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Meet the New Working Class (Oh, and You’re In it)

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By Emily Goulding on November 17, 2010

The 19th Century divide of the Leisure Class vs. the Working Class is gone.

What ruined it? The recession, of all things. The recession has exacerbated class differences, but what it has done for Millennials is make a whole new class altogether: It’s the New Working Class.

And you’re a part of it.

Think about it: Everybody you know works. And they work a lot.

Maybe they’re in graduate school full-time, and work part-time. Maybe they have a full-time job, but are taking on more tasks due to budget cutbacks. Even if they were born into money, they might work a ton of hours in a high-performance field such as law or finance.

In today’s economy, high-powered jobs require a lot of time and investment, and not being poor takes a lot of time and investment. For the first time in decades, white-collar workers and blue-collar workers are both scrambling to get jobs, stay in them, and keep their heads above water. College grads, like mechanics, are working two, three part-time jobs because one job just isn’t enough. In some sort of weird limbo under time itself, Americans of all stripes are hustling shoulder-to-shoulder for security, stability, and a good salary.

And although all generations of Americans have worked hard, there’s something a bit different about this scenario. The recession has made a high cost of low price, and today’s New Working Class doesn’t have the bargaining power the Old Working Class did. And it might not even be able to enjoy their standards of living.

This is in part due to an inability to quantify our work. While many members of our generation –- from red-eyed young professionals determined to get ahead to carpenters starting work at dawn and ending at dusk — work way more than 40 hours a week, the Department of Labor doesn’t even have that on record.

According to their books, the average number of hours Americans work per week during the recession has remained what it was prior to the recession. The extra hours salaried workers are working to keep their jobs aren’t compensated for in salaried environments and thus are not tracked, and part-time work actually drives down the average number of hours people work in a certain field, even if this work is performed in addition to other full-time work.

Given that hours are tracked per field, and not per person, the Department of Labor has only a vague sense of the true number of hours worked per person. If a new grad does a 30 hour-a-week unpaid internship at a legal clinic, works 20 hours a week at the Body Shop, and spends 10 hours a week babysitting, she goes on the Department of Labor’s books as a 20-hour (read = underemployed) worker, even though she performs 60 hours of work per week.

Just like the young grad’s babysitting and internship hours are not recorded (as they are not paid via paycheck), the hours worked by a young carpenter who was raised here but born elsewhere, and undocumented, go unaccounted for on the Department of Labor’s books. They might have some idea of his work habits, because he might pay payroll taxes into a fake Social Security account. But he himself will be not be able to claim those funds in his golden years.

Today, both the young carpenter and young grad need the things that the old labor movement fought for, such as regulated hours, benefits, and work-life balance. But the institutions that are supposed to bargain for them don’t see themselves as serving these two sets of people.

And those paid to administer the labor movement’s legacy could use a good dose of it themselves.

The demands put on today’s white-collar employees — especially by, irony of ironies, non-profit organizations that claim to work for social justice –- would make our grandparents’ peers turn over in their graves. Threatened, if not gone, in many of these environments are evenings, weekends, and the possibility of a family life. And one of the hallmark industries of the old labor movement, construction, literally builds America up, but is unregulated and prone to abuse.

Try telling your boss at a civil rights shop that things in your workplace aren’t fair. And try telling your boss on a construction gig that your leg is hurting you, and you need a day off. Different fields, same answer: Cry me a river.

In some ways, the work lives of the New Working class would shock the old Leisure Class AND the old Working Class. Many of us don’t have the time to sit down and eat dinner, or do real recreational activities other than playing with iPhone apps.

But here’s the (possibly) good side to Millennials’ New Working Class life: generational solidarity, of the experiential kind.

For the first time, a whole generation of Americans will have something truly in common, even if debt serves as the common denominator.

Within the New Working Class, the “We’re going to the Cape this weekend” vs. “We’re going to the lake this weekend” divide might be gone. In its place might be a new camaraderie called “Oh, Lucy and I are just going to, uh…stick around here this weekend. You know, finish some stuff up.”

At some point, the senior class valedictorian might realize they have something in common with the senior class drop out: working at 10pm on a weeknight.

After all, finishing documents at 10pm doesn’t feel all that different from flipping burgers at 10pm.

Because doing either of those things at 10pm sucks.

High-income Millenials will need babysitters because they’re working 60 hours a week, and low-income Millenials will need babysitters because they’re also working 60 hours a week. Now, the former might be able to afford it and the latter might need it subsidized, but the situation is basically the same. (And let’s not even think about the situation we’ll all be in if Social Security isn’t there for us in 50 years.)

So is life in the New Working Class liberating? Maybe. Is it a little scary? Yes.

But it’s the future.

So meet and greet the members of this New Working Class.

Smile and nod to the one to your left, and the one to your right.

And the one in the mirror.

Emily Goulding works like 125 hours a week in social justice communications in Washington, D.C. You can read her budding HyperVocal archive here.

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