Listening to What Workers Say

This week in North Philly Notes, Roberta Iversen, author of What Workers Say, provides stories and voices from the labor market on the chronic lack of advancement.

A common question when meeting someone new is asking them, “What do you do?”

People’s work, and the labor market more broadly, occupy millions of people’s lives in the U.S. and around the globe. But why is “What do you do?” often the first question? Of course it’s partly because most people need the money that work provides—and often need more money than their particular labor market job offers. It’s also because what we “do” is often shorthand to others for “who we are.”

Yet “who we are” does not begin to touch the lack of opportunity in many of today’s labor market jobs, whether in manufacturing, printing, construction, healthcare, clerical work, retail, real estate, architecture, or automotive services. These are occupations and industries that have employed nearly two-thirds of the U.S. workforce since 1980, as workers in these areas since the 1980s until today vividly describe in What Workers Say. I talked to 1,200-plus people at length for this book since the early 1980s, some of them repeatedly, regardless of what occupation they hold or industry their job is in. They have all recognized that there’s little to no opportunity for promotion or advancement in their jobs, despite the fact that people, their communities, their families, and their country as a whole, need what these workers do. At the same time, too many of them are also not paid a living wage.

The workers in the above-mentioned occupations and industries—regardless of socioeconomic characteristics—typify the types of struggles, discouragement, and on-the-job injuries that continue to affect millions of workers in the U.S. and elsewhere. Just as Studs Terkel’s Working (1972) valuably introduced the populace to what many jobs and occupations were like across the U.S. up to the early 1970s, the workers in What Workers Say describe their jobs and occupations from 1980 to today—a period of rapid and tumultuous labor market change. For example, Tisha [a chosen pseudonym, like all of the worker’s names] in manufacturing, Joseph and Randy in construction work, and Kevin in a printing job, are among those workers who vividly illustrate the shift to service occupations from the earlier, higher-paying manufacturing occupations.

In one of the most dramatic examples of this shift, 40-year-old, African American, Hard Working Blessed, experienced multiple eye injuries on his manufacturing job, which resulted in demotion and severe wage reduction. He ended up as a Fast Food Manager, with lower pay and a job that did not make use of his extensive work experience in manufacturing. Clerical workers, such as Roselyn, Wendy, Ayesha, Susan and others similarly describe struggling with frequent recessions and layoffs over the period. Others, including Noel, Tom, and Shanquitta (for a period), describe frequent job disruptions and store closures from the increase in offshoring jobs to countries that pay workers even less than the U.S. does. And many healthcare workers, such as Laquita, Tasha, Martina, and Annie and others experience “credential creep,” where higher-level education became a hiring requirement, even though the demands of the job were suited perfectly to these applicants’ current credentials. This, of course, resulted in new forms of inequities in hiring.

In short, the workers tell the real story about today’s jobs so others can know what these jobs are really like. The richness and depth of the workers’ words help readers to understand that the formal definition of “unemployment” is very strict and does not cover many people who have been laid off or who aren’t able to look for work. Their words also illustrate the fact that since the 1980s there often haven’t been enough jobs for all who want labor market work, and that the default social policy response to low pay has been person-oriented: that more education and more skills are what is needed for greater equity in the labor market. In some cases, the coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the low-pay issue, to the benefit of current workers, but not in all cases and not necessarily to the level of a living wage. These workers also vividly describe what they’d really like to be doing, which leads in the final chapter to a solution that I call “compensated civil labor.” 

Drawing on German sociologist, Ulrich Beck’s idea of civil labor, I add “compensated” to the idea of civil labor. Compensated civil labor expands what we think of as work, how we do work, and particularly, how we do paid work. Compensated civil labor would allow the many people like Teresa to work at her rental car company part-time and satisfy her “heart-string” (aka her passion) of part-time food catering to her church, children’s school, and community and also be compensated for doing it. Compensated civil labor could also enable expansion of the notion of “work” well beyond the labor market in ways that can tap into today’s workers’ desire to engage in environmental protection activities, broader family participation, community contribution, and the like. In short, compensated civil labor would mean compensating people for their non-labor-market work, whether by actual money, exchange, or other forms of compensation. Data in the 2000s from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics Survey and the Current Population Survey, together with numerous existing civic examples, aim to stimulate civic leaders, philanthropic foundations, educators and others to consider compensated civil labor, which could benefit workers, families, communities, and countries alike.

Tell us your first work experience and let’s see how jobs differ by gender

This week in North Philly Notes, Ryan Mulligan, the acquiring editor of Yasemin Besen-Cassino’s The Cost of Being a Girlpresents his survey findings about gender and first jobs. 

One of the most exciting parts of my job as an acquisitions editor at a university press is going to academic conferences. Stop laughing; I’m serious!

Conferences give editors a chance to meet potential authors in the fields in which we publish, who are also our readers. We learn what exciting work is being done, what the next frontiers of the field are, and what issues are on the minds of the discipline. They also give us a chance to show off our own work. Each conference features an exhibit hall where academic publishers set up a booth and show off their recent books. We want the scholars in attendance to discover the arguments and scholarship we’ve put out into the marketplace of ideas. We want them to buy our books and assign them in their classes. And we want them to understand what sort of book project we’re excited about and see us as a potential home for their own book projects in the future.

I wanted to try something new in Temple University Press’s booth this year at the American Sociological Society meeting, held in Philadelphia this year from August 11-14. One of our books, The Cost of Being a Girl, by Yasemin Besen-Cassino, received considerable media attention over the past year, from CNN, the Washington Post, MTV, and elsewhere.

In the book, Besen-Cassino looks at the gender wage gap among teen workers, thoroughly investigating what leads working teen girls to earn less than working teen boys. This is especially important because the factors that are usually cited to explain the wage gap among adults – work experience, obligations at home, reasons for working – do not apply to teens who are all in the same entry-level, student-worker boat. She finds that girls are sorted by gender towards care-work like babysitting, where their responsibilities and hours grow over-time but where asking for a raise is considered a betrayal of the values needed for the job, unlike, say, the freelance landscaping jobs preferred by teen boys.

In employment, this sorting of labor by gender continues as managers tend to track male laborers towards back-of-house jobs that have the potential for promotion, whereas girls are placed in customer service under the assumption that they are better suited to accommodate customers. The unique pressures of the aesthetic labor, hospitality, and care work in which employers place teen girl workers detract from these workers’ wellness throughout their lives, Besen-Cassino finds, to the point where girls who do not work at all as teens show a better quality of life years later. Besen-Cassino’s natural story-telling, compelling accounts, and engaging prose, coupled with the relatability of the subject matter makes this book a great candidate for use in sociology courses on work, gender, and youth and I wanted to find a way to get sociologists thinking about the book and the issues it raised.

CostPosterBoothMy colleagues and I set up a poster board in our booth at ASA, featuring the book’s cover and asking passers-by “What was your first job? Tell us your first work experience and let’s see how jobs differ by gender.” We provided blue, pink, and yellow post-it notes, labeled male, female, and non-binary (respectively) so that participants could see at a glance what sorts of jobs each gender identity worked. My colleagues started us off so that folks in the booth wouldn’t be intimidated about “breaking the ice.” Throughout the conference, lots of booth attendants came through and filled out a post-it note. 37 women and 22 men participated. I have to say that I am not a social scientist and while the study that inspired this exercise was extremely rigorous, my own analysis of the responses we received at ASA is not backed up by much in the way of statistical rigor or methods theory. Even if I had those tools at my disposal, I have doubts about the statistical significance of my sample with regards to conference attendees, not to mention to sociologists generally, to working teens in the US, or to living human beings globally. This is not a scientific study; I’m just an English major who reads sociology for a living. But the fun and the point of the exercise is to get us thinking about the principles Professor Besen-Cassino introduces in her book and if we can see them playing out in our sample. Let’s see what we found.

Jobs that appeared multiple times in each gender

Among our men, we have a couple bus boys, a couple paper boys (one woman also delivered newspapers), two journalists, and two young men who cleaned. There were also two research assistants, indicating that these men did not work before they started the careers they presumably hold now as academics.

Among women, we had 11 babysitters, three women offering cleaning services, three laborers, four working at eateries, and two working for clothing/accessory retailers.

Freelance vs. employed positions

Men: One out of 23 worked freelance

Women: 13 out of 37 worked freelance

It’s possible that some of the jobs I assumed were employed were not, of course.

This result lines up with Professor Besen-Cassino’s research, which tells us that men tend to more readily start their working lives for employers, whereas more women start freelance and transition to an employed job. This means that men tend to have more experience at a given age, and are more likely to have been given a raise or been promoted. Women working freelance in The Cost of Being a Girl describe difficulty raising their rates, as their clients read this action as mercenary and out-of-step with the work being provided, usually care work. Which brings us to my next point.

Babysitter, tutor, instructor, human care work

Men: One out of 23 performed this sort of work

Women 15 out of 37 performed this sort of work

Women were most likely to be taking care of somebody. Professor Besen-Cassino shows that expertise in carework is often interpreted as natural rather than a cultivated skill meriting recompense. Moreover, the work tends to grow the longer someone is in the position, but workers who ask for raises are chided for putting themselves over person being cared for.

Among retail/service industries, Customer/Client facing vs back of shop

Men: Of nine respondents working retail/service jobs, one specified a customer-facing job, five specified jobs that did not primarily interact with customers, and three did not specify.

Women: Of seven respondents working retail/service jobs, four specified a customer-facing job, none specified jobs that did not primarily interact with customers, and four did not specify.

I may be prejudicing my results here somewhat by classifying “busboy” as not customer -facing even though I acknowledge that they are seen by and sometimes interact with customers. My logic is that servers take on the interactive responsibility of communicating with customers, taking orders, responding to complaints and requests, and ensuring customer well-being that I’m trying to get at with this data point, so I classified those server jobs as customer-facing and busboys as not.

Clerical/Research/Desk Job

Four women out of 37 had what I would call desk jobs.

Seven out of 23 men had these jobs.

These jobs tended to be higher skilled, which might reasonably be better compensated or put the worker on a career track that tends towards better compensation. Moreover, most don’t call for the performative or aesthetic labor that makes a worker worry about their body, their clothes, or their presentation on a moment-to-moment basis.

Most interesting jobs: Bucker of wood (as an 11 year old boy – note: I had to look up what this meant; it means chopping a tree into logs); Statistician at Disney World (female respondent); tour guide (in our sample, one male and one female each had this job, with the female specifying that she directed a cruise on the Yangtze river), “making pork pies and sausage rolls in a butcher’s bakery” (male), serving raccoon at a wedding (female), corn detassler (female), migrant farm work (female), garment factory worker (female), and “held a sign on a street corner” (female).

And one woman’s first job was as a book reviewer, so I hope she in particular picked up The Cost of Being a Girl.

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