Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Downwardly Mobile

I was brought up in a comfortable, upwardly-mobile middle class family. My father worked for one of the top oil corporations and my mother was a stay at home mother by choice.

My parents both grew up in the Depression, but their childhoods were quite dissimilar largely because of class differences. My father grew up in the Deep South as part of a semi-itinerant tenant farmer family, which was just one small step above being a sharecropper. They never owned their own home, nor did they ever have a car. He was the oldest of eight children and the only one to graduate from high school and to later get a college degree. Though uneducated themselves, my grandparents recognized both the value of an education and my father's intelligence, and he partially owed his later success to their believing in him. But even though my grandparents were able to make the sacrifice to allow him to finish high school, he wasn't able to participate in any extracurricular activies, nor did he have many possessions growing up.

My mother had it quite a bit easier during the Depression than my father did. She lived in an industrial northern state, and though her family was technically working class, my grandfather was a skilled worker, a welder. Like my mother would be after her, my grandmother was a stay at home mother. Because his skills were always in demand, my grandfather was always employed, and my grandparents owned their own home and had a car. My mother and her siblings all were able to participate in extracurricular activies: piano lessions, dance lessons, Girl Scouts, and the like. Though my maternal grandparents were readers, they had a more laissez-faire attitude toward formal education, and they allowed my mother to quit school before she graduated from high school.

While I was growing up, my parents decidedly different childhoods would sometimes show in small ways in their approach to life. During their marriage, my father was a bit of a tightwad, while my mother was more relaxed in her approach to spending money. This was quite understandable considering how each of them grew up. As he got older however, my father loosened up in a big way about money, realizing after my mother had died that you can't take it with you.

Both my parents valued education; my father having been able to escape a life of poverty because of it and my mother spent her adulthood self-educating herself, regretting her decision as a teen to quit school. Our home was always full of books and magazines, and new books always appeared under the Christmas tree, on birthdays, and on other occasions. Politics and current events were always topics of conversation at the dinner table, so I was exposed to the world of ideas and critical thinking from a young age. Life was never just about mere survival or the mundane details of everyday life.

Despite their differences, both parents did better than their own parents did; they were upwardly mobile. I cannot say the same.

I once read that mine is the first generation to not do better than their parents in large numbers. Of course, my parents were what Tom Brokaw dubbed "The Greatest Generation"; those coming of age during World War II, and who got to spend their most productive adult years in the economically upwardly mobile Postwar era of the fifties and sixties. My generation, on the other hand, has seen more than its share of recessions, downsizing, and the like.

And part of it is my own damn fault for not finishing college. Unlike my father's era, where a bright young man could get ahead by alternate means if he didn't have a degree, nowadays, more and more professions and many times, just "jobs", require that piece of paper to even gain an interview. However, like my mother, I am extensively self-educated. I am in good company; Harry Truman, one of our better presidents, never got a formal university degree, though he was in no way uneducated.

I've spent my working life employed in working class or unskilled labor jobs, despite my obvious intelligence and aptitude. Unless a person like me "knows someone" who can get you in the back door of a job with a future, I will always lose out to the person with half my intelligence who has that piece of paper, and be relegated to dead end jobs.

Despite having spent most of my adult life working with those who usually are not downwardly mobile -- they're mostly people who were brought up working class -- I still retain my middle class outlook and worldview. I may be financially working class now, but I'm psychologically middle class.

And I think this is much of the source of why I'm so unhappy in my jobs; I usually feel like an alien from another planet on jobs that I've had over the years. One thing I've noticed about many people who have always been working class is that they many times have a resigned acceptance to whatever conditions exist on the job; they don't want to rock the boat and risk losing their jobs, no matter how bad the conditions may be. "You're just lucky to have a jooooooooooob" is a common response when I mention bad conditions on a job, as if unquestioningly accepting bad conditions is an unchangeable condition of being employed.

My average coworker is generally not one who engages in much critical thinking or consideration of ideas; they are mainly very practical, concrete thinkers, little concerned with matters beyond the mundane details of day to day life. It makes for a very long workday when I have to confine my conversation to such matters.

Now and then in my various jobs over the years, I've seen other downwardly mobile people like me and they've all shared that "alien from another planet" feeling about these jobs.

This entry has gone on much longer than I originally intended, but I'll conclude by saying that society needs to again return to the idea of many paths to success, rather than the "no paper -- no future" system we have now. Though some professions will always properly require higher formal education, so many others should not.


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