He grew up about 65 years ago on a tobacco and cattle farm, but he always liked engines, so even while in high school he worked 40 hours a week in a garage. Then he went to work in a series of factories — making airplane parts, car seats, sheet metal and casings for those big air-conditioning fans you see on the top of buildings.This downward movement in later life is not just a blue collar thing. I have met half a dozen archaeologists in their 50s or 60s who show up working on our field crew beside 23-year-olds, with stories about how they once sat in offices and wrote reports.
Every few years as the economy would shift, or jobs would go to Mexico, he’d get hit with a layoff. But the periods of unemployment were never longer than six months and he pieced together a career. . . .
His best job came in the middle of his career, when he was a supervisor at the sheet metal plant. But when the technology changed, he was no longer qualified to supervise the new workers, so they let him go. . . .
He also had a narrative about his own life. It’s not the agency narrative you often find in the professional segments of society: I found my passion and steered my own ship. It’s more of a reactive, coping narrative: A lot of the big forces were outside my control, but I adjusted, made the best of what was possible within my constraints and lived up to my responsibilities.
There’s honor to that, too. Still, over the past many months speaking with people in these situations, I can’t help feeling that society is failing them in some major way, and not just economically.
There is often a sad, noncumulative pattern to working-class lives. In some professions as you get older, you rise to more responsible positions. And that was true under the old seniority-based work rules in factories.
But now there is a stochastic, episodic nature to many careers. As workers get older, potential employers become more suspicious of their skills, not more confident in them. As a result, you often meet people who had been happiest at work in middle age, and then moved down to a series of positions they were overqualified for and felt diminished in.
The faster the world changes, the less experience matters, and the less we need the old to lead the young.