A Class Divide, Part II

I am not a particularly modest man. I have had some success in business, and I have enough of an ego that I write this (more than occasionally exceptionally verbose) blog because I think you will be interested in my observations on wide ranging topics, in most of which I don’t have any demonstrated expertise. In short, rightly or wrongly, I think I’m pretty smart.

At the same time, I’m painfully aware that I don’t know much about what might fairly be described as the real real world. The fellow who takes care of my house knows much more than I ever will.

Originally a carpenter, he has spent nearly fifty years doing pretty much everything in the construction, repair and maintenance of houses. He knows the building trades inside out, naturally enough. He also knows septic systems and wells, drainage and what unwanted moisture can do. He knows trees and bushes and everything about the native wildlife. If it weren’t for regulatory and insurance issues, I know he could take care of most plumbing and electrical problems. He’s also a longtime volunteer fireman and could find food in the wild.  

If society were to break down more seriously than it is now doing, he would be a survivor, and I likely not. What good would my deep understanding of certain businesses do in such circumstances? None, when compared with his infinitely more practical knowledge sets. My accumulated savings – now mostly in the form of electronic impulses on a screen – would be as nothing when compared with his problem-solving capabilities. I can’t think of any of life’s necessities that he couldn’t provide – or that I could if the screens went dark.

***

I belabor all of that to further illustrate some of the differences between people whose jobs require their constant physical presence as compared with those I described in yesterday’s post as knowledge workers. In light of the immense knowledge of the man I’ve just described, I have reconsidered the knowledge worker designation; clearly, my home care maestro is a physical presence worker whose knowledge of his craft (and others) is at the center of his capabilities, so it would be wrong to designate folks like me as knowledge workers, and him as a worker whose skills are somehow based solely on his presence.

Consequently, the knowledge worker designation should be jettisoned and the not-necessarily-physically-present workers recharacterized more accurately as office-or-computer workers (henceforth OCWs); unlike physical presence workers (PPWs), it really doesn’t matter where OCWs are; they – and such was my life for nearly four decades – can be almost anywhere, analyzing the same problems and opportunities and coming up with the same answers that they would have if they had been somewhere else.

***

In yesterday’s post I argued that while most OCWs would prefer that the lockdowns continue for safety reasons and because their livelihoods are not threatened, most PPWs are desperate for the lockdowns to end so they can get back to making their livings. That still strikes me as an accurate, if not exactly earth-shattering, observation – but as I’ve thought about the dividing line between these groups, I have concluded that its explanatory power runs to deeper issues than our immediate dilemma.

***

OC jobs take place in clean, polite environments, and no heavy lifting is required. Credentials, almost always (extremely) expensive college degrees (that often have nothing to do with the specialized knowledge required for – and taught on – the job), are a definite gating item. They usually pay more than PP jobs, but even when they don’t (comparing, say, a journalist with a plumber) such jobs are still almost always considered more prestigious.

Given the prestige associated with college educated OC job holders, most middle class-or-richer parents will sacrifice mightily to get their children onto the college-to-OC-job path that, they believe, defines success.

And what do their offspring learn in school? That the academic world that will or won’t provide them with the golden tickets to high-paying (or creative) OC jobs are, from a political perspective, progressive monocultures. Little Johnny or Susie had better sign on to the whole identity politics/”social justice” agenda (or keep their mouths shut) if they want those gating credentials.

In some schools, a progressive outlook is literally required; I know of several prestigious graduate schools that insist that their students affirm “social justice” agendas. I’m pretty sure that even where such requirements aren’t explicit, they’re almost always implicit in the curricula and admissions processes. What’s more, such progressive values are embedded in most news outlets staffed by employees from and catering to the “educated” classes and virtually all contemporary Hollywood entertainment, and endorsed or even enforced by the human resources departments of the kinds of large companies for which budding OCWs hope to work. The path of least resistance for aspiring OCWs, or even just those who wish to think of themselves as a part of the elite class, whether or not they have money, is just to buy right in.

There may even be something about the hierarchy and orderliness of most OC jobs that encourages organizational thinking in line with the centralizing impulses of progressive politics. Employees figure out how to get by in OC jobs, how to work the systems that seem powerful, remote and sometimes illogical – and the OCWs may thereby become comfortable seeing the government in the same benign light as their employment situations.

For example, my old business was heavily regulated; you might think that I, as a business person, didn’t like that, but if so, you would be wrong: my former partner and I knew that without those regulations, there would have been no scarcity, and hence no way for us to make money. We wanted the regulatory barriers to be low enough so that we could jump over them, but also high enough so that very few others could. This kind of thinking is characteristic of many large, regulated businesses.  

Also, the fundamental economic reason that many OC jobs pay well relative to PP jobs is that such jobs tend to require deep knowledge about a very narrow range of issues. They’re all about specialization – and relying on others for everything else. One gets used to having structure, hierarchy and rules set by others. You might even like it.  

***

Many PPW roles foster a sense of innovative self-reliance that is quite different from the go-along, get-along mentalities that tend to prevail in large OC environments. PPWs are more used to figuring out how to make things work on their own. Their context isn’t the system of a large company but the world as it is, which provides lots of nasty surprises (like the CCP virus, for that matter) that demand immediate, unscripted solutions. To them, the government is far more often an obstacle in the way of quick common-sense fixes than anything else.

I’m generalizing like mad, of course. A really effective OC businessperson has to think on his or her feet just as much as the most independent – and vulnerable – PPW tradesperson.  But for the most part, OCWs’ employers are determinedly politically correct monocultures, just like the schools they recruit from.

So the cultural differences between OCWs generally and PPWs are profound – and they form an important basis of our nation’s deep political divide. The differing perspectives are understandable in their own contexts; but what isn’t right is the smug certainty of many OCW’s that they know more than PPWs. In a fundamental sense, they often know less.

M.H. Johnston

One comment to A Class Divide, Part II

  • AT  says:

    Surprised there have been no comments on this post–perhaps it cuts too close to the bone for most of us, who are OCWs rather than PPWs. This is one of the best summaries I have seen of the difference between abstract work and “real” work–that is, work with material, tangible things. I work at a university, but am friends with a retired gunsmith who lives in the countryside. The son of a contractor, he can make, build, or repair anything. He can pour a foundation. He can frame a house or a barn. He can repair a truck engine. He can install a wood stove or an HVAC system. He can fashion anything from metal. If the SHTF, he’ll survive, perhaps even thrive. Me? Not so much, unless I can make an alliance with him or someone like him. If nothing else, the COVID crisis has shown how necessary “real” jobs are–and how ephemeral and contingent ours are.

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