Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams

Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams

by Alfred Lubrano

ISBN: 9780471714392

Publisher Wiley

Published in Business & Money/Human Resources, Nonfiction/Social Sciences

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


My father and I were college buddies back in the late 1970s.

While I was in class at Columbia, struggling with the esoterica du jour, he was on a bricklayer's scaffold not far up the street, working on a campus building. Once, we met up on the subway going home-he with his tools, I with my books. We didn't chat much about what went on during the day. My father wasn't interested in Thucydides, and I wasn't up on arches. We shared a New York Post and talked about the Mets.

My dad has built lots of places in New York City he can't get into: colleges, condos, office towers. He made his living on the outside. Once the walls were up, a place took on a different feel for him, as though he wasn't welcome anymore. It never bothered my dad, though. For him, earning the dough that helped pay for my entree into a fancy, bricked-in institution was satisfaction enough, a vicarious access.

We didn't know it then, but those days were the start of a branching off-a redefining of what it means to be a workingman in our Italian-American family. Related by blood, we're separated by class, my father and I. Being the white-collar child of a blue-collar parent means being the hinge on the door between two ways of life. With one foot in the working class, the other in the middle class, people like me are Straddlers, at home in neither world, living a limbo life. It's the part of the American Dream you may have never heard about: the costs of social mobility. People pay with their anxiety about their place in life. It's a discomfort many never overcome.

What drove me to leave what I knew? Born blue-collar, I still never felt completely comfortable among the tough guys and anti-intellectual crowd who populated much of my neighborhood in deepest Brooklyn, part of a populous, insular working-class sector of commercial strips, small apartment buildings, and two-family homes. I never did completely fit in among the preppies and suburban royalty of Columbia, either. It's like that for Straddlers, who live with an uneasiness about their dual identity that can be hard to reconcile, no matter how far from the old neighborhood they eventually get. Ultimately, "it is very difficult to escape culturally from the class into which you are born," Paul Fussell's influential book Class: A Guide through the American Status System quotes George Orwell as saying. The grip is that tight. That's something Straddlers like me understand. There are parts of me that are proudly, stubbornly working class, despite my love of high tea, raspberry vinaigrette, and National Public Radio. Born with a street brawler's temperament, I possess an Ivy League circuit breaker to keep things in check. Still, I've been accused of having an edge, a chip I've balanced on my shoulder since my days in the old neighborhood.

It was not so smooth jumping from Italian old-world style to U.S. professional in a single generation. Others who were the first in their families to go to college will tell you the same thing: The academy can render you unrecognizable to the very people who launched you into the world. The ideas and values absorbed in college challenge the mom-and-pop orthodoxy that passed for truth for 18 years. Limbo folk may eschew polyester blends for sea-isle cotton, prefer Brie to Kraft slices. They marry outside the neighborhood and raise their kids differently. They might not be in church on Sunday.

When they pick careers (not jobs like their parents had, but careers), it's often a kind of work their parents never heard of or can't understand. But for the white-collar kids of blue-collar parents, the office is not necessarily a sanctuary. In corporate America, where the rules are based on notions foreign to working-class people, a Straddler can get lost.

Social class counts at the office, even though nobody likes to admit it. Ultimately, corporate norms are based on middle- and upper-class values, business types say. From an early age, middle-class people learn how to get along, using diplomacy, nuance, and politics to grab what they need. It is as though they are following a set of rules laid out in a manual that blue-collar families never have the chance to read.

People born into the middle class to parents with college degrees have lived lives filled with what French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls "cultural capital." Growing up in an educated, advantaged environment, they learn about Picasso and Mozart, stock portfolios and crhme br{lie. In a home with cultural capital, there are networks: Someone always has an aunt or golfing buddy with the inside track for an internship or some entry-level job. Dinner-table talk could involve what happened that day to Mom and Dad at the law firm, the doctor's office, or the executive suite.

Middle-class kids can grow up with what sociologists describe as a sense of entitlement that will carry them through their lives. This "belongingness" is not just related to having material means; it has to do with learning and possessing confidence in your place in the world. The bourgeois, Bourdieu says, pass on self-certainty like a treasured heirloom, from generation to generation. Such early access and direct exposure to culture in the home is the more organic, "legitimate" means of appropriating cultural capital, Bourdieu tells us.4 Those of us possessing "ill-gotten culture"-the ones who did not hear Schubert or see a Breughel until freshman year in college, the ones who grew up without knowing a friend whose parents attended college-can learn it, but never as well. Something is always a little off about us, like an engine with imprecise timing.

There's a greater match between middle-class lives and the institutions in which the middle class works and operates-whether they are universities or corporations. Children of the middle and upper classes have been speaking the language of the bosses and supervisors forever. An interesting fact: The number of words spoken in a white-collar household in a day is, on average, three times greater than the number spoken in a blue-collar home (especially the talk between parents and kids), says pioneering working-class studies economist Charles Sackrey, formerly of Bucknell University.

Blue-collar kids are taught by their parents and communities to work hard to achieve, and that merit is rewarded. But no blue-collar parent knows whether such things are true in the middle-class world. Many professionals born to the working class report feeling out of place and outmaneuvered in the office. Soon enough, Straddlers learn that straight talk won't always cut it in shirt-and-tie America, where people rarely say what they mean. Resolving conflicts head-on and speaking your mind don't always work, no matter how educated the Straddler is.

In the working class, people perform jobs in which they are closely supervised and are required to follow orders and instructions. That in turn affects how they socialize their children, social scientists tell us. Children of the working class are brought up in a home in which conformity, obedience, and intolerance for back talk are the norm-the same characteristics that make for a good factory worker. As Massachusetts Straddler Nancy Dean says, "We're raised to do what our mother says, what the teacher says, what the boss says. Just keep your mouth shut. No one cares what you have to say: Don't ask, don't question, do what you're told. Our mothers were all versions of Mrs. This Is My House."

People moving from the working class to the middle class need a strategy, a way to figure out the rules, the food, the language, and the music. "It's a new neighborhood," Sackrey says, "and it has the danger of a new neighborhood. It's unfriendly territory. Upper-class people do look down on us. So in your strategy for living, you have to figure out how to make it from one day to the next. It's an endless trek. You can fit in; you can decide to overwhelm and be better than them; you can live in the middle class but refuse to assimilate; or you can stand aside and criticize, and never be part of things.

"But central to the whole thing is language. If you don't talk like them, they won't give you the time of day."

The Uneven Race

Americans have always embraced the notion that this is a land of opportunity, with rags-to-riches possibilities. It's true that there are apples to be picked, but one can argue that not everyone has equal access to the fruit. We begin in different places, with some of us already two laps ahead when the starter's gun goes bang. The family you're born into may well have more influence on your future success than any other single factor, says Brookings Institution economist Isabel Sawhill. To ensure a rosy future, social scientists who study mobility love to say, "Pick your parents well."

If someone gets ahead, our national philosophy goes, it's because they worked harder. Statistics show that there are people who worked just as hard, but were unfortunate enough to have been born on the 2 yard line and not the 42. If your parents are in the upper tier of white-collar folks, there's a 60 percent chance you will be, too, mobility experts say. If, on the other hand, your parents are manual workers, your chances of getting into those clean and well-paying jobs are less than 30 percent, no matter how many hours you put in. Surveys show that two out of three middle-and upper-class high school graduates attended a four-year college, as compared to just one of five from the working and lower classes.

Mobility expert Michael Hout, of the University of California at Berkeley, says that downward mobility has increased 7 percent over the last 30 years, without much increase in upward mobility. He says that roughly 50 percent move up, 40 percent move down, and 10 percent remain immobile. Even if a blue-collar-born person winds up with the same job as someone originating from the middle class-thanks to college scholarships-the middle-class person would not know the journey the working-class person made. That odyssey, some say, makes all the difference in how one ultimately views the world.

Laying the Groundwork

Although they wanted me to climb out of the working class, my parents would have picked a different middle-class life for me. They foresaw a large bank account, a big house down the street from theirs, and a standing date for Sunday macaroni. My father had a tough time accepting my decision to become a mere newspaper reporter, a field that pays a little more than construction does. He long wondered why I hadn't cashed in on that multibrick education and taken on some lawyer-lucrative job. After bricklaying for 30 years, my father promised himself I'd never pile bricks and blocks into walls for a living. He and my mother figured that an education-genie-like and benevolent-would somehow rocket me into the rarefied trajectory of the upwardly mobile and load some serious loot into my pockets. My desire to work at something interesting to me rather than merely profitable was hard to fathom. Here I was breaking blue-collar rule number one: Make as much money as you can, to pay for as good a life as you can get. My father would try to teach me what my goals should be when I was 19, my collar already fading to white. I was the college boy who handed him the wrong wrench on help-around-the-house Saturdays. "You'd better make a lot of money," my dad wryly warned me as we huddled in front of a disassembled dishwasher I had neither the inclination nor the aptitude to fix. "You're gonna need to hire someone to hammer a nail into a wall for you when you get your own house."

My interests had always lain elsewhere. Like a lot of Straddlers, I felt dissatisfied with the neighborhood status quo. That sense of being out of step with the very people you're supposed to be like is the limbo person's first inkling that he or she is bound for other places. For the longest time, though, I tried to fit in. I mean, I chased girls and played ball and lifted weights-the approved pastimes that keep you from getting beaten up in working-class New York. I even had my high school record for consecutive sit-ups (801 in 35 minutes), a bizarre but marginally acceptable athletic accomplishment. It showed toughness, a certain willingness to absorb punishment, which in turn demonstrated manliness. In blue-collar society, proving your manly worth is high achievement. But truly, I never really liked hanging out on the corner, shooting the bull with the fellas. Weeknights, I studied while the guys partied. By the weekend, they were too far advanced for me to truly catch up. I just didn't share their interests-like cars. I never wanted to hunch over the engine of a Mustang, monkey with the pistons, and drain the oil. People think New Yorkers don't drive, but that's just in Manhattan. Car culture was big in Brooklyn, as it is in most of America, and kids lavished attention on their rides. Chrome had to gleam in streetlight on the cruise down 86th Street on Saturday night. (That, by the way, is the very place John Travolta struts at the beginning of Saturday Night Fever, the movie that told the story of a few of the guys I went to high school with-people who tried for something better than the neighborhood.) I knew a young woman whose boyfriend gave her whitewalls for her eighteenth birthday, and she squealed as if they were opals. I got my first car when I was 23 and drove it to Ohio to work at my first white-collar job. It broke down often, but I had no inclination to figure out what was wrong and fix it. Somehow, growing up, I was bereft of any curiosity about how things worked-how drywall was put up or how pipes connected-the very real working-class stuff that pre-occupied the lives of most of the people around me. I just didn't care. I read books. That came from my mother, a latchkey child who was never allowed to grow intellectually. She nevertheless became a book-a-week reader and had determined that her sons would follow suit, then advance to the higher education that had been denied her.

My mother was bucking a trend; many working-class people in the 1970s saw little need for college. The guys were encouraged to make money in construction and similar tough fields, while the women were expected to find men and breed. As a result, working-class kids from all ethnic backgrounds reproduce their parents' class standing with an eerie Xeroxity-often more rags-to-rags than rags-to-riches, working-class studies guru Jake Ryan says.

Navigating Social Relationships

Straddlers remember how complicated life in the old neighborhood could get after they realized they weren't really part of the crowd. Their inability to fully fit in made them uncomfortable and rendered them quasi-outcasts.


Excerpted from "Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams" by Alfred Lubrano. Copyright © 2005 by Alfred Lubrano. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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