Blue-Collar Raised in a White-Collar World
An Opinion on the Effects of Growing up Financially Poor
I’m currently reading a very interesting book about the world of work, titled “Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams,” by Alfred Lubrano, first published in 2003.
Its premise is based on a term Lubrano came up with: “Straddlers.”
The Challenge that Comes with Upbringing
Straddlers are people who grew up in blue-collar, low-income, working-class neighborhoods and worked their way up to the middle or upper classes by getting employed in white-collar jobs, mostly by graduating from college. Now they live in two worlds, often finding themselves having to deal with awkward social and familial engagements, attempting to find a balance in their blue-collar and white-collar lives, as they navigate their careers and ultimately dwell in limbo.
At work, via their typically bold outspokenness, Straddlers often see through and expose the lack of authenticity that often confronts them from their wealthier, elitist, upper-class-raised co-workers and bosses. Their blue-collar roots have taught them how to easily recognize BS and call it out, which usually gets them in trouble, regardless of truth. At home, back in their neighborhoods, they feel enormously disturbed by the pervasive intolerance and racism that still exists there.
Yes, they grew up around blatant intolerance and racism, but that kind of thinking was destroyed through the learning and social interactions they experienced in college. Now they find it appalling.
Can You Go Back Home Again?
As someone who is most definitely a Straddler, I could relate to Lubrano’s premise. He backs it up with numerous Straddler profiles that highlight what they face every day of their lives. Many of the stories resonated with me, especially the stories about those who revisit their old city neighborhoods to stay in tune with their roots and cultural upbringing. They return for respite from the upper-class corporate world by cavorting with the pleasant and happy familiarity of old friends and close family who still live in or within close proximity to their blue-collar neighborhoods.
I’m a Straddler who left to pursue a higher education and eventually returned back home, settling in the suburbs instead of the city neighborhood where I grew up. I made the move back home again when I was 40 after getting married and having two children, because I wanted my kids to have a similar upbringing around extended family members. After my kids grew up and pursued their college educations, and my parents passed, we moved away to a progressive-minded college town for the next adventure, a six-hour drive away from my roots.
Modern-day Working-Class Woes
My old city neighborhood has become neglected by a poorer, 21st century, working-class, struggling-to-survive population that moved in and unfortunately deteriorated the once pristine properties. This retrogressive turn came about due to a lack of financial wherewithal driven by low, working-class wages that have not risen in decades, coupled with the loss of manufacturing, steel, and other occupations that use to give folks the means to live decent lives. The familiar store fronts, taverns, restaurants and mom and pop stores have been replaced by franchised convenience stores, dilapidated apartments, ugly pizzerias and oftentimes unsafe streets that used to be safe. Many of the homes are no longer taken good care of and sell for bargain prices.
Pretty much all my friends from the blue-collar neighborhood I grew up in no longer live there, all moving to the suburbs. And most earned college degrees and work in white-collar jobs (or have retired from them by now). Others have become hugely successful in well-paying, blue-collar, self-employed occupations in the home improvement and repair sectors.
A small percentage of my blue-collar friends and acquaintances went backwards and are no longer with us, due primarily to drug abuse.
Some of us Straddlers have taken on relatively low-paid, white-collar careers, like being a journalist or a teacher or a social worker, for example. That’s where I fit in. But I’m not complaining though, because I never sold my soul to the corporate and/or money Gods. That does not mean that I did not wish I had financial success — just to survive a bit more comfortably and not have to worry so much about paying the bills. That’s an entirely different story I won’t get into here.
The notion of and parameters around privilege reverberate with me when comparing myself to the upper classes I rubbed elbows with while working in the white-collar, corporate world.
Growing up, nobody advised me to get a higher education. Nobody was there to pay for it. There really wasn’t any mentoring either. Getting a job at the auto manufacturing plant, at the steel mill, or with the railroad were considered the top line of success. My wealthier cohorts were mentored well and had their educations paid for. I had to work the graveyard shift full-time in order to pay for my tuition and go to school during the daylight hours.
I recall, when I was editor of my college newspaper, hanging out with a young woman who drove a Mercedes. I remember her telling me that she was worried about the wrath of her parents crashing upon her because she was flunking out. I stopped hanging out with her after that because I did not want to lash out at her. I felt personally affronted. There I was busting my ass, falling asleep in my classes, riding a ten-speed bike to and from work, school and my dumpy, low-rent studio in a nasty neighborhood — and this young lady drove a luxury vehicle, had a lovely apartment, and did not even have to work a part-time job.
The Shine on the Shade
Yet, paying my own way made me value my education more. I listened to the lectures. Got to know my professors. I read all the textbooks. I became more tolerant, more understanding of humanity — more educated, smarter, and much better at voicing my opinions and viewpoints on everything. Needless to say, I became strongly supportive of getting a college degree in order to become a better human being.
I still am a firm believer in a college education, but the privilege angle still occasionally sticks into my ribs. “Because Straddlers have journeyed from the working class, they are in a distinct position to notice what the middle class may not recognize: its class-bestowed privileges,” Lubrano writes. Indeed, it did not escape me.
There were times when I waffled between jealousy and resentment (both emotionally immature), and to the opposite end, a feeling that exclaimed “hey, that’s great for you. I’m happy for you” (more mature). After all, it’s where they were born, which was not under their control. Why not take full advantage of their privilege?
I will say this, however, to all the classes: Please say that you’re grateful and practice equity in the workplace. Try to understand the harder realities of how blue-collar folks were raised and (for the most part) had a much more difficult route to take than you did to get to where they are today. And maybe give back to some people you may encounter who are much less fortunate than you.
Thanks for stopping by,