Why Don’t Working-Class Men Just Take “Pink-Collar” Jobs?

MANLY DIGNITY is highly important to working-class men, and they’re not feeling it. Breadwinner status is a big part of this: Many men (of all classes) still measure masculinity by the size of a paycheck.214 Since 1970, professional-elite wages have increased dramatically, while the wages of high-school-educated men fell 47%.215 The percentage of men so discouraged they are not looking for work has tripled since the 1960s.216

Look, I wish manliness worked differently. But most men, like most women, seek to fulfill the ideals they’ve grown up with. For many blue-collar men, all they’re asking for is basic human dignity (male varietal). When it comes to masculine dignity, men of all classes are united in their opinion: they’re all for it. But members of the PME have been remarkably tone deaf in their scorn for the dignity aspirations of working-class men.

Instead, while elite men still enjoy a virtual stranglehold on highly paid high-status jobs themselves, some in the PME have recommended that blue-collar men take pink-collar jobs like genetic counselors, occupational assistants, or nurse practitioners. Highbrow discourse on and elsewhere identifies the key problem for working-class men as their outdated notions of masculinity.217

“They are little man-boys who need ‘manly’ jobs and go crying to their mamas when they have to answer to a ‘woman in a pants suit’ or need to perform a task that doesn’t involve lifting 100 pounds or cutting through steel plates,” one man opined in an email. Said another, “Swallow your pride/dignity and go back to school, get a 21st century job. Economies change. Real men and women with integrity don’t expect to be handed a job or scapegoat others who get something they don’t,” commented Jerry Day.*

I’m all for men of all classes developing new and healthier masculinities, but to have the elite telling working-class men to abandon the breadwinner masculinity privileged men still enjoy . . . that’s not going to persuade working-class men of anything except that they really, really, really hate feminism. When elite men start flooding into traditionally feminine jobs, elites will have the standing to tell working-class men to swallow their masculine pride and do so, too.

And yet we do all need to recognize that twenty-first-century jobs will differ from twentieth-century ones. What’s a path forward? Let’s begin with a question: What’s a job that requires intensive scientific training and heavy lifting?

Nursing. I’ll bet that’s not what came to mind. When we think of nursing, we think of the womanly art of caring, of holding the hand of the sick. Because it’s feminized, nursing is persistently undervalued and underpaid. Indeed, nursing shortages have continued because of hospitals’ refusal to do what’s typically done when there’s a shortage—pay more. That’s the kind of thing that happens in a pink-collar ghetto. The solution is not to consign working-class men to the underpaid, dead-end jobs traditionally provided to women. The solution is to create up-skilled jobs for both men and women.

Here’s an example, again from the Markle report. The Tablet Pilot of the New York Paraprofessional Healthcare Institute equips home health care aides with tablets that enable them to assess client health risks and communicate with doctors and other members of a patient’s health care team. Armed with networked tablets, the home care workers answer 15 screening questions to monitor for documented health care risks. The pilot materially improved the quality of health care, because it addressed a key problem: often several days would pass before home aides’ observations were effectively communicated to the doctor or nurse in charge. This led to false alarms and unnecessary, and expensive, trips to the ER. The Tablet Pilot decreased unnecessary hospital visits.218

The Tablet Pilot points the way for working-class jobs. What’s needed are networked service jobs that allow for up-skilling of workers who, because they will be adding more value, will be paid more.

The technology exists to generalize this model. Today most services are seen as inherently local, but networks make that less true. Using Microsoft’s HoloLens, a reporter called an electrician who then talked him through how to install a light switch. A Los Angeles company called DAQRI has developed a “smart helmet” that can allow a soldier to see a schematic drawing of a machine he needs to fix along with a step-by-step description of how to fix it. The smart helmet and HoloLens open the way to next-gen “doctors’ visits” that occur in the patient’s home.219 Or to the practice of medicine in rural areas by doctors in large cities who practice in partnership with local physician assistants acting as the doctor’s eyes and ears.

Some of the occupations expected to grow are ones that blue-collar guys (and gals) would likely be happy to do: wind turbine techs, cartographers, and ambulance drivers.220 This sort of thing has not been at the center of liberals’ social reform agenda, to say the least. Putting it there would require a cultural shift. Blue-collar jobs carry social prestige elsewhere, for example, in Germany, but not in the United States. “Nobody coming out of college these days is knowledgeable or excited about . . . [manufacturing],” said a Flextronics manager in Fort Worth. A community college student commented, if manufacturing “was a last resort I’d probably have to go in, but that’s definitely not what I want to be doing.”221

These attitudes have consequences. For example, there’s a shortage of plumbers so acute that it’s threatening the building industry. Plumbers can make good money—the national median is $60,000 a year for a master plumber, but in a large city a plumber can make six figures.222 “My plumber drives a Porsche,” noted a friend. Are lame jokes about “plumber’s butt” worth the economic price our country pays for looking down on this kind of work?

It’s time to reverse that attitude. “I haven’t heard either party talking about a ‘real’ jobs program or a ‘real’ training program. Most of the centers that are supposed to do this kind of work do very surface level training like how to write a resume, how to do an online job search, etc.,” wrote Elizabeth Ringler-Jayanthan. That’s a pressing social issue. Let’s treat it like one.

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