Spinning off from my previous post about the economy, I’d like to recommend a terrific (not new, but new-ish) book I’ve just finished: Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams, by Alfred Lubrano. If you’re like me and you were the first generation of your family to go to college, you may find this book as dead-on as I did on the subjects of school, career and family relationships.

Lubrano takes a personal look at what it’s like for people who come from working-class backgrounds who are attempting to enter “the middle class” as we know it today (and failing, or succeeding, or — as the title suggests — remaining in limbo). For some reason, nobody in the mainstream media ever talks about this these days — I guess far fewer are considered “working class” any more, since a great many more people have access to financial aid and some sort of college opportunity. But for people of my generation, anyway, the conflicts described in this book are still a part of daily life. (Here’s one type of conflict I blogged about earlier.) I never thought of myself as being in the vanguard of a cultural front, but I recognized myself in nearly every page of this book. Much of this stuff is not a revelation to me now — I figured it out painfully since my college days — but boy, I sure wish I’d had this book when I graduated high school.

If the economy should happen to go south in a major way, I wonder if something like this will play out in reverse. What’s going to happen to all those second- and third-generation non-working-class kids — the ones who will be sandwiched between the expectations of their well-to-do parents and the realities of having to do service jobs? I really worry about these kids. They may well be just as clueless (in reverse) as the generation that Lubrano terms “Straddlers” (the ones who are confused by “networking,” who don’t know how to power-lunch, who simply want to go home at the end of eight hours’ hard work, and just wish their managers would manage, for a change.) Will these kids become easy prey for destructive political movements in the future?

I cherish what my parents taught me, but very little of it is useful in a white-collar environment. Sometimes I wonder if I’m guilty of wishing for the political scene to change in a way that would enable me to use what I know and honor, rather than dutifully sticking to the new rules I’ve learned that I often feel so cynical about. So there could be a whole other generation of potentially destructive loose cannons out there, not just the young ‘uns.

On a broader note, one could almost read this book and apply it to our entire region at large — since Upstate New York has such deep working-class history. No wonder our region feels like it’s in such limbo.

These may not in fact be interesting times, but this is a fascinating book anyway. Highly recommended!

Updated: Bloggers of the World, Unite! (Too funny.)

7 thoughts on “Limbo

  1. sean

    wow. that’s an amazing book, which speaks to something i always felt, and i am relieved to know others feel that way as well.

    that will have to be my next read. i’m working through halberstam’s “coldest winter” right now, which is an incredibly dismaying work about the bonehead decisions and idiot politics that led to so heartache during the korean war (although harry truman comes out sounding pretty good) … with some very creepy parallels to what we’ve seen in recent years, especially in terms of manipulation of intelligence.


  2. Ellen Post author

    Yeah, it is a relief, and it seems like such a basic story to tell. But I guess no one ever really thought of it.

    The book isn’t perfect… I find it (understandably) is written from a male point of view and misses some insights it could have had on the female experience. But the author has a real point that class is still the big blank spot in the American discussion.

    One point in the book I found especially intriguing was about communication style… the author pointed out that, in the white-collar work world, the trading of compliments is fantastically important for doing business and getting ahead. Today, many people question why there seems to be a culture of praising children for everything they do. I suspect that’s not a generational thing, but rather something reflective of white-collar work culture (which seems to have become dominant in our country), simply taken into the home and school environments now. Honestly, I don’t know if today’s children suffer from what some see as “overpraise.” They may receive the language of praise in a very offhanded way, like their parents might receive it in the workplace.

    Whereas, for blue-collar workers, conspicuous praise was a big, big deal. I was recently going through some old photos and found one of my grandfather standing on a dais at a dinner at the Hotel Syracuse – he worked at Syracuse China and this looks like it was a recognition dinner for retiring employees with decades of service. This must have been a big moment for those employees.

  3. sean

    yeah, it’s funny. my parents saw education as important, but they didn’t revere it … they saw real work – as in physical work – as being far more demanding of character, and white-collar work (teaching being the great gateway) as simply a more secure, less trying lifestyle. so they did not throw around a lot of compliments about academic success, as in basically zero … if anything, it was expected, and it was hard to whine about a math test when the old man was working 12-hour shifts in zero degree weather breaking up frozen coal on a pile alongside lake erie.

    my parents, for the most part, had one reaction to people with money – avoid them. they’ll ruin the neighborhood. my mother, in the way of many in her particular class, worked for years as a young woman cleaning the homes of the wealthy in buffalo, and she was keenly aware of the implications and messages she was offered through the medium of tone, look and bearing … and she had no wish to become, or for her children to become, any part of that. so you carried that knowledge with you when, in any fashion, you had to step into that world. i have found, as with any stereotype, that not everyone from that place fits into that mold. but enough do, often without even knowing it (which explains, i think, why democrats who try to see themselves as populists often get their heads handed to them in general elections).


  4. Ellen Post author

    I think you’ll find a lot of interesting reading in that book, then.

    My parents – of a later generation than yours – valued education a great deal, and they were highly enthusiastic for my sister and I to get college educations. But they had no idea what college was like. My parents were fixated on grades. If their kids had excellent grades, everything was fine… no worries! (Unfortunately, college don’t work like that!) They had no connections to anyone who had ever been to college. They could offer no advice or personal experience about entering the white-collar workforce. Come to think of it – unless you were a member of a traditional minority group, in which case you could get mentoring of some kind – nobody else at college offered this advice either. (The only piece of advice I can recall is “Network, network, network!” which, as Lubrano explains in his book, can feel very unnatural for blue-collar people.)

    As for effect on politics… I think blindness to the realities of class upbringing just makes Democrats shoot themselves in the foot.
    It goes so much deeper than pickup trucks vs. caviar. It’s not just about money, it’s about your entire approach to various aspects
    of life. Now, if I had been raised differently, it might have been easy for me to look at special help the minority kids were getting and
    develop a resentment; however, my dad was very clear on his opinion that poor, struggling minorities were natural allies of the
    blue-collar class (the old time Democratic view) and that what was sicced on them, would eventually be sicced on “our group of people” –
    and hence, we needed to help defend their interests. (Obviously, this is language and thinking of a different time, but I think he’s still got a point.) But in an America where class officially doesn’t exist… the Democrats can’t unite their base on that any more, can they?

  5. sean

    if they knew what they were doing, they would find an authentic and passionate way of building the same bridges your father did.

    on that whole blue-to-white transition: here is another jolt, in a positive way. i had family members who got into maddening workplace situations in the factories where effort and ability had nothing to do with progress; you could sit in the same place for years upon years while halfhearted people who dragged their butts kept jobs higher on the totem pole. i saw that brutal truth wear down people that i loved. so i was shocked, when i got out of the factory environment and into newspapers, to see how quickly you could move up by doing good work and working hard – although some union-less newspapers earlier in my career exploited that kind of effort.

    it was simply a different world. and yeah, i totally buy the point about your parents: my folks, God love them, had no clue about the world of academics or offices – one reason, i think, why they hoped i’d go a different way.


  6. Ellen Post author

    I think the newspaper business must be one of those rare professions that is highly suitable for in-betweens. (The author of the book is a newspaper journalist.)

    Actually when I said I was the “first generation in my family to go to college,” I remember now that’s not entirely true. And recently I uncovered census records for my mother’s Irish ancestors in Pennsylvania coal mining country. I was flabbergasted to see the “occupation” listing for my great-grandfather’s older brother: “medical school.” No one had ever remembered or mentioned this. My great-great-grandfather’s occupation was “miner” and so was my great-grandfather’s (he was the younger in the family). On the next census of ten years later, however, the older brother’s occupation was “miner” as well. He never became a doctor.

    When I first saw that, I thought, “Oh, the family must have run out of money for college,” but now after reading this book and connecting the dots I just think, the conflicts and pressures on that kid must have been unimaginable (in 1900), quite aside from money.

    I think it can’t be honest for Americans today to believe that mobility is so push-button easy – and certainly it is not as easy as just going off to college. And also, the attempts to cross over have been going on for a long long time; this didn’t just start after WWII.

    Must pass on this link, too: Here’s an example of the kids I worry about…
    Debt + no insurance + no clue on how to organize + a million other kids just like you = ???

  7. Phil

    >>>>Today, many people question why there seems to be a culture of praising children for everything they do. I suspect that’s not a generational thing, but rather something reflective of white-collar work culture (which seems to have become dominant in our country), simply taken into the home and school environments now.

    A recent study speculated that one reason for achievement gaps in educational attainment between middle class and working class/low income families is due to how parents treat children. Letting a child talk with adults, question authority and even disagree leads to study habits that current education rewards–much more than families that believe children should be quiet, respectful of adults and obedient. educational attainment is the worst for children whose parents that deal with children by yelling–negative reinforcement.

Comments are closed.