What the working class can teach America’s professionals

Do you consider yourself to be part of the middle class?

When asked, more than 80% of Americans say do, said Joan Williams, founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law and the author of White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.

“That includes everyone from an amusement park worker earning $23,000 a year to a corporate lawyer earning more than $200,000 a year,” she said.

In reality, the middle 53% of Americans, which Williams calls the “white working class,” make a medium income of about $72,000 a year.

Ladders spoke with Williams about other common misconceptions of class in America, how class can define our view of work, and what workplace lessons can be shared across the class divide.

What are some misconceptions about class in the U.S.?

Williams: The cultural elite, which consists of about the top 20% of Americans, tend to think of themselves as cosmopolitan and open-minded and think of working-class people as close-minded and parochial.

What elites don’t understand is that they went to college and thus immediately had a national, if not global, network of friends and acquaintances. They derive social honor by presenting themselves as cosmopolitan, global, and sophisticated.

People who didn’t go to college tend to have smaller, denser, more local social networks. They’re typically more rooted in their community, and they’re typically more patriotic.

Why? People tend to stress the high-status categories they below to. Working-class families stress being American, whereas global elites have so many other high-status categories to choose from that they don’t typically emphasize being American.

An important message to the cultural elite is that they’re not cosmopolitan and open-minded because they’re the peak of perfection. Their folkways are just folkways that stem from their class position.

How does the view of work differ by class?

Williams: Among the top 20%, it’s been well documented that work typically is seen as the central focus of life. It’s called the work-devotion schema.

Sociologists have pointed out that for this group, work is often the core of the way they create a meaningful life. Work plays many of the roles that other institutions, notably religion, played in the lives of prior generations.

Among the white working class, work remains important as a sense of identity, but the same norm of work devotion does not reign.

For example, one study compared men who were emergency physicians to men who were emergency medical technicians. The lives of the physicians were shaped around the work-devotion schema. They worked extremely long hours, their work came ahead of family responsibilities, and the wives were often unhappy about how much their husbands worked, which made little impact on the schedules of the husbands.

The emergency medical technicians were also very proud of their jobs, and they also typically worked longer hours than their wives. But work was not the undisputed key to their identities. They were also very proud of their family roles. When they worked overtime, they typically consulted their wives, and if their wives thought it wasn’t worth it, they turned it down.

This example is over-simplistic, but it captures something important: the professional elite tend to live to work, while the working class tends to work to live.

What lessons can we learn?

Williams: It helps to look at class migrants, people born to blue-collar families who find themselves in professional jobs. Class migrants sometimes find themselves ill at ease in both worlds.

They have to tread really carefully in their original neighborhoods so as not to be seen as having their nose up in their air. In professional neighborhoods, they have to tread carefully to be seen as someone who fits in. The challenge is to create a meld of the two very different class contexts choosing elements from each to create a combination that’s best for them.

Some professionals who are class migrants find that their blue-collar families keep them grounded and help them recognize that the all-consuming, voracious nature of professional careers is not something they want to succumb to completely. They grew up with the idea that work shouldn’t eat up your life, and they’re not willing to let that happen.

Another characteristic of professional families is that they have a very new and specific mode of child rearing, called the cult of intensive motherhood. The idea is that the mother should be discovering every little micro-talent and developing it absolutely immediately to give them kid a leg up professionally.

Unfortunately, what that looks like on the ground is hydraulic performance pressure on elite children, who often have high levels of depression and anxiety as a result. For class migrants, their heritage can help them and their families successfully navigate what can be at times insane performance pressure.

The assumption is often that the non-elites should get with it and behave like the elites. But when it comes to the role of work and child rearing, the non-elites have important messages for the American elite.