Many are rethinking the American Dream these days, especially over Memorial Day. The dream, however idealistic, is worth fighting for. But what is that dream, exactly? National Public Radio’s Ari Shapiro put it this way: “Though the phrase has different meanings to different people, it suggests an underlying belief that hard work pays off, and that the next generation will have a better life than the previous generation.”
He added that the notion is uniquely American. Although we don’t feel people are entitled to success, we feel that hard work and playing by the rules should lead us to something better than our parents had. Success, we feel, is within our control.
As Michael Dimock of the Pew Research Center explained to NPR: “When Germans or French are asked the same questions about whether it's within all of our power to get ahead, or whether our success is really determined by forces outside our control, most German and French respondents say, ‘No, success is really beyond our control.’”
After a brutal recession and a much smaller manufacturing base, at least in terms of total employment, people are rethinking that ideal. This includes Adam Davidson of NPR’s Planet Money and columnist for the New York Times Magazine. Davidson talks about our “Plan As” and “Plan Bs.” Plan A usually entails the dream job, what Davidson called a kind of “lottery based” career path. Sure, an aspiring actor has little chance of making it big, but he or she tries all the same because the rewards are so huge. The logic: You’ll never land it big (or win the lottery) if you don’t give it a try (buy a lottery ticket).
Then there’s the Plan B career, the jobs people take when Plan A doesn’t work out. Those Plan B jobs are the ones that have built the American dream. If you got a job at the factory and worked hard, you could build seniority, buy a house, live a middle class lifestyle, and retire on a healthy pension with good benefits. If your father worked at the local plant, you probably could too. The plant provided the employment anchor to thriving communities.
Today, so many of those large anchors are mothballed. During this election cycle, politicians seize on this stark picture. Manufacturing built the middle class, so we need to bring back manufacturing to its former glory, right?
Well, not necessarily. As we all know, manufacturing has changed. Analysts talk of how high technology has changed the playing field, about we need a highly trained, technical- and computer-savvy workforce. But what fewer people talk about is how technology has changed the manufacturing career path.
Although technology raises the bar for many, it has lowered the bar for certain entry-level workers. Decades ago, an inexperienced person probably would start at a fab shop sweeping the floors and moving material. After so long, he’d move on to a more technical position, like programming, setting up, and operating a press brake; he'd also shadow an experienced person for months to learn the trade. That person then could make a career at mastering the skill of sheet metal bending.
Equipped with an advanced machine, an operator today may start producing production-worthy parts within a few weeks or even days. An ambitious press brake operator may be eager for a supervisory position, but one might not be available, so they may jump ship to another (often larger) shop that may have better pay and open positions at the supervisory level.
I'm not badmouthing technology here, of course. U.S. manufacturing couldn’t compete without it. But it adds a bit more luck into the American Dream equation. We all know that making it big takes a mix of talent and luck--being at the right place at the right time--but this shouldn’t apply to every job, right? If someone shows up, learns, and works hard, they should be able to support a family.
It seems that much success these days depends not just on talent and tenacity, but also on being at the right place at the right time. A small shop can have only so many generals and lieutenants, and if supervisors aren’t going anywhere, options may be limited for the aspiring young fabricator.
This is especially true considering the reality of starting wages. Earlier this year one Fabricator blog reader said he knew welding, but he worked at the local Wal-Mart because the starting pay was only a little less. Unlike a Wal-Mart clerk, of course, a welder or other skilled manufacturing worker has a better chance at climbing the career ladder and making more money. U.S. manufacturing careers can be far more lucrative than those in other sectors. Thing is, it’s not a guarantee, even if that person works hard and seemingly does everything he should do to get ahead. If the economy goes south, a company may need to lay off a talented employee, a person who just was at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Young people have grown up in a tumultuous employment environment, at least one more tumultuous than the job market of the 1950s. In fact, historians may look back at the latter half of the 20th Century as an anomaly. The rest of the world was either in development or had its business infrastructure destroyed by war. Of course the U.S. economy thrived and, with it, the American Dream.
Maybe the American Dream hasn’t died; maybe it has simply evolved. My grandfather took a job and kept it until he retired. In those days, with scars from the Great Depression still fresh, if you got a steady job you kept it. That steady job was the American Dream. Today young workers may remember their father being laid off from a good fabrication job at a large plant. If that happened to my father, I’d have a difficult time trusting any employer. Still, I do think that now knowledge is more powerful than ever. People with the right technical skills can land a good job. They may not keep it forever; they may move between several companies over a career; but they probably will be successful. Success isn’t guaranteed, but in truth it never really has been for anyone.
Maybe knowledge--growing, learning, and adapting to the times--is the new American Dream. One may get hired and laid off numerous times on the roller coaster of the new global economy. But once any worker learns something new, no economic downturn can take that knowledge away.