About this time of year in 1941, Morris Durham sold his farm in the East Texas town of Garrison, Texas and moved his family south, to the big city of Houston. All of his children–a son and three daughters, the eldest of whom would become my mother–loved their time on the farm, hard work though it often was. Morris Durham, however, had read the signs of the time: he knew that agrarian America, driven and sustained by generation after generation of family farms, was passing away. He also knew, as every adult around him knew, that war was coming, and that manufacturing jobs would soon be in plentiful supply. He found work as a die-maker in a steel plant on Houston’s North Side, and made enough money to eventually buy a modest house in Spring Branch, what was then an up-and-coming suburb northwest of Houston.
The Durham family’s move was an early, westward manifestation of the migration from the hills, backwoods, and farmlands of Appalachia in the 1950s to the larger towns and cities of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that J. D. Vance traces in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy (2016). In that slightly later time, it was Vance’s grandparents who moved, just as it had been my own grandparents who moved a decade before. Such people moved because the time had come to see farm life for the backbreaking existence it often was (wringing a chicken was no lark; neither was hoeing a row), and they caught sight of better-paying work elsewhere. The steel plant Armco and my grandfather’s die-making job were part of the upsurge in manufacturing as America readied for war. Those jobs, in turn, led to other jobs. A younger sister of my mother married a high school classmate who took a job with the Rohm and Haas chemical plant in Baytown, Texas. They built a comfortable life for themselves and their own children, one of whom became a geologist, a wildcatter, and the fellow who introduced me to comic books when I was young.
In the early days of his career, my uncle had to work the graveyard shift at Rohm and Haas. I had no idea what that meant, but it didn’t sound pleasant at all. Eventually, I figured out that it meant working roughly from midnight to 8:00 a.m., or some similar schedule. Suddenly, the work became very interesting (except for the part about getting up at midnight.) I’d always wondered what in the world people could be doing at such hours, and I wanted to find out. My uncle didn’t always enjoy getting up so late, but as far as I knew, he never missed a shift, and he made good money, eventually becoming a plant supervisor.
J.D. Vance’s grandfather might have been able to tell the same story in his job with Armco Steel. But something happened in the Appalachians and the Midwest of the 1950s and 1960s that did not happen in Texas during the same period. The workers at Armco, a company that employed most of the transplanted Kentuckians and Ohioans Vance describes in his book, lost their passion for work. They neglected it, or blew it off entirely, as absenteeism became chronic. The generation that followed Vance’s grandfather could have sustained the life and work of the plant, but they didn’t. The wages the plant could pay were sufficient to maintain a modest house or apartment, but that was it. There was no upward mobility, and, if you didn’t have a job at the plant, you didn’t have a job. Under those conditions, the children of my generation–heirs of my uncle and grandfather–have often opted for staying in the jobs that we have, believing, practically if not philosophically, that something is better than nothing. Vance’s kin–made up of both a nuclear family and an extended one–made a different choice, almost a suicidal one: they chose not to work. Hillbilly Elegy does not condemn those people for making that choice, and neither do I condemn them. Other people at other times have made similar choices, and I have written about them before.
What I am interested in, rather, is the question, why has work become so devalued in American society? I see condemnation of it on every hand, although every piece of evidence I could personally cite is anecdotal, including the story my friend, Mario Leal, told me of his supervisor, a black man, who one day ordered Mario to stop working so fast on the line because “we don’t work that way around here. You’re making the rest of us look bad.” The question is nevertheless implicit in much of what Vance writes, but he doesn’t have an answer to the question, either. There are nuanced studies of American unemployment; Vance even refers to a good one in William Junius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. Yet, for all their statistical sophistication, such books do not explain our loss of passion for work; and none of them, as far as I know, has inspired changes in social and economic policies the way Michael Harrington’s book, The Other America, did for poverty in 1962. To get at the roots of our disdain for work, volumes like Studs Terkel’s Working (1974) are more useful.
The chronicle of the disdain for work, from Bartleby, the Scrivener to the poetry of Charles Bukowski to Terkel’s conversations with doctors, lawyers, and prostitutes, is a lengthy tome, but its weight has always been balanced by the multitudes of workers who were proud to have built Hoover Dam, or the latest skyscraper, or the smallest yet most vital piece of the James Webb Telescope. Now, however, we have an imbalance of our feelings toward work. Well-to-do New Yorkers complain (with some justice) about the rising cost of private school tuition, and they worry–even on salaries from $200-500,000 a year–how they and their kids are going to make it.
This particular struggle is not quite the same struggle as that of a hillbilly from Kentucky, but its causes and effects are too similar to be left out of account. In both cases, parents worry; they put stress upon themselves. Where the cases differ, however, is in the reactions to that stress. The hillbillies are violent. The men hit their women; both sexes drink excessively. The well-to-do cut back on expenses, or they divorce each other. Both outcomes have terrible consequences, but the causes of the behavior are more complex in the hillbillies–more complex than even Vance himself will acknowledge.
For the hillbillies, the motivational problems are a combination of lack of upward mobility within the jobs that are available and a lack of jobs themselves. For generations, many workers in America stayed with the relatively low-paying jobs they had because, even though the pay was low, advancement to a higher pay grade was possible. Whether the work was simple (the post office), hard (a steel plant), or dangerous (coal mining), it was possible to improve one’s station in life through diligence.
Today, not so much. There isn’t a whole lot of upward mobility in manufacturing and construction, and the upward mobility available in more technologically-oriented jobs is conditioned on what kind of degree you have as much as it is your willingness to learn a new task.
Just as important, however, is the attitude all of us take toward work itself. As Vance himself learned as he moved from being a graduate of Ohio State to a member of Yale Law School, there’s more to class than the money someone makes on the job. There’s more to a job than the labor involved in fulfilling it. There’s also the perception we have and society has of how that job fits in to the larger scheme of things. The W.P.A. and CCC workers who built Hoover Dam, paved roads in Mississippi, and compiled oral histories of slave life during the Civil War weren’t proud of the work they did simply because the federal government put them to work; they were proud of what they did because they could see, in many cases, how their work contributed to the greater good, and they were praised for that work from President Roosevelt on down.
In contemporary times, praise of a job, or a vision of how that job might fit into a future, seems non-existent. In my lifetime, we’ve gone from praise of the honest work of teachers in a memoir like Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True (a literary ancestor of Hillbilly Elegy) to withering contempt for those who teach at every level of our system. Even our highest-paying jobs in Silicon Valley–at Google and Apple, for instance–have complaints routinely lodged against them. It makes even the most thoughtful of us question whether anyone is happy in his work.
That, to me, is a key question emerging out of Vance’s book. It’s a more important question than the question of who hillbillies themselves are, or where they live. Vance tries to draw a broad picture of them for us, but the reality is, he’s talking mostly about his own family, and no one else. He comes down hard on the side of taking personal responsibility for one’s difficulties in life–a laudable stance, but one that doesn’t entirely square with the broader economic and social movements that have obliterated manufacturing jobs and construction jobs and service jobs in front of the faces of people who could perform them. People are responsible for the behaviors they engage in during their working lives; they are responsible for how they behave when they lose their jobs. They are not wholly responsible for losing the job itself; that decision is not theirs. There’s a whole economic undercurrent of changes in the types of jobs over the years that Vance does not address.
As a result, Hillbilly Elegy is an affecting but ultimately odd mix, a literary version of what it’s like to watch Sgt. York (1941), with Gary Cooper. The first half of that movie chronicles Alvin York’s family life in the backwoods of Tennessee before America’s entrance into World War I. The second half details York’s reluctant military service, his crisis of conscience over the possibility of taking a life, and his later heroism that made him a national figure, hobnobbing with generals and senators. The first half of Vance’s book recounts his stormy family life, and then, in the second half, swings to his days as a Marine in Iraq and, later, his education at Ohio State and Yale Law–all without giving us much of an idea how he became the writer he is. We are told that, growing up, he struggled in school. Fair enough. But this man can write. How is able to do so? Who taught him? We’re given clues, but not told. There is, consequently, a disconnect between the man we see on the page–eloquent, warm, insightful–and the boy he claims to have been.
The social ills that Vance documents are quite real. They affect people from every race and ethnic group in the country. Solutions to the problems of unemployment–and thus solutions to the problems of mental and physical health unemployment causes–are hard to create and apply on a broad scale. FDR did the best job of it that’s ever been done. The elder Bush was laughed at in the 1980s every time he announced a gain in jobs that was rooted mostly in an expansion of openings at McDonalds or Taco Bell. The larger, better success Roosevelt had was gained because he was able to communicate to people the idea that their work–whatever it was–had meaning and value. It made the country as a whole better. That idea runs through every bit of the work that we still remember today. It is the thread which is missing in every contemporary discussion of unemployment and economic performance in Washington, D.C. None of our leaders, from government through the private sector, talks very much about the value of the jobs in this country, or the essential, irreplaceable value of the workers who perform them. FDR’s ability to talk about such things was his gift, and perhaps it belonged only to him. But a president of any era has to be able to articulate a vision of what the United States can be. That, in large measure, is why Ronald Reagan succeeded and why Donald Trump may fail. FDR involved us in huge projects; so did President Kennedy, in driving the space program that fueled Houston’s economy. Both men gave us hope for the future. It may take a similar large initiative to spark nation-wide job creation and our imaginations once more, whether it’s space or medicine or automation that drives the change. Regardless of how many jobs are created, though, along with them, we are going to have to hear some heartfelt words about the value of the work those jobs represent. Given the elitist Presidency we’ve had over the last forty years (Carter, Clinton, the Bushes, Obama, Trump), such words may ring hollow from the President’s mouth, but we who do the work of the country need to hear them, and we need to begin to believe them again, if we are ever to become as hard-working a country, as great a country, as we say we want to be.