in to a non-cubicle office where people dress ultra casual and play ping pong together. On the subject of women’s roles in today’s society, I’ll just say two very different things have happened. On the one hand, women can now be lawyers, doctors, and engineers, which is an incredible breakthrough. On the other hand, women have never been more “objectified” than they are now. When I was a teenager in the 60s, we girls didn’t have such images of female physical perfection bombarding us from all sides—thank goodness. I won’t even get into the malignant things that happen with people reporting everything on Facebook and recording on cell phones. Jeez—I think I’ve just opened up whole new areas for discussion!

Pat and Marcus said...

As a minor note, when I was writing this I mentioned "leisure" in the article, and was struggling to recall the title of a famous and highly regarded work on the topic. I know can recall it, that being "Leisure, the Basis of Culture" by Josef Pieper.

Pat and Marcus said...

Jenny, thanks for your insightful comments. Indeed, that does bring up a whole host of additional interesting topics, as well as developing further the existing ones!

Pat and Marcus said...

It occurs to me that one thing I didn't emphasize much here was the status of minority workers.

For a black worker, or a Hispanic worker, etc., it can't be doubted that work status has improved enormously. Occupations for minorities were limited, and often quite hard and dangerous, well into the 20th Century.

This is also true, to a lesser degree, for certain minorities identifiable by culture or religion. The fate of Irish workers for example, or Jewish workers, or Italian workers, a century ago, was often pretty grim in the United States. Much of this only really began to change in earnest after World War Two.

MJWrightNZ said...

New Zealand had a virtually identical experience; during WWII in particular, women took up male jobs, including farm work. There was one farm exclusively run by women, as a demonstration, in my home district of Hawke’s Bay. But afterwards – well, the men wanted their jobs back. You’re right; the real arbiter of change was technological, over the next generation (or two) as home appliances steadily changed the labour factor of domestic life.

Same applied to New Zealand's indigenous people. Maori played a significant role in New Zealand's military contribution to the Second World War, in part on the notion that it would improve things for Maori afterwards. It was a myth that New Zealand had the best race relations in the world - Maori, by the mid-twentieth century, were marginalised and ruralised. The WWII effort was part of a drive to correct that. Again, though, that change happened later over the next two generations.