When my uncle Joe Meraglio was discharged from the Navy after the Second World War, he, like other young men in his Rust Belt town, went back to work for the Pennsylvania Railroad. But the railroad industry was beginning its slow, painful decline, so after factory shutdowns and layoffs, he worked odd jobs as a plasterer and painter—until, finally, he packed it in and followed opportunity to the auto industry, which was thriving in Ohio and Michigan.
Joe started his career at Fisher Body, a subsidiary of General Motors, on one of the toughest assembly-line jobs, and over a thirty-three-year career he would rise through the ranks, join a solid middle class, buy a nice house, put three kids through college, and retire as a supervisor in 1987—a feat pretty much impossible today for a guy with an eighth-grade education. For that matter, there are low odds of that kind of career in manufacturing for anyone, for so much has changed since the glory days of GM.
By the time of Joe’s retirement, the national and world economic order was changing dramatically, and a new vocabulary of work was entering the American consciousness: globalization, corporate restructuring, downsizing, outsourcing. Through the remainder of the twentieth century and into our own time, the kind of union jobs and career structure that made Joe’s life possible diminished, as did the power of unions. New technologies changed the nature of production; a lot of that assembly-line work that provided an entry point for Joe is now done through computer-assisted devices, creating some new jobs but eliminating many others. Corporations became transnational, developing supply chains of production and distribution that can be staggering in complexity—and seemingly immune to regulation. These developments threatened not only blue-collar jobs, but once-secure white-collar jobs as well—the kinds of less physically taxing jobs Joe wanted for his kids. If work in, for example, technology or finance could be broken up and digitized, it too could be outsourced. Economists began to talk about the hollowing out of the middle class.
Something else of national consequence for working Americans was also going on during the latter part of Joe Meraglio’s career at General Motors. The peak years of Joe’s employment, from right after the Second World War through the 1960s, were not good for everyone—in 1962 Michael Harrington’s The Other America ripped the veil away from the tens of millions of Americans living in poverty—but for the majority, these were years of rising wages, distributed prosperity, and social mobility. By the late 1970s that pattern began to change. Partly because of the structural transformations I sketched above, but equally because of government action—revisions of the tax code, deregulation, monetary policy—the last four decades have been a time of rising income inequality, stagnant wages, and flattened mobility. Most people work...
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