The 40-Year Slump

Gabriel Arana

The 40-Year Slump

The 40-Year Slump


The steady stream of Watergate revelations, President Richard Nixon’s twists and turns to fend off disclosures, the impeachment hearings, and finally an unprecedented resignation—all these riveted the nation’s attention in 1974. Hardly anyone paid attention to a story that seemed no more than a statistical oddity: That year, for the first time since the end of World War II, Americans’ wages declined. 

Since 1947, Americans at all points on the economic spectrum had become a little better off with each passing year. The economy’s rising tide, as President John F. Kennedy had famously said, was lifting all boats. Productivity had risen by 97 percent in the preceding quarter-century, and median wages had risen by 95 percent. As economist John Kenneth Galbraith noted in The Affluent Society, this newly middle-class nation had become more egalitarian. The poorest fifth had seen their incomes increase by 42 percent since the end of the war, while the wealthiest fifth had seen their incomes rise by just 8 percent. Economists have dubbed the period the “Great Compression.”


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This egalitarianism, of course, was severely circumscribed. African Americans had only recently won civil equality, and economic equality remained a distant dream. Women entered the workforce in record numbers during the early 1970s to find a profoundly discriminatory labor market. A new generation of workers rebelled at the regimentation of factory life, staging strikes across the Midwest to slow down and humanize the assembly line. But no one could deny that Americans in 1974 lived lives of greater comfort and security than they had a quarter-century earlier. During that time, median family income more than doubled.

Then, it all stopped. In 1974, wages fell by 2.1 percent and median household income shrunk by $1,500. To be sure, it was a year of mild recession, but the nation had experienced five previous downturns during its 25-year run of prosperity without seeing wages come down.

What no one grasped at the time was that this wasn’t a one-year anomaly, that 1974 would mark a fundamental breakpoint in American economic history. In the years since, the tide has continued to rise, but a growing number of boats have been chained to the bottom. Productivity has increased by 80 percent, but median compensation (that’s wages plus benefits) has risen by just 11 percent during that time. The middle-income jobs of the nation’s postwar boom years have disproportionately vanished. Low-wage jobs have disproportionately burgeoned. Employment has become less secure. Benefits have been cut. The dictionary definition of “layoff” has changed, from denoting a temporary severance from one’s job to denoting a permanent severance.

As their incomes flat-lined, Americans struggled to maintain their standard of living. In most families, both adults entered the workforce. They worked longer hours. When paychecks stopped increasing, they tried to keep up by incurring an enormous amount of debt. The combination of skyrocketing debt and stagnating income proved predictably calamitous (though few predicted it). Since the crash of 2008, that debt has been called in. 

All the factors that had slowly been eroding Americans’ economic lives over the preceding three decades—globalization, deunionization, financialization, Wal-Martization, robotization, the whole megillah of nefarious –izations—have now descended en masse on the American people. Since 2000, even as the economy has grown by 18 percent, the median income of households headed by people under 65 has declined by 12.4 percent. Since 2001, employment in low-wage occupations has increased by 8.7 percent while employment in middle-wage occupations has decreased by 7.3 percent. Since 2003, the median wage has not grown at all. 

The middle has fallen out of the American economy—precipitously since 2008, but it’s been falling out slowly and cumulatively for the past 40 years. Far from a statistical oddity, 1974 marked an epochal turn. The age of economic security ended. The age of anxiety began.


The economic landscape of the quarter-century following World War II has become not just unfamiliar but almost unimaginable today. It constitutes what historian Vaclav Smil has termed “a remarkable singularity”: The United States came out of World War II dominating the world’s production and markets, and its unprecedented wealth was shared broadly among its citizens.

The defining practice of the day was Fordism (named after Henry Ford), under which employers paid their workers enough that they could afford to buy the goods they mass--produced. The course of Fordism never ran as smoothly as it may seem in retrospect. Winning pay increases in halcyon postwar America required a continual succession of strikes. 

At the commanding heights of the U.S. economy, the largest American company, General Motors, and the most militant and powerful American union, the United Auto Workers, had fought an epochal battle in the winter of 1945–1946, the UAW’s members staying off the job for nearly four months in what proved to be a vain attempt to win a co-equal say in the company’s management. In 1948, with GM fearing another massive disruption and the UAW willing to give up on co-management, the two sides reached a pattern-setting agreement: In return for a two-year no-strike pledge from the union, GM signed a contract granting its workers not only a sizable raise but an annual cost-of-living adjustment that matched the rate of inflation, and an “annual improvement factor” that raised pay in tandem with the increase in the nation’s productivity. In 1950, after a brief strike, the two sides signed a five-year contract—dubbed the Treaty of Detroit—that extended the no-strike pledge, the raise, the cost-of-living adjustment, and the annual improvement factor and added health coverage and more generous pensions. As the economy grew, so would the autoworkers’ paychecks.

Within a few years, the increases that GM had agreed to became standard in half the union contracts in America, though workers still had to strike to win these gains. In 1952, 2.7 million workers participated in work stoppages. Throughout the 1950s, the yearly number of major strikes averaged more than 300. The largest strike in American history, in terms of work hours lost, occurred in 1959, when 500,000 steelworkers walked off the job for 116 days to secure increased wages and improved health and pension coverage. 

Management was no fan of these disruptions, but they were regarded as the normal ebb and flow of labor relations. Indeed, throughout the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, many corporate executives believed that their workers’ well-being mattered. “The job of management is to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the various directly affected interest groups: stockholders, employees, customers, and the public at large,” the chairman of Standard Oil of New Jersey (later Exxon) said in 1951. Once hired, a good worker became part of the family, which entitled him to certain rewards. “Maximizing employee security is a prime company goal,” Earl Willis, General Electric’s manager of employee benefits, wrote in 1962.

During these years, the GI Bill enabled far more Americans to attend college than ever had before. The ranks of America’s professionals swelled, and America’s income swelled with them. But the contracts enjoyed by the nation’s union members—who then made up a third of the nation’s workforce—boosted personal income in the U.S. even more. Indeed, these contracts covered so many workers that their gains spilled over to nonmembers as well. Princeton economist Henry Farber calculated that the wages of workers in nonunion firms in industries that were at least 25 percent unionized were 7.5 percent higher than the wages of comparable workers in industries with no union presence.

In the three decades following World War II, the United States experienced both high levels of growth and rising levels of equality, a combination that confounded historical precedent and the theories of conservative economists. By 1973, the share of Americans living in poverty bottomed out at 11.1 percent. It has never been that low since.


By the early 1980s, the Treaty of Detroit had been unilaterally repealed. Three signal events—Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker’s deliberately induced recession, President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air-traffic controllers, and General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s declaration that his company would reward its shareholders at the expense of its workers—made clear that the age of broadly shared prosperity was over. 

The abrogation didn’t arrive unheralded. Beginning in 1974, inflation had begun to plague the American economy. The 1970s were framed by two “oil shocks”: the OPEC embargo of 1973 and the U.S. boycott of Iranian oil after the mullahs swept to power in 1979. During the decade, the price of a barrel of oil rose from $3 to $31. Productivity, which had been rising at nearly a 3 percent annual clip in the postwar decades, slowed to a 1 percent yearly increase during the 1970s. Europe and Japan had recovered from the devastation of World War II, and Japanese imports, chiefly autos, doubled during the late ’60s. In 1971, the U.S. experienced its first trade deficit since the late 1800s. Starting in 1976, it has run a trade deficit every year.

Profits of America’s still largely domestic corporations suffered. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which had inched past 1,000 in 1972, tanked with the oil embargo the following year and didn’t climb back to that level for another decade. Although the biggest contributor to inflation was the increase in energy prices, a growing number of executives and commentators laid the blame for the economy’s troubles on the wages of American workers. “Some people will have to do with less,” Business Week editorialized. “Yet it will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow—the idea of doing with less so that big business can have more.”

With the second oil shock, inflation surged to 13.5 percent. Volcker responded by inducing a recession. “The standard of living of the average American,” he said, “has to decline.” Raising the federal funds interest rate to nearly 20 percent throughout 1981, the Fed chairman brought much of American business—particularly the auto industry, where sales collapsed in the face of high borrowing costs—to a standstill. By 1982, unemployment had risen to a postwar high of 10.8 percent. 

The industrial Midwest never recovered. Between 1979 and 1983, 2.4 million manufacturing jobs vanished. The number of U.S. steelworkers went from 450,000 at the start of the 1980s to 170,000 at decade’s end, even as the wages of those who remained shrank by 17 percent. The decline in auto was even more precipitous, from 760,000 employees in 1978 to 490,000 three years later. In 1979, with Chrysler on the verge of bankruptcy, the UAW agreed to give up more than $650 million in wages and benefits to keep the company in business. General Motors and Ford were not facing bankruptcy but demanded and received similar concessions. In return for GM pledging not to close several U.S. factories, the UAW agreed to defer its cost-of-living adjustment and eliminate its annual improvement increases. Henceforth, as the productivity of the American economy increased, the wages of American workers would not increase with it. Tide and boats parted company.

Democrats as well as Republicans responded to the inflation of the late 1970s with policies that significantly reduced workers’ incomes. The Democrats’ solution of choice, promoted by both President Jimmy Carter and his liberal rival Senator Edward Kennedy, was deregulation. At their initiative, both trucking and airlines were deregulated, lowering prices and wages in both industries. In the quarter--century following 1975, drivers’ pay fell by 30 percent. Wage declines followed in other deregulated industries, such as telecommunications.

If Volcker’s and Carter’s attacks on unions were indirect, Reagan’s was altogether frontal. In the 1980 election, the union of air-traffic controllers was one of a handful of labor organizations that endorsed Reagan’s candidacy. Nevertheless, they could not reach an accord with the government, and when they opted to strike in violation of federal law, Reagan fired them all. (His actions contrasted sharply with those of President Nixon, who responded to an illegal wildcat strike of postal workers in 1970 by negotiating a settlement and letting them return to their jobs.) 

Reagan’s union busting was quickly emulated by many private-sector employers. In 1983, the nation’s second-largest copper-mining company, Phelps Dodge, ended its cost-of-living adjustment, provoking a walkout of its workers, whom it replaced with new hires who then decertified the union. The same year, Greyhound Bus cut wages, pushing its workers out on strike, then hired replacements at lower wages. Also in 1983, Louisiana Pacific, the second-largest timber company, reduced its starting hourly wage, forcing a strike that culminated in the same kind of worker defeats seen at Phelps Dodge and Greyhound. Eastern Airlines, Boise Cascade, International Paper, Hormel meatpacking—all went down the path of forcing strikes to weaken or destroy their unions.

In the topsy-turvy world of the 1980s, the strike had become a tool for management to break unions. Save in the most exceptional circumstances, unions abandoned the strike. The number of major strikes plummeted from 286 a year in the 1960s and 1970s, to 83 a year in the 1980s, to 34 a year in the 1990s, to 20 a year in the 2000s. The end of the strike transformed the American economy. From the 1820s through the 1970s, workers had two ways to bid up their wages: threatening to take their services elsewhere in a full-employment economy and walking off the job with their fellow workers until managers met their demands. Since the early 1980s, only the full-employment-economy option has been available—and just barely. Save for the late 1990s, the economy has been nowhere near full employment.

The loss of workers’ leverage was compounded by a radical shift in corporations’ view of their mission. In August 1981, at New York’s Pierre Hotel, Jack Welch, General Electric’s new CEO, delivered a kind of inaugural address, which he titled “Growing Fast in a Slow-Growth Economy.” GE, Welch proclaimed, would henceforth shed all its divisions that weren’t No. 1 or No. 2 in their markets. If that meant shedding workers, so be it. All that mattered was pushing the company to pre-eminence, and the measure of a company’s pre-eminence was its stock price.

Between late 1980 and 1985, Welch reduced the number of GE employees from 411,000 to 299,000. He cut basic research. The company’s stock price soared. So much for balancing the interests of employees, stockholders, consumers, and the public. The new model company was answerable solely to its stockholders. 

In the decade preceding Welch’s speech, a number of conservative economists, chiefly from the University of Chicago, had argued that the midcentury U.S. corporation had to contend with a mishmash of competing demands. Boosting the company’s share price, they contended, gave corporate executives a clear purpose—even clearer if those executives were incentivized by receiving their payments in stock. After Welch’s speech, the goal of America’s corporate executives became the elevation of the company’s—and their own—stock. If revenues weren’t rising, and even if they were, that goal could be accomplished by reducing wages, curtailing pensions, making employees pay more for their health coverage, cutting research, eliminating worker training, and offshoring production.
(After CEO Louis Gerstner announced in 1999 that IBM, long considered a model employer, would no longer pay its workers defined benefits and would switch to 401(k)s, corporate America largely abandoned paying for its employees’ secure retirements.)

By the end of the century, corporations acknowledged that they had downgraded workers in their calculus of concerns. In the 1980s, a Conference Board survey of corporate executives found that 56 percent agreed that “employees who are loyal to the company and further its business goals deserve an assurance of continued employment.” When the Conference Board asked the same question in the 1990s, 6 percent of executives agreed. “Loyalty to a company,” Welch once said, “it’s nonsense.”


In 1938, while campaigning, successfully, to persuade Congress to establish a federal minimum wage, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told a crowd in Fort Worth, “You need more industries in Texas, but I know you know the importance of not trying to get industries by the route of cheap wages for industrial workers.” In fact, Southern business and political leaders knew nothing of the sort. What prevented most American corporations from establishing facilities in the South was its oppressive weather and even more oppressive racial discrimination.

By the 1970s, the South was both air--conditioned and moderately desegregated. The decade was the first in the 20th century that saw more Americans moving into the region than leaving it. Indeed, during the 1970s, just 14 percent of newly created jobs were located in the Northeast and Midwest, while 86 percent were located in the Sunbelt. 

The definitive Southern company, and the company that has done the most to subject the American job to the substandard standards of the South, has been Wal-Mart, which began as a single store in Rogers, Arkansas, in 1962. That year, the federal minimum wage, set at $1.15 an hour, was extended to retail workers, much to the dismay of Sam Walton, who was paying the employees at his fast-growing chain half that amount. Since the law initially applied to businesses with 50 or more employees, Walton argued that each of his stores was a separate entity, a claim that the Department of Labor rejected, fining Walton for his evasion of federal law.

Undaunted, Wal-Mart has carried its commitment to low wages through a subsequent half-century of relentless expansion. In 1990, it became the country’s largest retailer, and today the chain is the world’s largest private-sector employer, with 1.3 million employees in the United States and just under a million abroad. As Wal-Mart grew beyond its Ozark base, it brought Walton’s Southern standards north. In retail marketing, payroll generally constitutes between 8 percent and 12 percent of sales, but at Wal-Mart, managers are directed to keep payroll expenses between 5.5 percent and 8 percent of sales. Managers who fail at this don’t remain managers for long. While Wal-Mart claims the average hourly wage of its workers is $12.67, employees contend it is several dollars lower.

When a Wal-Mart opens in a new territory, it either drives out the higher-wage competition or compels that competition to lower its pay. David Neumark, an economist at the University of California, Irvine, has shown that eight years after Wal-Mart comes to a county, it drives down wages for all (not just retail) workers until they’re 2.5 percent to 4.8 percent below wages in comparable counties with no Wal-Mart outlets. 

By controlling a huge share of the U.S. retail market, including an estimated 20 percent of the grocery trade, Wal-Mart has also been able to mandate reduced prices all along its worldwide supply chain. In response, manufacturers have slashed the wages of their employees and gone abroad in search of cheaper labor. The warehouse workers who unload the containers in which the company’s goods are shipped from China to the U.S. and repackage them for sale are retained by low-wage temporary employment agencies, though many of those workers have held the same job for years. 

Shunting its workers off to temp agencies is just one of the many ways Wal-Mart diminishes what it sees as the risk of unionization. When the employees in one Canadian store voted to unionize, Wal-Mart closed the store. When butchers in one Texas outlet voted to go union, Wal-Mart eliminated the meat department in that store and in every other store in Texas and the six surrounding states. But Wal-Mart’s antipathy to unions and affinity for low wages merely reflects the South’s historic opposition to worker autonomy and employee rights. By coming north, though, Wal-Mart has lowered retail-sector wages throughout the U.S.

The more recent influx of European- and Japanese-owned nonunion factories to the South has had a similar effect. In their homelands, Mercedes, Volkswagen, and Toyota work closely with unions, and the German companies pay their workers as much as or more than the most highly paid American autoworkers. When such companies move into the American South, however, they go native, not only paying their workers far less than they do in Europe or Japan but also opposing their efforts to form a union. (Under pressure from the German autoworkers union, however, Volkswagen has recently committed itself to establishing a consultative works council at its Tennessee plant. Such councils are standard at Volkswagen plants in Germany and other nations; in the U.S., the particulars of American labor law require that the company recognize the UAW as the workers’ representative.)

One way these factories reduce workers’ wages is not to employ them directly. By the estimate of one former manager, roughly 70 percent of the workers at Nissan’s plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, aren’t Nissan employees but rather are under contract to temporary employment-service companies that pay them roughly half the hourly wage of Nissan’s own employees. One academic survey found that while just 2.3 percent of manufacturing workers in 1989 were temps, by 2004 the number had risen to 8.7 percent. 

Southern competition is one reason newer hires at the Detroit Three’s auto plants have hourly wages that top out between $16 and $19, while workers hired before the institution of the two-tier system can see their base pay rise to between $29 and $33 an hour. A cumulative effect of Wal-Martization is that incomes in the industrial Midwest have been dropping toward levels set in Alabama and Tennessee. According to Moody’s Analytics, the wage-and-benefit gap between Midwestern and Southern workers, which was $7 in 2008, had shrunk to just $3.34 by the end
of 2011.


As corporate executives came under pressure to reward share-holders by cutting labor costs, the revolution in transportation and communication enabled them to move production facilities to the developing world where workers came cheap. The flight of jobs to low-wage nations was accelerated by a series of trade accords, most prominently the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 and the extension of Permanent Normal Trade Relations to China in 2000.

The textile and apparel industry lost more than 900,000 jobs in the 1990s and 2000s. High-tech manufacturing was not spared, either. The computer and electronics--manufacturing sector lost an estimated 760,000 jobs during that time. By offshoring the production of its iPhone to the Chinese labor contractor Foxconn, Apple has realized a profit margin of 64 percent on each device, one of many reasons its stock price soared. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Americans employed in manufacturing shrank from 17.1 million to just 11.3 million. In 2011, the number of workers in the low-paying retail sector surpassed the number in manufacturing for the first time.  

The decimation of manufacturing wasn’t due to a sharp acceleration of manufacturing productivity—indeed, productivity increases were higher in the previous decade, which saw less job loss. What made the difference was trade policy. Economist Rob Scott has calculated that the United States lost 2.4 million jobs just to China in the eight years following the passage of normalized trade relations.

Offshoring has had an even broader effect on the jobs that have remained behind. Alan Blinder, the Princeton economist who was vice chairman of the Federal Reserve in the 1990s, has estimated that roughly 25 percent of all American jobs are potentially offshorable, from producing steel to writing software to drafting contracts. This has placed a ceiling on wages in these and myriad other occupations that can be sent overseas.


Economists have long thought that labor’s share of the national income varied so little that it could be considered a constant. The immovability of labor’s share was called “Bowley’s Law,” after the British economic historian Arthur Bowley, who first identified it nearly a century ago.

In the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, Bowley’s Law was swept away—along with many of the economic standards that had characterized American life. Today, the share of the nation’s income going to wages, which for decades was more than 50 percent, is at a record low of 43 percent, while the share of the nation’s income going to corporate profits is at a record high. The economic lives of Americans today paint a picture of mass downward mobility. According to a National Employment Law Project study in 2012, low-wage jobs (paying less than $13.83 an hour) made up 21 percent of the jobs lost during the recession but more than half of the jobs created since the recession ended. Middle-income jobs (paying between $13.84 and $21.13 hourly) made up three-fifths of the jobs lost during the recession but just 22 percent of the jobs created since.

In 2013, America’s three largest private-sector employers are all low-wage retailers: Wal-Mart, Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken) and McDonald’s. In 1960, the three largest employers were high-wage unionized manufacturers or utilities: General Motors, AT&T, and Ford. 

The most telling illustration of the decline of Americans’ work life may be that drawn by economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. They calculated the share of good jobs Americans held in 1979 and in 2010. If only because workers in 2010 were, on average, seven years older and more educated than their 1979 counterparts, they should have been doing better. The two economists devised three indices of a good job: that it paid at least the 1979 male median wage ($37,000 in 2010 dollars), provided health benefits, and came with a 401(k) or pension. By those standards, 27.4 percent of American workers had good jobs in 1979. Three decades later, that figure had dropped to 24.6 percent. 

The decline of the American job is ultimately the consequence of the decline of worker power. Beginning in the 1970s, corporate management was increasingly determined to block unions’ expansion to any regions of the country (the South and Southwest) or sectors of the economy (such as retail and restaurants) that were growing. An entire new industry—consultants who helped companies defeat workers’ efforts to unionize—sprang up. Although the National Labor Relations Act prohibits the firing of a worker involved in a union-organizing campaign, the penalties are negligible. Firings became routine. Four efforts by unions to strengthen workers’ protections during the Johnson, Carter, Clinton, and Obama presidencies came up short. By 2013, the share of private-sector workers in unions declined to just 6.6 percent, and collective bargaining had been effectively eliminated from the private-sector economy.

The collapse of workers’ power to bargain helps explain one of the primary paradoxes of the current American economy: why productivity gains are not passed on to employees. “The average U.S. factory worker is responsible today for more than $180,000 of annual output, triple the $60,000 in 1972,” University of Michigan economist Mark Perry has written. “We’re able to produce twice as much manufacturing output today as in the 1970s, with about seven million fewer workers.” In many industries, the increase in productivity has exceeded Perry’s estimates. “Thirty years ago, it took ten hours per worker to produce one ton of steel,” said U.S. Steel CEO John Surma in 2011. “Today, it takes two hours.”

In conventional economic theory, those productivity increases should have resulted in sizable pay increases for workers. Where conventional economic theory flounders is its failure to factor in the power of management and stockholders and the weakness of labor. Sociologist Tali Kristal has documented that the share of revenues going to wages and benefits in manufacturing has declined by 14 percent since 1970, while the share going to profits has correspondingly increased. She found similar shifts in transportation, where labor’s share has been reduced by 10 percent, and construction, where it has been cut by 5 percent. What these three sectors have in common is that their rate of unionization has been cut in half during the past four decades. All of which is to say, gains in productivity have been apportioned by the simple arithmetic of power.

Only if the suppression of labor’s power is made part of the equation can the overall decline in good jobs over the past 35 years be explained. Only by considering the waning of worker power can we understand why American corporations, sitting on more than $1.5 trillion in unexpended cash, have used those funds to buy back stock and increase dividends but almost universally failed even to consider raising their workers’ wages. 


So was the America of 1947–1974—the America of the boomers’ youth—the great exception in the nation’s economic history, a golden age that came and went and can never come again? Were the conditions that led to the postwar boom and its egalitarian prosperity so anomalous that the American economic success story will continue to recede in our rearview mirrors? Are the forces of globalization and robotization inevitably going to raise the incomes of the few and depress the incomes of the many? 

That the American supremacy over the global economy in the three decades after World War II was a one-time phenomenon is a given. That globalization and automation have made and will continue to make massive changes in America’s economy is obvious. But it’s worth noting that one high-wage advanced manufacturing nation has seen its workers thrive in the past 40 years: Germany. Like American multinationals, all the iconic German manufacturers—Daimler, Siemens, BASF, and others—have factories scattered across the globe. Unlike the American multinationals, however, they have kept their most remunerative and highest-value-added production jobs at home. Nineteen percent of the German workforce is employed in manufacturing, well above the 8 percent of the American workforce. German industrial workers’ wages and benefits are about one-third higher than Americans’. While the U.S. runs the world’s largest trade deficit, Germany runs a surplus second only to China’s and occasionally surpasses it. 

To be sure, Germany’s identity is more wrapped up in manufacturing than America’s is, but that’s because of national arrangements that not just bolster manufacturing through such policies as excellent vocational education but also give workers more power. By law, all German companies with more than 1,000 employees must have equal numbers of worker and management representatives on their corporate boards. For the most part, German companies don’t get their funding from issuing stocks and bonds but rather by generating investment either internally or by borrowing from banks; the role of the shareholder is insignificant. By practicing a brand of capitalism in which employees and communities still matter, Germany has been able to subject itself to the same forces of globalization that the United States has without substantially diminishing its workers’ power and income.

What has vanished over the past 40 years isn’t just Americans’ rising incomes. It’s their sense of control over their lives. The young college graduates working in jobs requiring no more than a high-school degree, the middle-aged unemployed who have permanently opted out of a labor market that has no place for them, the 45- to 60-year-olds who say they will have to delay their retirement because they have insufficient savings—all these and more are leading lives that have diverged from the aspirations that Americans until recently believed they could fulfill. This May, a Pew poll asked respondents if they thought that today’s children would be better or worse off than their parents. Sixty-two percent said worse off, while 33 percent said better. Studies that document the decline of intergenerational mobility suggest that this newfound pessimism is well grounded.

The extinction of a large and vibrant American middle class isn’t ordained by the laws of either economics or physics. Many of the impediments to creating anew a broadly prosperous America are ultimately political creations that are susceptible to political remedy. Amassing the power to secure those remedies will require an extraordinary, sustained, and heroic political mobilization. Americans will have to transform their anxiety into indignation and direct that indignation to the task of reclaiming their stake in the nation’s future. ✠

Harold Meyerson is the editor-at-large at The American Prospect and a columnist for The Washington Post. His email is

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I’m a very realistic kind of person. I enjoy what I do, and then from that I’ve been able to enjoy my life because I can support myself. I’m usually dental assisting. I go in with the dentist and do the operative care like fillings and root canals and bridgework and extractions. I start at 9 A.M. I work for two practices, three different offices. One office is in Mount Pleasant, one is in Greensburg, so either way it’s five miles. Youngwood is in the middle, which is a great thing because that saves gas money. I got a raise in the middle of the year so that made a difference. I don’t get paid vacation time or any kind of sick days or overtime. Certain weeks I work more hours than others. One week I could work 25 hours, the next week I could work up to 50 hours.

As an 18-year-old who had no idea what they wanted to do with their life, I did what everybody else did: went to school, John Carroll, a four-year university in Ohio, and I was trying to figure out a major. Nothing was my passion. I was homesick a lot, so I came home and thought, well maybe I’ll just go to Seton Hill, which is a private school in Greensburg, and maybe I’ll do education, and I applied. I got in and had my roommate, had my dorm room, and it was the day before I was supposed to move in, and I saw how much money one semester was for classes I didn’t even know I wanted to take—$13,000. At John Carroll I had $20,000 already built up in debt. I didn’t feel secure that I was going to find something that I was going to do. So I said, “No, I’m not going to do it.”

My cousin is a hygienist. She had no school loans, she loved her job, she had a nice apartment, a nice car. She had her stuff together, and she’s only 25. And I said, “What did you do and how can I do that?” I wanted to be secure. I wanted to make sure that I was able to support myself. So I figured out what I needed to do to get into the program, and I enrolled at the community college.

It was honestly so much harder than I thought it was going to be. You have to take three different board examinations. You have to take two written examinations and one clinical. My clinical examination I failed two times, and I almost quit, I almost stopped, but I was like, well, I have a degree in dental hygiene, what else am I going to do with my life if I don’t pass my boards? So I took it the third time, and I passed.

The tuition was about $1,500 a semester, multiply that by seven semesters, it would be around $10,000, plus you add in supplies and insurance and all this other stuff, which I never really factored in. I worked the entire time. I had school Monday through Thursday, and I worked Friday, Saturday, Sunday at Wal-Mart in their lawn and garden section. I do have student-loan debt from the one year at John Carroll. My dad paid off most of it. He cashed in his 401(k) and paid off all of our loans because we have five kids who all went to college, and he was just sick of the interest, and he knew it was going to crush us. So, now we just owe him the money back.

Because we’re a small firm, I have a lot of responsibilities. My dominant role here is representation, so I do all of our 3-D modeling, most of our Photoshop, all of the documents that are either used for communicating the grand design of a space or of getting a really quick idea across to the client. In addition to that, I have a handful of projects that I’m also the lead on. Ninety percent of what we do is bars and restaurants.

It’s ridiculous hours. The expectation is that you’re here from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., but there’s so much work to do that staying from 9 to 6 is never going to be enough. I live four miles from the office. Because it’s L.A., that’s a 15- to 20-minute commute. I try to take the bus two or three times a week. I’ll often drive to work and then take the bus home and then take the bus the next day back. As an East Coaster, I really value walking, and I find it super rejuvenating and balancing to have that hour commute.

I went to Tufts for undergrad, and I did art history and architectural studies. There was a very big gap between undergrad and grad school. I was traveling the country giving away random promotional materials—I gave juice away for a couple of years for SoBe. Every week I’d be in a different state. While I was on the road with SoBe, I wound up meeting my eventual wife. She’s an L.A. girl, and I realized I needed to be out here where she was. I did a summer program at UCLA that is a sort of a crash course in architectural design. My studio instructor from that program wrote me a recommendation to get into UCLA.

In order to become a licensed architect, it’s closest to a medical doctor, in that you go to school, get out of school, spend a bunch of time doing an internship which is something like 5,700 hours, and once you’ve satisfied all those intern hours, you’re eligible to take a series of seven exams. After you’ve taken those exams and have passed them all, then you’re a licensed architect. I came out of undergrad with $20,000 in debt for four years. By the time I came out of UCLA, I was somehow at $140,000 in student-loan debt. My monthly loan payments are $900.

I think that for a lot of people the appeal of architecture from the outside is really strong. Do you watch Seinfeld? George’s alter ego is an architect. There’s all sorts of pop-culture fantasies about what the life of an architect is about. I was always interested in architecture because it’s about bringing together different disciplines and being the person who understands how all of them work and coordinates all of them, and I come to find out that I’m just not that interested in coordinating. That for me has been the biggest thing that I’ve learned so far—that in 15 years I will probably not be an architect anymore. The stuff I’m most interested in extends a bit more to branding. Or, if I stay in the field, I would be less in a design capacity and more in the partner capacity, the partners being the ones that actually go out and get work and get business. I think that that’s where my skill set probably lies.

In high school, I did an internship at the Cleveland Clinic. I worked with a biomedical engineer there and really got interested in the field. Miami University of Ohio did not have a biomedical engineering program yet, so I did chemical engineering there with a focus in biomedical. I graduated in 2009 and took the summer off and then went to Ohio State University. I got my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering last December.

After I graduated, I did look at industry jobs pretty heavily. My husband has a job in Columbus, and so for ease of everything I tried to find a job here. For industry, they did want people with more experience. Obviously, I worked in a lab for the entirety of my Ph.D. work, but that didn’t really count as experience, so it’s kind of that catch-22 of entry-level positions. They want people with experience, but I can’t get experience without getting the entry-level position.

I ended up finding a postdoctoral position in the research center of a children’s hospital. I started pretty much a week after graduation, so I didn’t have any downtime. I work in the Center for Gene Therapy, and we’re working on treatments for muscular dystrophy. Here we work in conjunction with several physicians who see patients with muscular dystrophy, so we are very close to the patient in terms of seeing the real impact of our work. Eventually, I do want to move into industry. It’s just the first year of my postdoc, so we’ll see.

People tend to come in between 7 and 9 A.M. and leave accordingly. Depending on what’s going on, I’ve had later nights. It is definitely overwhelming at times, but overall I love it. It’s great here. For the most part, I’d say it was what I was expecting. Luckily, my husband is in a comfortable position. He is in finance for a clothing company. He certainly works his butt off. We actually just bought our first house, so we’re in the process of leaving the renting world and moving toward a mortgage. But I’m also very much a saver and a budgeter, so we’re OK. I also don’t have any debt from school.

My dad is a Ph.D. in chemistry and owns his own consulting company, and my mom studied chemistry in undergrad but works as an administrative assistant. Both of my parents are from South America. I’d like to think my life will be pretty similar to theirs. My husband and I want to have kids. Work-life balance is extremely important, so hopefully my husband will not be working 12-hour days. I actually read an article saying that my generation is the first that is not going to be doing better than our parents. I’d like to think that I can take the level that my parents started at and 
move up with it.

After high school, I wanted to go to community college in Morrilton, Arkansas, just to give it a try. I had a full scholarship there. But they offered me full tuition at Arkansas Tech, too, so my parents were like, “Give it a shot at a four-year school instead.” I signed up late for Tech, and I just had to pick a major at random, so I chose computer sciences. I walked into class, and they wrote binary-number code on the board. The guy was like, “I’m not going to go into binary code. Everybody knows all of this.” Everybody just giggled, like, “Oh, yeah.” I was just like, “This is a bad idea.” I kind of got discouraged. I just stopped showing up.

After about half a semester, I left that and went to work for Arkansas Electric, building substations. After about six months of that, there were enough substations built so they laid our crew off. That’s when I got my first electrical job at the Van Buren County hospital when they were building it, and so I did that for a year. Then I got done with that job and helped them lay tiles and stuff.

When that work was finished, I went back to school at ITT Technical Institute in Little Rock and got an associate’s in electronic engineering. I saw all the commercials and stuff. I got in there to apply, and they’re like, “Oh, you scored the highest on this entrance test of anybody that’s come through here in the last couple of years! You’ll be perfect for this program.” Just kind of muled me along a little bit and talked me a little bit more into it. That turned out to be a disaster.

I borrowed for all of the tuition. The admissions lady had told me, “People pay like $150, $200 a month. You’ll be paying on student loans the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter.” After I graduated in 2006, I started getting the bills. They let a 21-year-old kid get a $47,000 loan just on his own, hardly no credit, no credit at all. I could never afford the $600--something a month payments. I negotiated with them, and now my payments are about $315 a month.

ITT didn’t really prepare me for the work. All the equipment was outdated. You’d do the study guide in class, and you just had to remember what the answers were for the quiz. I was placed in a job at an alarm company that was making like $10 an hour. Nobody else I worked with had a degree. I wound up being poorer coming out of college than I was going in, and it’s stayed that way ever since I graduated. If I wouldn’t have gone there, if I had just stayed being an electrician, I’d be a lot better off and have no debt.

Now I work at Kazi Electrical in Clinton. It’s fun. Sometimes when I’m crawling in attics and under houses and stuff—and it’s hot and nasty and dirty—it’s not fun. But I really do like service work. My girlfriend will be graduating school next year with her RN, and so, we want to move somewhere else when she’s done. I was in Seattle for a week earlier this year for a job training and loved it up there. Everybody told me that I needed to come down to Oregon. They’re like, “You’d love Portland. You’ve got the big beard. You look like a Portlandian.”

I’ve been involved with teaching, tutoring, and working with youths since I was about 11. I was in the Bay Area, in a small town called East Palo Alto. Even though it borders Stanford University, it wasn’t a town that was very affluent, and it wasn’t a town that people paid attention to insofar as providing programs and educational support. My little brother was in special education, and my mom would go to his class every single day and notice all these things that were going horribly wrong: classes that were too large, teachers who weren’t doing what they needed to do. She worked a long time to make things better. Seeing my mother advocate for my brother but also for other kids made me fall in love with the thought of teaching and working with kids.

I got scholarships to go to Pomona College in Claremont, California. I had a lot of people push me toward Ph.D. programs and law programs, and for a long time I worried that mentors felt like I let them down. Their questions were, “How did you come from a poor neighborhood and go to these great universities, and do so well at these universities, and win all these awards and then become a teacher?” The assumption was that if you are a black kid who made it to great colleges, you should not waste your time becoming something that anyone could become. You should spend your time becoming something that’s extraordinary. Teachers aren’t seen as extraordinary.

I got my master’s degree at Stanford in education and taught for two years at a charter school in California for $52,000 a year. Then in 2010, I moved to Brooklyn and started teaching history at another charter school. The first year my salary was $65,000, and thereafter it was $70,000. There is a hiring freeze for history teachers in New York City, so there’s no way for me to teach at a traditional public school here. Last year, I taught in East New York at a charter school designed for over-age, under-credit kids—kids who have been in and out of juvenile facilities, in and out of shelters and other social systems and programs. My salary was $65,000, and then I had a stipend on top, so it evened out to about $72,000. The bureaucracy of the school and the lack of transparency were difficult, and the inability of the administration to respond to the needs of kids was exhausting. Teachers would see the holes in the administration’s duties and fill them to make sure each kid has what he needs, even though you know it’s not your job and you don’t have the time to do it and attend to your personal needs. 

I have student loans, but I’m very lucky because I got scholarships. I have $20,000 in interest-free loans I pay back to Pomona College. That’s $200 a month. I took out about $9,000 in loans from Stanford. In total, I have about $30,000 worth of loans, and they should be paid off in the next two years.

I was preparing to teach again this year, but this opportunity arose to develop curriculum and work with teachers on how to integrate technology for both traditional public schools and charter schools. The salary is $80,000. I’m going to help develop some curriculum around social studies, work with social-studies and English teachers at schools to help them know their curriculum, and figure out how to improve their teaching. I’m going to help them use Google apps to compile data and use these tools to make their days easier. Instead of inputting things into a grade book, they’ll be able to put in student scores in a Google app and then use the same system to generate a letter for parents, a letter for students, archive the information, and then share it among a wide cross section of people at the school level or at the district level.

I grew up in Denver, Colorado, where my dad is a geriatrician. I didn’t know I was going to do exactly what he did, but it turned out that way. I was really good at science, and I’m like, “Well I’m good at this, and I like it, and I like talking to people, so I’m going to go into medicine.” In medical school, I wanted a well-rounded bit of everything, and I was a little bit indecisive about what field within primary care I liked most, so I just decided to do family medicine.

My parents helped with most of college but couldn’t cover graduate education. Med school was on me, which meant I took out tuition and my living expenses. It was about $60,000 a year for four years, so it was a little more than $200,000. The year I started, they increased the interest rate, so most of my loans were at about 7 percent, which is huge. My husband is a different situation. His single mom died when he was young, but she had a trust fund for him that covered about two years of medical school. There was a house attached to the trust, and we sold it. Along with some money my husband received when his grandparents passed while we were in residency, the money allowed us to pay off all but about $55,000 of our loans. Honestly, I am really grateful for this but also sad that our financial stability came because of my husband’s loss. This was also crucial because it used to be that your interest on your loans didn’t start accruing until after residency. Now, it starts the second you graduate medical school. So if you aren’t paying off loans while in residency, you go into forbearance, which is expensive.

Residency is cheap labor. They have changed it a lot in the last ten years. They’ve put in restrictions on how much residents can work. You can’t work more than 80 hours in a week on average. They have restricted the amount of hours an intern can work in a row to less than 16, and theoretically no resident is supposed to be in charge of patient care for longer than 24 hours straight. It isn’t really feasible for many residencies to comply with all this and still train doctors and take care of patients.

I quickly realized that I loved geriatrics, which falls under primary care. It is actually the most needed of all the specialties and is a specialty that has very high job satisfaction. I chose to do an extra year, where I get paid like a resident, in geriatrics. The trouble is, when you’re in primary care, your work is really never done. You have to do work from home, especially with all of these electronic medical records, which is a huge change for primary-care doctors in the last couple of years. There’s good and bad things about it, but the bottom line is that it seriously increases our work. Documenting and paperwork take time, and lots of it, but you are not paid for that time. They pay you for seeing patients in person. In primary care this comes at a cost to patients, because docs have to churn out visits to make ends meet. In geriatrics, it is frustrating because the system doesn’t recognize the hours you give in family meetings, chart review, and attention to detail that you can’t get from “seeing” a patient, particularly if they have memory loss or are unable to communicate. So while I love geriatrics, I can see why new doctors who have a debt burden like I initially did would opt out of it.

I’m not getting paid like a doctor yet. Nor is my husband, because he’s still a resident too. Starting out as a geriatrician, my expected salary is between $100,000 and $200,000. Starting at $200,000 would be really amazing for a primary-care physician. It doesn’t really happen, though, unless I wanted to work like I was a resident. And I don’t—I’m a mom too.

My dad just turned 57 and still works. Primary-care physicians don’t really retire, because most are passionate about caring for their patients and frequently can’t afford to. I don’t think my dad had a huge salary throughout—it’s always been kind of the same until recently when he sold the practice he worked years to build—but he didn’t have the debt burden at all. Medical school was relatively free for him. My parents struggled to make ends meet with four kids, but there was never this “Oh my gosh, I have to get out of debt, I have to get out of debt.”

I work for Klassen and Son Enterprises. It’s a small renovation, remodeling, and addition company. Basically, I work for this guy Harvey Klassen. Been with them for about three years now. I went to school in New York for graphic design. I made it three and a half years through and kind of burned myself out. I came back here, and I was just kind of at my folks’ house, laying around and not really doing anything and mooching drinks off friends whenever we went out. I’m living at home right now. I’ve been actively looking for a place to move to for a month or so now.

When I first came in I was sweep man—which means I was keeping the job site clean—and cut man, where people were yelling measurements at me, and I was cutting two-by-fours. I didn’t know anything, but I picked it up as I went along. The world of tools is a vast, vast universe, but the stuff we use is all pretty simple, though there’s some heavy-duty stuff, like your circular saws. The most important part is getting used to it. We’ve got a young guy with us now basically doing what I was doing a couple of years ago—sweeping out, cutting—you can see he’s uncomfortable with the saw. I’m sure I was the same way. You’re worried the entire time that it’s going to kick back on you.

We were framing a wall once, and three or four of us were lifting it up and there was a nail loose and it kind of gashed my hand. It was stitches-worthy, but I wasn’t screaming holy mercy. There’s workman’s comp for while I’m at work, but I don’t get health insurance. Right now I make $15 an hour. My company is not union. Most of the smaller construction companies aren’t. When I started I was probably at $10 or $11, and I’ve been getting a buck raise pretty regularly. Though, if you ask me, I should be getting paid more, but that’s just the way it is right now till I ask for a raise. And if there’s not work, there’s not work, and we don’t get paid. The union guys, they’re all coming from making $25, $26, $27 an hour and getting benefits. They come to work for Harvey, and they’re not guaranteed 40 hours a week, and they’re taking a pretty sizable pay cut. When the economy was slow, the union guys just didn’t want to bother. They’d rather just keep getting unemployment and wait until they get some more union work.

Generally spring and summer are busy season. It slows down in fall, and it’s usually pretty slow in winter. This winter, I’ll probably try to call up UPS and see if I can get a gig as one of these seasonal drivers/helpers, when they’re busy between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I still do some freelance graphic design here and there. Last year, I was thinking of moving to Kansas City and maybe picking up some courses because they’ve got a good little art institute. I see myself doing this for at least another few years and then either somehow escaping and successfully shifting into design with a little bit of side labor. Maybe I’ll try to shift to the contractor side of things. Either way, I don’t see myself making gobs of money, but hopefully not coming home quite as sweaty. I don’t know.

I started doing computer programming when I was six or seven. In high school, I took programming courses and had small IT jobs. But when I went to college, I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. I majored in photography at the College of Santa Fe and was one of the few lucky ones whose parents were prepared for that.

After I graduated in 2003, I tried for eight months to find a job and ended up working at a one-hour photo place in Portland, Oregon. After an 18-month stint in Japan teaching English, I went back to computers. I worked as the IT guy for a small disability-rights law firm in Berkeley, then for a San Francisco company that sells font software, which was my first real programming job. Since I’d been out of the programming loop for nearly a decade, I had to learn a lot in a hurry, but I was 25, not married, didn’t have kids, so I had the time to do a lot of reading up on the technological changes and innovations that had taken place. After that, I was with Yahoo for three and a half years before ending up at Turn it in.

Turn it in is a grading and writing--evaluation system that detects plagiarism used by a number of large school systems, including the University of California. Students submit their work, which is checked against a database that’s grown organically over the last 15 years. I work for the sustaining--engineering team, which handles high-level issues that get escalated out of customer support. I oversee three junior people in the U.S., and we’re hiring two positions in Newcastle, England. I spend a lot of time in meetings—I see my role as going to meetings so the whole team doesn’t have to. In the last year or so, I realized how much more I enjoy management than actual development. It’s exciting to make something and have millions of people use it. But it’s more exciting to work with five or six people and give them the tools to succeed and watch them kick butt.

I see myself as staying here for a long time and have brought a lot of people here with me because it’s such a great place to work. We have three weeks of paid vacation plus ten holidays, as well as two volunteer days. My wife and I have two boys, ages three and five. I try to get in at 7:30 A.M. and get out the door by 4 or 5. But there’s no one keeping track of hours and asking, “Where were you from 3:30 to 4?” If you’re sick but don’t feel like you need to take the day off, you can work from home. As long as the work’s getting done, we’re happy. I take the BART system to the office, which takes about 20 minutes. The child-care center is across the street from the train station. We pay a small fortune for child care—about $2,000 a month.

I was working as an online photography editor at National Geographic. It was a time when everyone was getting laid off, and I got laid off, too, in 2008. It seemed like a good time to re-evaluate. I decided to go back for my master’s degree in fine arts.

I went to Arizona State University to a three-year program. I took out probably $45,000 in loans—I didn’t have any savings going into grad school, but I was able to have school paid for with grants and scholarships and working as a teacher. But three years of just living expenses, they definitely add up.

One thing that was great about the school I went to is that you’re able to teach the whole time you’re there. I really loved doing it, and it was a good fit. Also, I wanted to find a way to be a working artist, and teaching in academia is one of the best places to do that because it’s kind of written into your job that 40 percent of what you do is research, and that research is your own art practice.

I just graduated last spring. I was applying for a tenure-track position everywhere and so was my boyfriend, who was finishing up his master’s in fine arts in photography as well, and we were just going to see what happened. It was very stressful. For the longest time, we didn’t know what was going to happen. I got close in a couple of jobs, but I didn’t end up getting a full-time position, and then he got one at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. They agreed to bring me on as an adjunct. That seemed like a good plan for the time being, and then when I got here, I was checking in with other universities in the area. Now I’m teaching at another school, too, so I have two jobs in two places.

My salary is going to end up being $25,000 for two semesters plus a little bit extra for traveling. I think we’re kind of lucky. Photography is a really popular course for undergrads, so there seems to be plenty of photography positions. I know other people who are in some other medium, and it’s really difficult for them to find even adjunct work.

Because it’s so low-paid, it’s really not something anyone expects to do long term. One of the things about academia that’s kind of tough is that there’s a once-a-year market. Jobs are going to be posted in the fall, and then people get interviewed in the spring, and then there’s some shuffling around, and then there’s really nothing else you can do until next fall. So I plan to apply to full-time positions. I think with more teaching experience this year I will be able to find something more full time.

I’m really happy with it so far, though. I have great students. I’m teaching photography classes, which is exactly what I wanted. So that makes it easier. It does feel a little bit like starting over, coming back on the low totem pole, working my way into something more permanent. That feels very much like it did when I got out of journalism school almost ten years ago. So I’m hoping this is going to be the last big change.

In college, I was an English and philosophy major, because those were the classes I liked, and then I started thinking, “OK, I need a plan for making money once I graduate.” So I started looking at law school, because that is maybe the one thing you can do with an English and philosophy degree. Or so I thought.

When I went into law school—I graduated from Georgetown in 2010—I thought it was easy to get a job. Pretty much everyone I went to school with thought that. There’s a well-organized courtship process that law schools oversee between firms and their students. If you get a summer associate internship at the end of your 2L year, generally that will turn into an offer of employment after your 3L year. If you don’t get a summer associate position, you have to get creative. I didn’t get a summer associate job, and right around the time, the market crashed.

I knew I was going to have to pound the pavement to find a job. Normally, Georgetown’s hiring statistic is something like 90 percent of people looking for firm jobs get them. My year, I believe it was around 50 percent—at least after 2L summer—because of the financial crisis. Many people who landed jobs had to target smaller firms and conduct a job search outside the usual track of summer associate to regular associate.

By the time I graduated, it was still my idea to work in a firm. I had six-figure debt. Shortly after taking the bar, I started to work as a contract attorney. I go through a company, and I rarely have more than two weeks off over the course of several months. On a project, every day is a lot like the day before. I’ll get to the office around 8 or 8:30 A.M. and work till 6 or 6:30 P.M. Pretty much the entire day is spent going through e-mails that have been turned over by a party in litigation. I will just go through, populating a document template on the computer, saying whether those e-mails are relevant to the litigation, under what categories are they relevant, and also determining if they’re protected by attorney--client privilege. For the past year or so, I have been fortunate enough to work in a sort of managerial capacity, which is less monotonous and a bit more interesting than the lower-level stuff. There are still plenty of days where I’m reviewing docs like everybody else and then it’s pretty much lather, rinse, and repeat. It’s not too intellectually stimulating.

When I first started out “doc reviewing,” I was thinking it was a very short-term gig; I kept my eye out for jobs, mostly at smaller local law firms. However, about nine months in or so, maybe earlier, I kind of stopped looking for a firm job, because I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer long term. I started to see what firm life would be like through contracting with firms and seeing what their associates did. I frankly dislike the work. Also, I had a lot of friends from law school who were working in firms, and the lifestyle didn’t appeal to me. A lot of my friends at firms don’t really have nearly the amount of time to do what they want to do that I have. I decided I value that, and I like my lifestyle. I’m willing to give up a fair amount of income to keep that balance.

For two years, I’ve been working for Yates, the temp agency that hires out for Nissan. They hire workers to come inside the plant, whether that is on the manufacturing line or picking parts to go to the manufacturing line. Before that, I worked for a subcontractor for Nissan down in Lewisburg, Tennessee. My fiancée’s grandmother heard something on the news that they were going to be hiring a bunch of people up here, and so I applied. Three or four months later, I ended up getting a phone call to come up here for an interview and orientation.

The lady that interviewed me, she works for the company, and I asked, “How long do I have to work here to possibly get hired on as a full-time Nissan employee?” And her response to me: Dead center, looked me in my eyes and said, “You probably never will be hired as a Nissan employee. They have not hired anybody on in Nissan in probably nine to ten years.” But the starting pay was better than what I was making where I was at. Plus, where I lived at the time was a 30-minute drive to work, and I was only making $10 an hour. I was topped out already. I have two little girls, and at that time I was divorced and I just met the woman who is now my fiancée. I wanted to make something of myself. My father worked for GM for 30 years, so the way I looked at it was, even though it’s two different companies, it’s car manufacturing, and there’s good money in that. I wanted to be able to provide for my daughters and my family the way my father provided for me and my mother. So then when I got hired and had my interview and was told that, well, it was a rock and a hard spot.

I work on the truck line. I work on the Pathfinder and the Infiniti JX. I haven’t been treated terribly. I think a lot of what Yates does is what Nissan will allow them to do. I don’t think they can pay us any more right now because they only get a certain amount from Nissan. I work next to Nissan employees every day doing the same work that they do, but I make half of what they make. They think that it’s really unfair for us. I pay everything on time. But do I have enough to take my kids out to go get an ice cream cone or take my fiancée out on a date night or something? Some weeks I don’t. Ten years from now, I want to be doing whatever will provide for my family. If that’s me still working at Nissan, then as long as I’m able to provide for my family, I’ll be happy.