Quoted: Adam Davidson on the Subtext of the Manufacturing Crisis

Later, I sat down with Maddie in a quiet factory office where nobody needs to wear protective gear. Without the hairnet and lab coat, she is a pretty, intense woman, 22 years old, with bright blue eyes that seemed to bore into me as she talked, as fast as she could, about her life. She told me how much she likes her job, because she hates to sit still and there’s always something going on in the factory. She enjoys learning, she said, and she’s learned how to run a lot of the different machines. At one point, she looked around the office and said she’d really like to work there one day, helping to design parts rather than stamping them out. She said she’s noticed that robotic arms and other machines seem to keep replacing people on the factory floor, and she’s worried that this could happen to her. She told me she wants to go back to school—as her parents and grandparents keep telling her to do—but she is a single mother, and she can’t leave her two kids alone at night while she takes classes.

I had come to Greenville to better understand what, exactly, is happening to manufacturing in the United States, and what the future holds for people like Maddie—people who still make physical things for a living and, more broadly, people (as many as 40 million adults in the U.S.) who lack higher education, but are striving for a middle-class life. [...]

I never heard Maddie blame others for her situation; she talked, often, about the bad choices she made as a teenager and how those have limited her future. I came to realize, though, that Maddie represents a large population: people who, for whatever reason, are not going to be able to leave the workforce long enough to get the skills they need. Luke doesn’t have children, and his parents could afford to support him while he was in school. Those with the right ability and circumstances will, most likely, make the right adjustments, get the right skills, and eventually thrive. But I fear that those who are challenged now will only fall further behind. To solve all the problems that keep people from acquiring skills would require tackling the toughest issues our country faces: a broken educational system, teen pregnancy, drug use, racial discrimination, a fractured political culture.

This may be the worst impact of the disappearance of manufacturing work. In older factories and, before them, on the farm, there were opportunities for almost everybody: the bright and the slow, the sociable and the awkward, the people with children and those without. All came to work unskilled, at first, and then slowly learned things, on the job, that made them more valuable. Especially in the mid-20th century, as manufacturing employment was rocketing toward its zenith, mistakes and disadvantages in childhood and adolescence did not foreclose adult opportunity.

— “Making It in America,” by Adam Davidson for the Atlantic

(Image Credit: The Atlantic)

  • umm…what????

    This is the reality no one wants to face. We are a nation of highly capable workers who have been cut off from much needed training/education opportunities that are vestiges of a time when education was for the elite. Why is college inaccessible for a single mother or a poor family? Why is graduate school out of reach for so many? Our country needs us to have those skills but also seems to want to scoff at us for not having them.

  • umm…what????

    This is the reality no one wants to face. We are a nation of highly capable workers who have been cut off from much needed training/education opportunities that are vestiges of a time when education was for the elite. Why is college inaccessible for a single mother or a poor family? Why is graduate school out of reach for so many? Our country needs us to have those skills but also seems to want to scoff at us for not having them.

  • Anonymous

    And I guess I’d meant to mention before that a common subtext of the manufacturing crisis is the fact that it is perhaps knocking a higher percentage of blacks permanently out of the middle class, since so many have managed to reach middle class status in the past 40 years with either manufacturing and public sector jobs. 

    Too many people grew up thinking that there would be a “reliable” way to support themselves until and after retirement that didn’t necessarily involve college, or where there were a lot more guarantees than on the white collar and/or private sector side of things.   

  • Anonymous

    You’re right though that if her husband had had the manufacturing job, it would have been MORE than enough for her to stay at home with her kids and she would not have been working or had needed to.  Back then, working was for the very poor, the widowed, and the rare divorcee.
    My co-workers and friends in the Detroit area were from multi-generational autoworker families, and a dad working for GM, Ford, or Chrysler in a blue-collar, union job could support a pretty good sized family (I knew people who lived in comfortable homes with as many as 5-7 kids on one autoworker paycheck…not poor, very comfortable).  It seems that only in the past 5-10 years have manufacturing jobs become economically “low class” as opposed to comfortably middle class.  

  • Anonymous

    That was a reality for middle class to wealthy folks.  Many lower class women worked at factories, in stores, and as domestics, even in the 1940s and 1950s.  Whether a woman worked or stayed home with children depended on their own cultural norms, structural employment discrimination, particularly post-WWII, and the availability of jobs vs. the need in the household.

    • Anonymous

       True that. I’m just wondering why we are idealizing the past–that manufacturing jobs were great for progress and we should return to it—but it seems that the progress came because it was a great job for a dude to get who could then afford a stay at home wife. Not because factory work was redemptive in itself.

      But perhaps that’s just the car industry and not indicative of all types of factory work.

  • Eva

    Great article Latoya.  I especially agreed with this:  “This may be the worst impact of the disappearance of manufacturing work.
    In older factories and, before them, on the farm, there were
    opportunities for almost everybody: the bright and the slow, the
    sociable and the awkward, the people with children and those without.
    All came to work unskilled, at first, and then slowly learned things, on
    the job, that made them more valuable. Especially in the mid-20th
    century, as manufacturing employment was rocketing toward its zenith,
    mistakes and disadvantages in childhood and adolescence did not
    foreclose adult opportunity.”

    I think that is very true.  What’s happening now is that college is necessary for all types of jobs that college wasn’t necessary for years ago.  But college is VERY expensive.  So there’s the catch 22.

    • Anonymous

      I can’t take credit for this one – it was written by Adam Davidson in the Atlantic.

      • Eva

        See what happens when you’re typing and doing three other things at once.  I read the entire piece.  Very good.  I’m glad you found it and posted it here.    Anyway, that part I quoted from Mr. Davidson’s article was so, so true.  It used to be that even if a person was born poor or made a few bad choices in their teens, they would be able to have a life.  Now you make one misstep, even if  it’s not your doing, and you’re screwed forever. 

    • Anonymous

      I can’t take credit for this one – it was written by Adam Davidson in the Atlantic.

    • k.eli

      Actually, in many jobs today having a bachelor’s isn’t even enough anymore. As one of the grad school advisers at my university told us, because so many people nowadays are going to college in relation to past generations, the market has essentially become saturated with BAs/BSs and now you need that next level of education to really stand out (and grad school costs make undergrad costs look like chump change).