The American Class Struggle and Reflections on Our Return to Work

business meeting

It seems like there is a long list of things those of us who live in the United States are not supposed to talk about. The genocidal campaign our country waged against Native Americans might top the list, but we can also find slavery (and reparations), the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, poverty, and all sorts of other items on the list. These topics can be considered in academic settings, but bringing them up in other contexts may result in one being labeled as "part of the blame America first crowd" or worse.

After reading a great post over at Infidel753, I was reminded that social class is another example of a topic one finds on this list. Virtually every rational American is aware that we have socioeconomic classes here even though considerable effort is spent trying to persuade us otherwise. It used to be that merely raising this topic would lead to wild accusations of Communism. Today, one merely faces wild accusations of socialism. I suppose that's progress.

My take on Infidel's question of whether Americans who were allowed to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic (a pandemic that is still far from over, by the way) will willingly return to the deplorable drudgery of commuting and office life is less optimistic than his. He's right that some people have been quitting jobs that place unreasonable demands on them, but that does not seem like a realistic option for most. My guess is that some employers may come to their senses but most will not. I expect most of the workers will return to the drudgery because they the entire system has been set up to make sure that they have to.

I expect that there will be discontent and even outrage initially but that it will be relatively short-lived. People, including American people, are fairly adaptable and easy to distract with the next outrage. We won't like it, but we will do it. And as we do it, it will become easier. Over a relatively brief period of time (i.e., months rather than years), we will return to a "normal" that was never particularly satisfying to begin with. And as we do so, one will hear some of us saying things like, "Well, it is work; it is not supposed to be fun." In time, most of us will forget the many benefits of working from home and those who issue the paychecks will have won.

If there is any hope here, Infidel is right to point to the young. I could imagine some younger workers who have the means to be a bit more selective holding out for the sort of jobs that provide greater flexibility. I could even imagine some deciding to turn down jobs that might pay somewhat better in exchange for those that are more flexible around work-from-home. If there are enough of them, they really might be able to effect change in at least some industries.

On the other hand, I think most of us will be faced with at least one massive barrier I haven't seen nearly enough people addressing: the pervasive belief that offline face-to-face interactions are vastly superior to online interactions. While I agree with Infidel that some of the forced return has to do with the desire of employers to exert control over their workers, I think the perceived superiority of face-to-face interactions is an even bigger factor. I say this, at least in part, because I've heard this from both employers and employees. It seems to be one of the few areas where there is quite a bit of agreement. That means that many of the employees who would prefer to continue to work from home are at least somewhat sympathetic to arguments that leverage this belief. This will weaken their resolve.

In any event, I expect the return to work is going to be quite interesting for those of us who live in states with embarrassingly low rates of vaccination and extreme hostility to mask mandates. Locally, I'd estimate that fewer than 25% are wearing masks in public indoor settings, and nobody has any way of knowing who might be vaccinated. Based on statewide numbers, it would be safe to assume that only 30-40% are. As we cram into poorly ventilated indoor spaces with the unvaccinated where few are wearing masks and additional COVID-19 variants are emerging, people will get sick. And since nobody seems to have idea what to do as that starts to happen, I fear we may be in for a rough ride.