It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward.
Rocky Balboa in Rocky I
Grandma Ruby would never talk about the past.… For decades she endured and suffered wrongs without weakening.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, The Notion of Family
Just after the 1959 steel strike—the largest strike in US history, with five hundred thousand workers off their jobs for 116 days, including my father and all my uncles—political sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset published his classic text Political Man, wherein he repeated claims that working-class people lacked the capacity for delayed gratification. When I first read the book sometime in the 1960s, I took it personal. Lipset was what was called a “liberal” in those days, actually a prounion social democrat part of whose point in the book was to show how valuably important union leaders were given the dangerous authoritarian tendencies of their rank-and-file members. He painted a bleak portrait of workers as “likely to have been exposed to punishment, lack of love, and a general atmosphere of tension and aggression since early childhood—all experiences which tend to produce deep-rooted hostilities expressed by ethnic prejudice, political authoritarianism, and chiliastic transvaluational religion.” Working-class people, according to Lipset, were incapable of complex thinking because they had a “limited time perspective,” which led to their difficulty with delaying gratification. “From early childhood, he [the worker] has sought immediate gratifications, rather than engaged in activities which might have long-term rewards.”1
The steel strike was a refutation of Lipset’s thesis. The Steelworkers union had no strike fund in those days, and while they had a strikers’ assistance program that could help with individual emergencies, the vast majority of those half million workers had to make do based on whatever savings they had, doing odd jobs, and help from any relatives who had jobs outside the industry. After 116 days they were forced back to work by a government injunction, but according to polls by the union, the companies, and the press, the overwhelming majority would have chosen to resume the strike if the Republican Dwight Eisenhower administration had not leaned on the steel companies to settle on terms highly favorable to the steelworkers.2 Now that’s a bit of delayed gratification it’s hard to imagine half a million middle-class professionals of all races and ethnicities across the country ever achieving. And it took complex thinking, a keen understanding of the industry and of the union contract, to accomplish this feat. The strike was not about wages or benefits but instead was about work rules that limited management’s ability to rule the workplaces they owned and thought they should control absolutely.
So, are Lipset and all the supporting research that social scientists have done before him and since just full of shit? Well, not quite full. There is some truth in their observations, but that truth is lost within a middle-class perspective that doesn’t know it’s a perspective.
There are loveless families in the working class (as in the middle class), and the stresses of miserable work and poverty can drain whatever love there might once have been. But Lipset, like scores of middle-class researchers before and since, mistakes this part for the whole, thereby missing not only the complex variability within working-class life but also the strengths of a culture that routinely deals with the powerful stresses of bad work and material insufficiency.
The working-class way of delaying gratification is different from the middle-class one. Working-class people are actually champions of not just delaying but also renouncing gratification in large parts of their lives, though they’re also good at finding and creating rewards for themselves both within that renunciation and around its edges. The cultural pressure within working-class life to steel yourself so you can “take it” is foundational, I think, in both masculine and feminine forms. To my middle-class eyes there is an enormous downside to their taking-it culture, as in the past several decades most have shown themselves all too good at taking the downscaling of their lives, but that is why it might be important to remember how taking it works in better times and better circumstances when people of all sorts have better prospects—indeed, when there are prospects.
It is hard for middle-class professionals—even, maybe especially, social scientists who are trying to be value free—to understand or even see a working-class taking-it culture and how it relates to a different way of being in time. So, some of what I see as an egregious error is pretty normal in the way of things, merely an innocent mistake we humans are prey to. But this mistake, like some others, often serves a darker purpose of simply affirming our ways as superior and therefore justified in dominating others’.
Marshmallows and Delaying Gratification
The capacity to delay gratification is undoubtedly a good thing, but there’s more than one way to do it, and it’s valuable for more than one kind of purpose. The working-class way that I call “taking it” is similar to Michele Lamont’s concept of “the disciplined self” as engaged in a daily “struggle to ‘make it through’ and keep the world together in the face of economic uncertainty, physical dangers, and the general unpredictability of life.”3 But making it through requires constant vigilance, what the military calls “readiness,” and the ability and willingness to endure not just uncertainty but also certain heartache, pain, tedium, and other sufferings that are seen as inevitable parts of life.
Though systematic studies of delayed gratification aspire to be scientific, they do not recognize taking it as a way of delaying gratification, because these studies are substantially conscribed within professional middle-class assumptions and expectations that can see only one way of doing it.
Shortly after Lipset was writing, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel began his famous marshmallow study that, when completed, purported to show that greater self-control exhibited by preschool children resulted in greater “cognitive and academic competence and ability to cope with frustration and stress in adolescence.”4 The marshmallow test gave four-year-olds a marshmallow and told them they would get another one if they did not eat the first one within fifteen minutes. Those who lasted eleven minutes, for example, would become more competent teenagers and therefore were more likely to be successful adults than those who lasted just five minutes. Mischel’s study made no effort to differentiate by social class (his preschoolers were all middle class, drawn largely from Stanford faculty), but his study appeared within a public discourse that Lipset and others had prefigured to believe that a deficient ability to delay gratification was an important cause for working-class people being “unsuccessful.” And this idea has carried into the present around the concept of working-class “cultural deprivation.”5 More recent study challenging the predictive value of the marshmallow test does differentiate by social economic status (SES) by using the simple measure of whether the child’s mother had a college degree. This study found only a small difference by SES (with “the lower SES” kids having slightly smaller average wait times), a difference likely to be accounted for by other SES-related factors besides delayed gratification ability.6 Thus, after decades of assuming otherwise, today there is no solid evidence that working-class children are significantly worse at delaying gratification than middle-class children.
It is actually somewhat comical to read social scientists explaining the elaborate procedures they devise to avoid any bias as they decide when and how to tempt kids with marshmallows—especially when one of their key measures for teenage competence is SAT scores, to which Mischel says “our culture” assigns extraordinary value and importance. The “our culture” here is decidedly middle class and professional, where many parents and teens as well as schools are obsessive about test scores, versus working-class parents and teens who often see these tests as fruitless pains in the ass and, in earlier times when Mischel started his study, most working-class children would not have taken either the SAT or ACT. The “adolescent coping questionnaire” Mischel had parents answer is full of value-loaded ideological questions about goal setting and pursuing, planning and self-control. One question does ask “How skilled is your son or daughter at maintaining friendships and getting along with peers?” But the answers to that question are not reported in the results—either because the researchers do not care about successful relationships as much as they do SAT scores or because a deficiency in accumulating marshmallows has no effect on achieving good interpersonal relations later in life.7
If you sift through these professionalist biases, however, you can see a certain logic to the assumption that insufficiency in money and in steady work might logically undermine one’s desire to set goals and develop plans for meeting those goals. Sociologist Jessi Streib traces this logic in her analysis of mixed-class couples who have different attitudes toward goal setting and planning:
Those born into blue-collar families often lived with economic insecurity and in families that possessed little authority. Needing to quickly and flexibly respond to unforeseeable events and others’ orders, they likely learned that going with the flow and making decisions spontaneously best allowed them to adapt to events outside their control.… In contrast, respondents born to white-collar professional parents grew up with fewer unforeseeable events, a more secure family safety net, and in families that possessed more authority. Their stability allowed them to organize and plan, their surplus resources offered them more choices, and their authority allowed them more freedom from others’ demands upon their resources.8
Streib presents these different “class sensibilities” as deriving directly from the experience of substantial versus little control in the daily lives of families. That makes sense to me, but there is also a culture within the working class that encourages “going with the flow” by first “taking it” and then developing your ability to “quickly and flexibly respond to unforeseeable events” over which you can have little control. Cultivating your own and your children’s capacity for taking it is an attitude and a mental (and even spiritual) skill that is a necessary condition for gaining some autonomy and control in those situations where you have ceded control because you either have to or choose to. This requires a deep commitment to delaying gratification—to surrendering to a necessity that involves, or most likely involves, being tired and miserable a large portion of most days. Logically, you can see how a taking-it culture undermines long-term planning and overly ambitious goals. In fact, that is often an important part of the purpose for cultivating a capacity for taking it: a counsel to take one day at a time and within that day to stay focused on the immediate, whether that is a work task, a family duty, or a moment of creative or passive enjoyment. Delaying gratification is both a daily effort and a renunciation of whole areas of gratification—having interesting work, a really good income, and high status in the eyes of bosses and professors. You may still strive for those things, especially interesting work and a good income, but you have to be willing and learn how to live without them.
The “going with the flow” metaphor is appropriate here, but to middle-class professional minds the phrase can conjure images of passivity, conformity, and even learned helplessness, and all those things can follow from a taking-it culture. But it can also be an effective way of living a life and of being in time. Working-class going with the flow envisions life as a river rather than a highway, and that has consequences for how you delay gratification in living a life.
Life as a river takes you wherever it’s going independent of your will—lazily into the Gulf of Mexico or disastrously over Niagara Falls. The best you can do is keep the boat in good order, take care of yourself and others with you in the boat, and be constantly alert for the next rapids, all the while depending on those others doing their jobs, as you do yours, and fully enjoying their company during those calm spots that come along from time to time. Nobody can control the boat or stop it from capsizing by themselves, but by counting on each other you can hold it together and find out where the river is taking you. I fancy that pure middle-class professionals, those without any hybridity, see life as a highway where you have well-developed maps, can choose to go wherever you desire, and can stop for the night whenever and wherever you want. Though it is probably better to be on life’s highway in the company of others, that is not a necessity, and to be a complete human being you should be capable of going it alone. You can make mistakes or take the wrong road, but basically you are the master of your fate. Of these two visions, surely the river is the more realistic, the more true to real life, but thinking that you’re fully determining your own direction on life’s highway can be more motivating and productive, even if illusory. These visions fit different circumstances, however, that are shaped by the necessities and possibilities of pursuing a career or just finding a job.
As an old man now, I know life is more like a river, but I do not regret the time and effort I spent making a concerted effort to create a new and better self and to be master of my fate on life’s highway. I appreciate the control-seeking, can-do spirit of professionalism. We’re the ones who think to build dams and put up warning signs on the Niagara River to get out before the current takes you away. An achievement culture is, as you’d expect, way better at achieving things. But no real world can work without a being-and-belonging culture that narrows its vision to who and what is immediately before you, to doing your job and counting on others to do theirs, a culture that encourages you to simply be your own true self among others you know well. Envisioning life as a river allows and encourages you to develop all kinds of coping skills in dealing with situations a large part of which are out of your control, taking-it skills that build resilience and grit not just as passive endurance but also as savvy ingenuity in avoiding the worst. Life on the river requires delaying a lot of gratification a lot of the time.
I first learned about the middle-class version of delayed gratification when I was praised for doing it by deans and professors because I was going to college! The idea was that I was preparing myself for some future reward, whether a career or a deeper appreciation of the human condition, and while I saw that part, it seemed to me ridiculous that I was delaying much gratification. Most of my friends from high school either got jobs when they graduated or went into the armed forces, beginning with boot camp; I get that they had more income than I did and thus they could start adult lives earlier than I did, but what they did at work didn’t seem that gratifying to me, especially if the work was dangerous. My first try at college included some working hard at my studies, but mostly it was a lark of adolescence extension with lots of partying and hanging out. In my second try I became a quasi-nerd who fully enjoyed reading, learning, and writing, and I spent many years doing that even though I was usually working too. That didn’t seem like delaying gratification either. What mainstream middle-class culture calls “delayed gratification” has almost nothing to do with not being gratified. Rather, it is about encouraging ambitious aspirations, setting goals, and developing and executing plans to achieve those goals—including learning from your mistakes and a pinch of not being afraid to fail. This is definitely a worthwhile culture. But it works best in circumstances that are pretty favorable for achieving goals while providing a good deal of gratification too. It’s not so much about resisting eating a marshmallow as it is about having a lot of marshmallows to begin with.9
Taking it is an important part of working-class character, though not as important as carrying your own weight and being a positive part of the various groups to which you belong. Taking it is a necessary, not sufficient, condition for developing good character. As such, taking it may look like simply a defensive move, simply a will to endure, but it is more than that. It is a foundation on which the rest of life can be organized, lived, and potentially enjoyed.
Though persistence and endurance are ancient, taking it first appears with free wage labor, mostly in the nineteenth century, when artisans and peasants were being transformed into industrial workers. As Joshua Freeman has so poignantly demonstrated, the transition from precapitalist to capitalist societies always involved a bitter process of breaking the previous work habits of preindustrial workers and forcing time discipline and consistency of work effort across the day. Organizing work around wages for hours even in command economies such as the early Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China required a similar breaking of not only old habits but also wills to autonomy. “Soviet supporters of scientific management … saw in Russian culture, especially among peasants and former peasants who had entered industry, an inability to work hard at a steady pace, instead alternating spurts of intense labor with periods of little if any work (the same complaint early English and American factory owners had about their workers).”10 Factory workers everywhere fought back against this process but could not remain factory workers, which usually meant they could not earn a living, unless they submitted to the will of their paymaster. This moment of submission, repeated millions of times up to today as factory work shaped all modern work in one country after another, is a moment of bitter resignation to ceding control over your life to others, shaping yourself to please them enough that they will tolerate you. But once that submission occurs, in country after country workers begin to organize around increasing their wages, reducing their hours, and improving their conditions at work.11 The struggle for the formation of labor unions and working-class political parties to enforce better wages, hours, and conditions is premised on that bitter submission. Taking it is not just taking it. Ceding control is what allows you to gain and regain control elsewhere and in different ways. But first you have to be able to take whatever conditions those to whom you’ve ceded control impose on you.
The submission to and habit of taking it at work gets transferred to other aspects of life. Truck driver/scholar Anne Balay describes the process beginning in childhood:
Working-class culture tends to place a high value on persistence. History has trained poor, minority, and blue-collar groups to “put up with things they don’t like” …, and they’re good at it; persistence in the face of adversity becomes a useful tool, a point of pride, and a source of honor. My mother and grandmother often told me that … “Nobody asked you what you wanted” or “Life isn’t fair.” Though these comments sound harsh, especially to middle-class ears, they were a crucial part of class training. My family needed me to learn that the world does not care what people like us want or cater to our needs; our best option is to learn that, and learn to live with it.… [But] making a virtue of persistence, and taking pride in your ability to endure hard stuff, is fully compatible with advocating an end to, or diminution of, the hard stuff.12
Ceding control, if it is to be a beginning and not just an ending, requires a deep lifelong commitment to taking it while at the same time maneuvering and sometimes fighting to make the “it” easier to take.
Working-class persistence is not the same as the middle-class kind, which Angela Duckworth calls “stamina for long-term goals.” Duckworth and her colleagues find an “optimistic explanatory style” (taking failures in stride), a “growth mindset,” and an “achievement motivation” as essential to individuals achieving persistence or grit. Taking it is almost the opposite of this, as Duckworth explains: “Grit, however, is distinguished from the general tendency to be reliable, self-controlled, orderly, and industrious, with its emphasis on long-term stamina rather than short-term intensity.”13 Working-class grit is that reliable industriousness taking it one day at a time, building a character and reputation as what the British call “grafters” and Americans call “grinders”—both of which refer to hard workers, where “hard” refers to both the difficulty of the work and the reliable competence and dedication the worker brings to that work.14 Contrary to Duckworth, taking it requires plenty of long-term stamina as well as short-term intensity, but grafting or grinding is not in the service of long-term goals, personal growth, or achievements. It is the price to pay for the rest of your life, and if there is a long-term goal, it is first to avoid having your paid labor take over the rest of your life and then to make your paid labor easier to take by gradually improving conditions at the same time as you maneuver around and within them to regain bits of control.
Taking it is the working-class form of delayed gratification. It does not have the long time horizon of the middle-class kind but instead has daily, weekly, and annual cycles of delay and gratification. Taking it in working-class life comes in two primary forms. Usually it is seen as a necessary condition for the freer, easier, more pleasurable moments of life—and also for the creative purposeful activities in one’s church, union, or other social or civic engagement. It’s the necessity that is expected to cycle with freedom and autonomy. On the other hand, when living is hard, too hard for too long, taking it can become all there is of life—not a temporary delay prior to gratification but rather a will to continue without gratification. Often this form is a resigned but steady numbness that allows a modest sense of accomplishment simply by carrying on and doing the best you can for those with whom you belong. Across most working-class lives there is traffic back and forth between simply taking it and taking it as a necessary condition for something better. There are also looming in the background of most working-class lives people who can’t or don’t take it, people resorting to petty crime or faithlessness or succumbing to alcohol or drugs.
A strong taking-it culture often encourages a certain self-righteousness toward others who are seen as not taking it. Jennifer Silva is the latest ethnographer to find this attitude widespread and often intense, especially among people who are themselves struggling to take it while living in difficult circumstances. “Stories of triumphing over pain anchor their identities [and] draw stark moral boundaries between the deserving and undeserving.”15 In a taking-it culture, being in the presence of relatives and neighbors who are not taking it, or seem not to be taking it, can undermine your own morale if you are on the edge of not taking it yourself. Conversely, pointing to those who cannot or are not taking it can be a source of honor and pride by contrasting your own rectitude with theirs. While these attitudes may sit side by side in a person, the fear of being undermined by proximity is more likely among the hard-living working class. Self-righteousness, on the other hand, is more common among those for whom life is more settled and taking-it has become a routine necessary condition for the good things in one’s life.
Taking it has obvious downsides. Within a masculinist industrial culture it was often about “enduring filth, brutality, and risk-taking at work, and those who deviated and objected were pilloried and outcast as ‘soft.’ ” As Arthur McIvor has pointed out, “At its extreme, masculine identities at work endangered lives, sapped energy and undermined health.”16 The Japanese version of taking it is ganbaru, meaning “working with perseverance,” “toughing it out,” or, more poetically, “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.”17 It isn’t hard to see how this attitude, this cultural pressure, can serve the interests of the boss and of capitalist economic relations generally. Likewise, as Michael Ignatieff has observed about the recovery of victims of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster, when outsiders marvel at others’ grit or resilience, it “can become an exercise in moral cruelty,” a turning away with self-satisfaction from your duty to help.18
These downsides cannot be denied, but given the job structure present and future with its huge majority of just jobs rather than careers, what is the alternative? Even if you think that socialist revolution is a real possibility for starting the world anew, what are people supposed to do while they’re preparing for that? First, they have to take it to stay alive, and doing that with patience and dignity is not a given. You have to struggle with both yourself and others to achieve it with consistency in a way that can open up other possibilities. The Spanish word for “taking it” is aguantar, which translates as “to bear” or “to put up with,” a quality Mexican and Mexican American farmworkers saw as essential both for doing the work and for leadership in the fields and in their union.19 To have agency to change your circumstances, individually or collectively, you first have to be able to put up with the circumstances you need to change.
Mainstream professionalism sees education, especially higher education, as the one and only alternative, and in that view nobody should simply give up and take it rather than stay in school as long as they can. Education is vital in a lot of different ways, not just as job preparation, but it is not an alternative to taking it. If everybody had a college education today, two-thirds of them would still have to take it with just jobs.20 Besides, a whole lot of people hate school, even if they can take it, and others are just no good at it. There are plenty of jobs those people can do; the jobs just need to pay better. If you can show up and work hard at one of the tens of millions of jobs that needs done, you should be able to earn a decent living while pursuing noncertified versions of lifelong learning.
But, and this is my main point, there are alternatives within a taking-it culture, built-in alternatives. Taking it by itself is mere survival, but as a necessary condition it not only helps working-class people get by day by day but also encourages a stronger focus on wages, hours, and conditions. This enhanced focus is evidenced by the histories of most capitalist (and communist) countries in the last two centuries but especially in the United States. Andrew Arnold, for example, in his study of the complex relationships between coal miners, coal companies, railroads, and local small business owners in America’s late nineteenth-century Gilded Age shows how the miners developed an “adaptive culture,” one that allowed for both crafty planning and spontaneous, even contradictory, adjustments depending on circumstances. Arnold shows taking it as “the ways that lower-level actors came to acknowledge the power of those above them even while they maneuvered to resist it” and “the ways in which people ad-libbed, fudged, and otherwise squirmed their way through …, and through that process created cultures and institutions that rarely ran as originally intended.”21
Given the job structure, the working-class strategy of ceding control to gain control needs steady, consistent taking it in order to work. The working-class sense of giving away a big part of your day, your week, your life in order to enjoy your real life is an important alternative to the professional middle-class pursuit of work you love to do and through which you define yourself. And as I suggested in the previous chapter, not expecting the work itself to be pleasant or fulfilling—but instead expecting to simply have to take it—fuels a search for spaces of autonomy and the related workmate sociability that is practically required and (mostly) enjoyable in both getting through the day and improving your conditions.
The Working Class Has Parts, and Taking It Works Differently in Different Parts
Of all the noisome middle-class professional misinterpretations of working-class life, one of the most common is the presumption that the whole of the working class is like the one part you have seen or been made aware of. Often that one part is the most troubled part, and middle-class attention to it is often for generous problem-solving reasons. But just as often the whole conglomerate of nonprofessional workers that constitutes the working class is characterized by its least attractive elements, whether absent fathers, alcohol and drug addicts, or Trump voters.
You can see this in Lipset’s cavalier claim that all working-class families were loveless and that the worker had sought immediate gratification “from early childhood.” But unfortunately, it is not just dead white guys, like Lipset. Living ones, like sociologist Andrew Cherlin, somehow don’t even guess how ridiculous it is to claim that all mid-twentieth-century working-class men were “uncommunicative” and “taciturn,” unable to express emotion and thereby develop an “expressive self.”22 Cherlin must not ever have known anybody like my voluble midcentury steelworker father or to have ever been in a working-class tavern where eloquent anger so often coexists with men “crying in their beers.”23 He certainly has not been exposed to Jessi Streib’s account of different class feeling rules.24 But never mind, just think how unlikely and illogical it is to imagine that a group of tens of millions of men would all be the same personality type. Think of how isolated in your own class you would have to be to imagine such a thing and then get it past juried reviewers and editors.
Cherlin has recently updated his profile of working-class men, but now he finds men with a “disciplined self” at midcentury being transformed into today’s socially unintegrated men who have a “haphazard self.” With his coauthors including Kathryn Edin, Cherlin’s study of 107 youngish men in four mostly eastern big US cities definitely locates an insightful category of working-class men—those with middle-class aspirations to be more autonomous, expressive, and generative than their fathers and grandfathers but without the opportunities to have steady work and therefore steady family relationships. The midcentury industrial worker is now envisioned as “honest, hardworking, and sober” in contrast to the current drifting, uncommitted working-class man facing a precarious and shifting labor market today.25 I find this an insightful analysis of one segment of current working-class men. But it is applicable to only one segment, and its partiality gets lost in the authors’ then-versus-now simplicity. Cherlin et al. make a sweeping historical contrast that grossly simplifies working-class men both then and now because the authors take one part then and contrast it with a different part now.
I can attest that there were many working-class men with haphazard selves back in the day as well as some women, and I can also testify that there are plenty with disciplined selves today, though not as many men as women. The working class had parts then, and it has parts now. If we could measure it, we would undoubtedly find smaller proportions of disciplined selves and larger proportions of haphazard ones today, especially among men. And that change in proportions is tragically important, but it doesn’t mean the parts have changed entirely or that the culture is being eroded to such a degree that it is now at best what Raymond Williams understood as a residual culture.
Besides important gender, racial/ethnic, regional, and religious differences that shape a wild variety of specific cultures within the American working class, there are important economic and cultural parts to the working class that cut across these more richly various specific cultures.
Economically, the division between hard living and settled living can be measured, with the hard-living part gloriously diminishing in the years around the Glorious Thirty and the settled-living part diminishing ever since.26 But the hard-living part never disappeared during the golden age, and the settled-living part has not disappeared today. It is important to see the hard and the settled in strictly economic terms, as being about the material circumstances people face, not the culture with which they face them. If we do that, then hard living can be measured and evaluated with some precision. “Hard living” is not synonymous with “the poor,” especially not as measured by the US Census Bureau, whose poverty rates are widely understood today as egregiously parsimonious.27 Rather, living is hard when a person’s or a family’s income is inadequate to cover basic costs where those people live. Attempts to establish “family economic self-sufficiency” standards, “hardship thresholds,” and “living-wage levels” by location have shown the wide differences between costs of living in cities and small towns in various parts of the country as well as within individual urban areas. Census Bureau poverty rates do not adjust for these differences, providing only one poverty rate for each household size regardless of where those households are. Though insisting on the primary importance of regional differences, the various attempts to determine levels of adequacy have arrived at general society-wide estimates of hard living that are from two to four times above the official poverty rate.28 In 2005 the Economic Policy Institute found that nearly one-third of households across the country were hard living in these terms, or about half of the working class, and this would undoubtedly be higher today.29
As with most binaries, there is an intermediate area with people near the threshold on both sides and a lot of traffic back and forth over working-class life courses. As Michael Zweig has pointed out, using official poverty standards, today “more than half the working class experiences poverty in a ten-year period.”30 Hard living itself ranges widely from a single mother of two making $20,000 a year or less (and thus officially poor) to a married couple with one child and two low-wage jobs that give them a family income of $45,000 a year in a city that requires $50,000 to avoid hardship. There is a wide range among the settled living as well—from a married couple with two kids and two jobs making $75,000 in a smallish city to a UPS truck driver married to a stay-at-home mom making more than $100,000 (with overtime) or a city bus driver married to a postal worker, also with a combined six-figure income. Both the hard and the settled also contain important variety within them based on how long they’ve been living hard or settled. In fact, there is such a wide range of incomes, wealth, life chances, and circumstances within working-class life—with grinding inequities by race and gender—that you might wonder if it makes sense to see them as all one class with the same cultural proclivities. But before we address that, let’s look at a classic breakdown of the cultural parts of the working class and at the various ways they interact with the economic parts.
Herbert Gans long ago laid out a four-part taxonomy with two majority parts (action seeking and routine seeking) and two secondary parts (middle-class seeking and the maladapted).31 These terms denote different orientations, predispositions, and expectations within working-class life, with Gans classifying his urban villagers by their wants and desires rather than by their incomes and occupations. “The maladapted” in Gans’s day referred mostly to alcoholics and otherwise irresponsible workers and/or fathers (almost always men), but today it would include the wide array of drug addicts and even more absent fathers. These were very much a minority in Gans’s day, and despite troubling increases, they are still a minority now. In a taking-it culture, the maladapted are often seen as unwilling or unable to take it—to reliably endure bad jobs, tense romantic or family relations or to reliably fulfill duties, especially the tedious and ritualistic ones. Likewise, Gans saw his “middle-class mobiles”—those seeking to better themselves by mimicking middle-class ways—as a decided minority. You might think that middle-class seekers would come mostly from the settled living, and they probably do, but it is not unusual for the strongest middle-class aspirations to be among the poorest and hardest living.32 Cherlin et al.’s “haphazard selves” today come from this predisposition, whereby middle-class aspirations clash with labor market realities with frustrating results.
Whatever you think of these subsidiary categories, Gans captured something crucial when he found routine seeking as a core working-class cultural predisposition in conflict with another core predisposition toward action seeking. These different predispositions can be seen both between individuals and within individual lives. Some folks are more routine seeking, others more action seeking, but both predispositions are present in most working-class lives and in pretty predictable patterns. Looking back over the century-plus of human experience with industrial work, it is clear that the working-class aspiration for a routine and predictable life of steady work at decent wages is the more fundamental impulse.33 But once that aspiration is frustrated, action seeking becomes more likely, especially among men, whether in political or other collective action or in actions of relief and despondency, as with alcohol, drugs, gambling, stealing, or other risky but adventurous behaviors. Paradoxically, however, the opposite pattern is also predictable. Once a routine and predictable life is achieved, it becomes common for people to feel caught in a rut and become uncomfortable with the predictable routines that seem to define and prescribe every moment of their lives. This leads to more action seeking, including workplace and political activism, most often in controlled and episodic ways that relieve the routines without abandoning or (intentionally) putting them at risk. Thus, there is a unity of opposites between routine seeking and action seeking in working-class life.
Likewise, there is a common dialectic between the economic categories of hard living and settled living and the cultural ones seeking routine or action. You might think that settled living and routine seeking go together, complementing each other, and sometimes they do. But the settled living often are the ones most likely to seek a little action, including in union work and related politics. Similarly, the hard living are usually the most intensely committed to pursuing routine—steady, predictable circumstances where they could feel they have some control over their lives, could let down their guard, and not have to be taking it seemingly every minute of every day. The settled living frequently take their routines for granted, while the hard living are often desperate to establish some.
The categorical purity I’m arguing for here—economics only and culture only—is of analytic value but may seem to rule out messy exceptions. Tom Gorman, for example, lived in a settled-living family by my income and steady work criteria, but his father was one of those alcoholics who seldom missed work but brought chaos and humiliation into his family several times a week. This undoubtedly, as Gorman recounts, made living unsteady and hard for the growing children in that family.34 On the other end are families who are officially poor and thus hard living by my criteria but are in fact living settled lives, based on low-wage but steady work plus food stamps and housing subsidies; often these are single mothers who have some help from their extended families, but just as often they are isolated mothers and daughters supporting one another in complex but noneconomic ways. For me, the analytic purity of this set of terms allows and encourages us to think more clearly about how economics and culture interact with and are layered within each other. They can even clarify messy exceptions so long as we remember that the categories are analytic and do not directly reflect every possible kind of social reality.
I grew up in a routine-seeking family among other routine-seeking relatives, friends, and neighbors, a family who went from hard living to settled living as I was growing up among many similar families. There was a certain magic to that. Knowing that tomorrow would be pretty much the same as today, that the weekend was just ahead, and that next year would be much the same and likely a little better lent a certain calm and quiet joy to life. But there was a nervousness among our parents and most other adults, a fear that this steady progress wouldn’t last, and as a result we got a lot of counsel about how hard and mean life could be and thus the importance of taking it, steady persistence, and stick-to-itiveness—what today is often called resilience and grit. As it happened, those of us who did not have to take much that was hard and mean in our lives never got as good at it as those who faced a lot, but even for us taking it was always there as an attitude, an expectation that in retrospect I think was pretty valuable. As working conditions and living standards deteriorate, however, taking it becomes very much a double-edged sword—not simply a useful recognition of necessity but also a potentially disabling fatalism and passivity where a taking-it mode is all you’ve got, the only thing you’re good at, and is thus merely the survival of the oppressed. In increasingly precarious circumstances, being praised for your resilience and grit by your family and friends and praising yourself for your ability to take it can be cultural nudges to simply go on taking it and nothing else. On the other hand, how would you go on at all without that supportive self-pride?
Scholars, especially progressive advocates, have often focused on the hard living and especially the hardest of the hard living in a generous effort to figure out how public policy might improve their lives. Two problems arise out of this focus. First, for some reason such scholars, as middle-class professionals, too often gravitate toward what they see as cultural deficiencies—bad attitudes toward school, for example—rather than insufficient money and life control; they find a “culture of poverty” they think is a cause of poverty without trying to understand which of these “deficiencies” might actually be not only disabling but also valuable in hard circumstances.35 Second, problem-solving scholars tend to ignore the settled-living working class, either forgetting that this part exists or lumping the settled living in with a broad middle class, seeing only similarities in economic circumstances, not the differences in cultural emphases—emphases the settled living most often share with the hard living rather than with middle-class professionals. Taking it is one of these.
Taking it is generally more unambiguously fruitful in settled lives than in hard ones. The efficacy of taking it, the positive role it can play in working-class lives, increases as money and time for what you will increase. In that continuum there is a point at which taking it becomes no longer a double-edged sword but instead is an anchoring part of life that both restricts you and frees you to go ashore and explore, so to speak, to seek a little action and take some calculated risks. Settled living, with its adequacy of money and time, frees you to use and expand your zones of autonomy even while you continue to take it. Settled living also allows for more relaxation, which can rejuvenate you in a way that makes taking it both easier to do and more worthwhile.
Taking it also works differently with women than with men. Until quite recently scholarship has focused on working-class men and their problems, thereby missing important gender differences not so much in culture as in the strength of that culture. Working-class men, it seems to me, have always been better at articulating a taking-it ideology, usually under the banner of “toughness,” but women have always been more consistently strong in actually taking it and more creative in working within it. As working people and their culture have been challenged with harder and harder circumstances to take in the past half century, more men have weakened in their ability to take it, while women seem stronger and certainly clearer in their abilities to take it with ingenuity. The focus on fatherless families and unsteady, irresponsible working-class men, often addicted to one substance or another, typically overlooks how mothers and grandmothers have adjusted to this widespread new circumstance.36
Though two recent best-selling memoirs of working-class life, Heartland and Hillbilly Elegy, feature drug- and alcohol-addled single mothers who were truly terrible parents, they are not in any way representative of working-class women today.37 It is worth noting that in both memoirs grandmothers are rugged champions of taking it, filling in for their daughters. I don’t doubt that a larger percentage of working-class women are both practically and morally feckless today than decades ago. Women, like men, succumb to the unceasing daily grind of unsteady low-wage jobs surrounded by deteriorating circumstances, especially in deindustrialized and other woebegone places.38 But as Allison Pugh found in her study of various responses to increased workplace and social insecurity, there is an especially strong “care work ethic” and sense of familial duty among women of all classes, but especially women of limited means. This care ethic encourages a limiting but strongly disciplined self.39 Such a duty to nurture and care is not unknown among men, but as Pugh points out, it is optional for them, whereas the cultural pressures on women to care are both ancient and enormous. Working-class women are more likely to wholeheartedly embrace their duty to care, maybe especially single mothers, so many of whom ingeniously and bravely combine mothering with low-wage and median-wage jobs and, with a little help from their friends and families, are proud of their ability to make do with no dependency on male partners.40 Likewise, though only a slim majority of working-class women are married, nearly all of them are in the paid workforce and are both economically and culturally better equipped than previous generations to avoid “gendered traps of dependency,” including domestic violence.41 Taking it is a strategy of the oppressed, a bitter but wise recognition of necessity. Given centuries of multiple oppressions, it should not be surprising that working-class women are better at it than men. Socially and culturally, working-class women have more permission to resist their multiple oppressions today, even though there are fewer economic opportunities that would allow them to effectively do so. While I don’t know how you would measure this, the ingenuity and resilience of both married and unmarried working-class women in raising their children and keeping various kinds of families together is pretty astounding given the unsteadiness of so many working-class men and the ruthless deterioration of economic conditions in recent decades. It is when you look at both women and men in the working class that you can see the continuing strength of a being-and-belonging culture, which in the long run could be a mere residual of better times but in the short run is still vital to people getting by and making do in grindingly insufficient circumstances.
Still, though in the aggregate working-class men are not taking it as well as working-class women, it is important not to miss the large part of working-class men who are good to decent fathers and as strong as ever in taking it with difficult work, adverse circumstances, and complicated personal relationships within families. If 27 percent of American children are living in families without fathers present, then 73 percent are living with fathers, some of them (three million, or 4 percent) only with fathers.42 Not all of these are working class, but a majority are, and it is amazing how that majority gets ignored in all the concern about “the collapse of the working-class family.”43
Similarly, recent concern with increasing drug addiction and death rates among middle-aged white men uniformly ignores the vast majority of these men who are neither addicted nor killing themselves.44 The Case-Deaton study that so alarmingly and valuably called attention to the rise in opioid addiction and what the authors called “deaths of despair”—drug overdoses, suicide, and chronic liver cirrhosis—saw these as indicators of increasing stress being experienced by a non-college-educated working class.45 Even with this troubling increase only a small fraction of whites without bachelor’s degrees are killing or poisoning themselves, but the Case-Deaton study tells us nothing about how most people in that population are dealing with those stresses. Nonetheless, this image of disintegrating men using drugs and alcohol to remove themselves from their lives of despair has become the iconic representation of working-class men, especially black men but more recently also white men. The horrendous rise of drug addiction and deaths of despair reflect circumstances of increased pressure in deteriorating conditions, not a broad characterization of working-class life, especially not in more prosperous places. Many deindustrialized men have, as Angus Deaton has remarked, “lost the narrative of their lives,” but many more have simply lost their jobs and any possibility for decent employment in the places where they belong and can simply be themselves, cultural deficiencies and all. Somehow most of them manage to take it.46
In the deindustrialized working-class family I know best, there are four drug addicts in the last two generations, while there was only one alcoholic in my generation (all men). This is new and troubling—heart-wrenching, in fact. But for every man battling drug addiction there are three who are not, and as I write three of the addicts are in various phases of recovery, some bravely fighting to turn their lives around with unsteady, low-wage jobs and girlfriends who are also recovering. Today it is harder to take it in all the miserable circumstances so many young and middle-aged working-class men now face, but a taking-it culture is actually more visible and probably stronger as a masculine culture even though actual taking it is weaker and much less steady. The “I can take it” protestations I hear seem much more common now, as men need to rally themselves to take it in more difficult circumstances. Though there was a lot of that back in the day as well, as conditions steadily improved and settled for thirty years back then, it became less necessary for working-class men to talk themselves into and support others in taking it. The strength of a culture may be better measured by its necessity and the degree of difficulty it faces than by a count of the actual behavior that meets the standard. By that way of scoring, a working-class taking-it culture may be stronger and more important today than it was during the Glorious Thirty. Culture is about what you expect of yourself, what you try to live up to, not your actual behavior. As far as I can see, most working-class men still live up to the taking-it standard, and even though compared with back in the day many more men do not, they generally accept the standard even as they fail to meet it.
On the other hand, the tacit taken for granted taking-it culture among working-class women is clearly stronger in affecting behavior. When taking it is a base, a foundation and not simply a numb resignation to endure, it can become a source of strength, freeing you to figure ways to work around or change bad circumstances. A deep commitment to taking it—especially along with a commitment to care for others, most importantly your own children—mobilizes a being-and-belonging culture to effectively resist the spiral of despair that most working-class men and women feel is ready to engulf them if they let go, give up, or give in instead of making do. The fact that today working-class women are as or more likely than men to actively protest and engage in other forms of collective action may augur a strengthening of the being-and-belonging culture in a new form, one that can limit and disable in unfavorable circumstances but also one that can break out in collective action and quickly gain strength seemingly out of nowhere, as it has done in the past when men played dominant roles.47 In such moments, the willingness and ability to take it is a working-class strength no matter how it is distributed among genders.
Living in the Moments
I’m not sure which is cause and which is consequence, but an orientation to living in the present rather than for an envisioned future clearly correlates with taking it and making do.
In the interpretation that follows I am probably too influenced by living with and loving a woman who has gone from hard living to settled living to professional middle class but has always lived one day at a time. When we were younger her approach to life often frustrated me, as it often seemed to undermine my dreams and aspirations. While not intending to do that, she had a natural skepticism about my (in those days patriarchal) planning for our future. She deferred to my plans and followed my lead, not just accepting it but also actively implementing “our” plans on the ground in a way I could not have, often with a wise-cracking realism that shamed my more ambitious flights of fancy. Now I think it is still fair to say that I helped lift her up while she helped pull me down, but where I once resented that, I came to realize that both were equally valuable. In later years I also came to envy a bit her roomier sense of now, not just her practical everyday competence from which I have benefited so much but also the enjoyment she takes in being with and helping other people one situation at a time. I have lived a purpose-driven life, and I’m proud of both the purposes and the drivenness, but if purposefulness expands your vision into a possible future, it also contracts your experience of the present and your responsiveness to those immediately around you. I did no substantial harm and have no regrets, but I have missed a lot of the richness of daily life, the intensity of both its joys and its pains, that she has not.
Living in the present, in one moment after another, is initially a defensive move in working-class life. In Judie’s case, growing up hard living was intensified by a mean-drunk father who periodically terrorized the household and for which she always had to be ready. As several sociologists have pointed out, working-class present-orientedness is related to a lack of resources and stability, the lack of a broader sense of control over the trajectory of your life. Marianne Cooper, author of Cut Adrift: Families in Insecure Times, for example, makes this observation:
When people’s circumstances are constantly shifting such that they have little control over what happens in their lives, it becomes hard to map out the future and execute long-range goals.… [T]he combination of income instability and income scarcity makes the exercise of long-term planning not only pointless but painful. To cope with this hard reality, people with few resources often rely on an emotional plan, which is not to plan very far into the future.48
You can see how immediate circumstances based on insufficient money and control make a short time horizon existentially useful and therefore necessary. But even when the insufficiency disappears, as it did in Judie’s life, the culture (what Cooper calls “an emotional plan”) remains. And in those more positive circumstances, living in the present can become not just a defense against hard living and its instability but also a practically effective and even joyful way to live a life.
So say a long tradition of poets, philosophers, and religions. The Roman poet Horace, for example, advised:
Be wise! Drink free, and in so short a space
Do not protracted hopes of life embrace;
Whilst we are talking, envious time doth slide;
This day’s thine own; the next may be denied.49
This Epicurean version of living in the moments contrasts with Buddhism’s more spiritual mindfulness that also disdains “our regrets or longings of the past, or our hopes or fears about the future.”50 From the Beats during the Glorious Thirty to now, Buddhism attracts many middle-class young people who want to reject the ladder-climbing future-orientedness of middle-class professionalism.51 Likewise, Friedrich Nietzsche’s godlessness saw “a more vital, assertive life” as requiring “affirmation of every moment, exactly as it is, without wishing that anything was different, and without harbouring peevish resentment against others or against our fate.”52
Frankly, I abhor all versions of this momentary philosophy. For me, if you’re not going somewhere, you’re going nowhere. I reference the philosophy to illustrate that middle-class professionalism is not the only effective way to live a life—that there are alternative possibilities and that the working-class roomier sense of now is one of them. I am, however, attracted to the rejection of status seeking and “peevish resentment” that is part and parcel of these philosophies and that I think is the bane of middle-class life, a constant source of anxiety and depression.53 William Deresiewicz quotes a Harvard dean of admissions to describe what Deresiewicz calls a “midlife crisis that is typical of high achievers”:
It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the “prizes,” stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties—physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others—sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot camp. Some say they ended up in their profession because of somebody else’s expectations.… Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined goal.54
Singular dedication to a culture strengthens you within that culture, but you can’t have it both ways. If you’re all about becoming and achieving, you’re going to miss some being and belonging, and if you’re all about being and belonging, you’re going to miss a lot of becoming and achieving.
Working-class living in the moments is not based in either Epicureanism or Buddhism, of course, let alone Nietzsche. Like ceding control, deference, and taking it, it is first a realistic adjustment to limited and limiting circumstances. But it doesn’t need to remain that way. If wages, hours, and conditions steadily and over time dramatically improve, as they did during the Glorious Thirty, new options become available. One is to jump into the professional middle class. Others are Epicurean or semi-Buddhist. But still others involve gradually expanding your time sense to have more space for both planning a different future and reflecting on the past, including both nostalgia and reminiscence. I’m inclined to think that this expansion from the present, what Thomas Pynchon called “temporal bandwidth,” is an enrichment of working-class life but not quite in the hierarchical way Pynchon envisioned: “ ‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now.… The more you dwell in the past and future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are.”55 This kind of “the more the better” quantitative certainty may work for poets and scholars, but I know and live among many people with narrow temporal bandwidths who have very solid personas and are not as tenuous as I am. As much as I value a forward-looking sense of history, if anything it’s the big thinkers who are (sometimes productively and/or delightfully) more tenuous. There are ways to broaden your sense of future and past without losing too much of that roomier sense of now that Barbara Jensen admires in working-class life. I’m not suggesting some kind of golden mean for temporal bandwidths but rather that there’s more than one way to be good and solid. Let a variety of temporal bandwidths bloom!
Ceding control and taking it are most often viewed with contempt within the world of middle-class professionals. Even middle-class resilience and grit is about being goal-oriented, not about “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” Some portion of working-class young people will always be open to and even obsessively motivated by our urging to be proactive, to fight back, broaden your horizons, take control of your life, and be somebody. But there is not enough room in our job structure for everybody to be our version of somebody, and the idea that being somebody is the goal of life is both ontologically superficial and socially corrosive.
Still, our proactive sense and the counsel to fight back are positives we middle-class professionals can bring to our free wage labor sisters and brothers. We cannot do that effectively, however, if we are so headstrong in our own culture and its superiority that we can’t see the value of theirs: how it works in their lives, the strength and sometimes nobility it takes to live within that culture, and its inner workings and potential strengths in moving forward, in making do and sometimes better than making do.56
I was part of a group of Chicago academics from mixed-class backgrounds who, when unions started hiring young organizers in the city in the 2000s, came up with the idea of having career days for activist college students who might want to become professional organizers.57 For several years, we asked three community organizers and three labor organizers to talk about what their work and lives were like to a gathering of such students. I’m not sure how many students we turned on to organizing as a career, but getting the community and labor organizers together was electric. I don’t remember whether we asked them to talk about their class backgrounds, but almost all of them did, and while some were from working-class families, most were not. They “admitted” to growing up in the suburbs as if suburbs were not part of real life, and many of them said that though their initial (and continuing) motivation to become organizers was based in a commitment to social justice, now they loved the kind of people they got to work with, referring to the folks they were trying to help organize. Many said “I didn’t know there were people like that,” and when pressed, they gave a variety of reasons they admired working-class people. “Straightforward” and “no bullshit” were common, and when one young woman said “honest, I mean really honest, not just in words,” there was a lot of affirmative head-shaking. The young organizers and students from working-class backgrounds usually beamed at this recognition, but when one of them said about the middle-class-origin organizers “Well, I didn’t know there were people like you until I went to college,” that got their affirmative head-shaking too.
These were extraordinary moments of class-cultural recognition and mutual respect, but they can occur naturally when people from different classes mix it up a bit.