Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Goin' Legit

Hana Rosin recently published a book titled "The End of Men." There have been many discussions around the web (NYT and WSJ) and in our classroom about the truth of her central thesis: we are experiencing “the end of 200,000 years of human history and the beginning of a new era” in which women and feminine traits are valued more than men and masculine traits. According to Rosin, this economic shift is leaving many men behind and unemployed.

This discussion reminded me of one of my favorite books from my undergraduate courses in Sociology called, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio by Philippe Bourgois. From the inside cover: "For the first time, an anthropologist had managed to gain the trust and long-term friendship of street-level drug dealers in one of the nation's roughest ghetto neighborhoods--East Harlem." I loved the book's extensive quotes of the drug dealers, particularly three named Caesar, Primo, and Willie. Besides finding the drug dealers funny and complex, I appreciated Bourgois' connection between anecdotes and detailed scholarly analysis of a 'bigger picture.' I read it several times as an undergrad and saw something new each time.

Roslin's book and our class discussion made me think of something else new in Bourgois' book: everyone hates entry level jobs. One chapter in Bourgois' book is titled: "Going Legit: Disrespect and Resistance at Work." It documents Caesar, Primo, and Willie's attempts to get legal work outside of the street gang. Bourgois cited several studies documenting the shift from the industrial industry to the service industry over the past several decades. (page 114). Many people in the book pointed to the lack of manufacturing or industrial jobs near Harlem as the main reason why the street level gang members were unemployed in legal sectors:
"It almost appears as if Caesar, Primo, and Willie were caught in a time warp during their teenage years. Their macho-proletarian dream of working an eight-hour shift plus overtime throughout their adult lives at a rugged slot in a unionized shop had been replaced by the nightmare of poorly paid, highly feminized, office-support service work." (pg 141)
What was it about service industry work that put off these street dealers? Caesar put it this way:
"I had a few jobs like that where you gotta take a lot of shit from fat, ugly bitches and be a wimp. My worst was at Sudler & Hennessey--the advertising agency that works with pharmaceutical shit. I didn't like it but kept on working, because "Fuck it!" you don't want to fuck up the relationship. So you just be a punk. [...] She used to make me do fucked-up errands for her--wack shit. One time I had to go all the way to Staten Island and find this fucking' place, and go collect two paintings for her. And shit like that. That bitch just didn't like me." (pg 146).
What makes this quote so attractive to me is that I relate to it. Through high school and college I worked several entry level, minimum wage jobs. All of my supervisors were female. I hated all of them. Working those jobs convinced me to go to law school. I figured that if I become a lawyer, I could set up my own shop and never have to work for "bitches" like them.

The point? Everyone hates working entry level jobs: men, women, and drug dealers. In economies of scale, the person lowest on the ladder gets micromanaged by those above him or her. The minions are constantly pressured to be more efficient. There is little communication or collaboration. It is all top down. This isn't feminization of the workplace it's Fordism.

We can tie some of the traits now rewarded in the economy as feminine: submissive, non-physical, and deferential. However, this is an over simplification. Employees also need to be masculine: confident, responsible, disciplined. Describing the new service economy with a 'masculine' or a 'feminine' adjective doesn't address the reality of micromanaged entry level employees.

Instead of focusing on 'The End of Men,' it would be more fruitful to explore fruitful relationships between businesses and entry level employees. The simple answer is for everyone to get everyone a higher education and skip the entry level slot. However, this isn't possible. As Primo points out: "[a]nd they talk about that school shit 'cause they're pampered, they lead pampered lives. Everybody can't go to school a lot. Some people have to live, man. They got to eat--you know what I'm saying? People got to eat, man. Especially if you got a son, you got to... people got to do things." (pg 151). We need entry level positions that everyone wants, not just men or women, and that they can earn a living doing.

Without a better option, Primo's only alternative to entry level work was dealing drugs. For me, it was going to law school. As my favorite fictional drug dealer Omar Little once said to his attorney: "I got the shotgun. You got the briefcase. It's all in the game though, right?"


Patricija said...

Not only is it not possible for everyone to educate out of entry level positions, there is an essential need for people to do that type of work. What our society needs to appreciate is that all work is important. In fact, the work we deem unimportant often creates the platform and basic operations that allow the other "more valued" work to operate and flourish.

I totally agree with you that we need to focus on the relationship between the top and the bottom. I found a report done by the Center for WorkLife Law, Improving Work-Life Fit in Hourly Jobs -
www.worklifelaw.org/pubs/ImprovingWork-LifeFit.pdf) particularly fascinating, as it showed how integrating flexibility to accommodate for family care responsibility can be successful even for those positions we often view as unable or unprofitable to accommodate such flexibility. In turn, understanding and reacting to your employees drives profits, creates happier employees, and create employee loyalty that reduces turnover and absenteeism.

What I don't agree with is your intimation that we should focus on the relationships between the different job positions as opposed to gender. When we fail to address all the issues at play with the ways employment works (or doesn't work) in this country, we fail to address the full picture of what is happening. It is not just Fordism, it is Fordism and gender, Fordism and class, Fodism and race, so on and so forth. Personally, I think it would be foolish to leave out these other relationships.

Sarah said...

Firstly - the Wire is genius. Secondly - this quote was really right on: "The point? Everyone hates working entry level jobs: men, women, and drug dealers." Everyone does hate entry level work, we still need people to do those jobs, some will advance and some won't, and perhaps we should focus on not making them so intollerable and so poorly compensated. I don't think we need to ignore gender to do this - because to me they are really sort of separate issues, although as Patriija suggests they may be causing compound harms on employees.

I, too, came to law school for more autonomy in my career, as much as for economic security. But, the truth is that a graduate degree may only rise the entry level, not disturb the power-imbalance or unpleasantness of the space at the bottom.

Jihan A. Kahssay said...

I had entry level jobs that I hated – but I didn’t hate them right away. I worked retail jobs as a teenager and through some of college. I enjoyed it at first as a teenager because there were a lot of lessons to learn (time management, money management, responsibility, work ethic, converting my resources into cash, etc..) and there was a lot of money to earn (earning minimum wage was awesome when my previous income was $0). After some time, I learned all that I could learn in terms of work skills and ethics, and I came to the realization that it was not possible to move out of my mother’s house on a minimum wage job. At that point, it was time to move on and any additional hours that I worked became unbearably miserable. The problem is not that everyone hates minimum wage jobs – the problem is that most people who work minimum wage jobs hate minimum wage jobs. Those people should cycle out and make room in entry-level jobs for enthusiastic people who are just entering the workforce. In other words: entry-level jobs should be reserved for entry-level workers.

This means, of course, that as people who have more work experience cycle out of entry-level jobs, they will need access to education. This can be, for example, academic education (i.e. university), which is the path I took, or it can be a more technical education (i.e., culinary school), which is the path my brother took. Either way, people need to move from an entry level jobs to a more fulfilling and sustainable means of economic independence. Our societal aim should be to make opportunities for this kind of growth widely available to all Americans – not merely to make the entry-level job more comfortable.