The Workers

March 13, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

The last time I heard anyone talk about “the workers” was in Paris in 1976. A Hungarian student I met there was interested in Freud, but in Hungary it was hard to get books on psychoanalysis. Publishing resources (all government operated) were mostly devoted, she said, to books for the workers. She was not a strong supporter of the government, but she did say that it had made life better for the workers.

What struck me was the way she used that phrase, “the workers,” without a hint of ironic quotation marks, even when she was expressing some intellectual disdain for them. To me it sounded quaint, like something out of a past I had heard of but didn’t really remember. In America, we have workers, of course. Everybody works.  But we do not speak of “the workers.” That definite article would imply that they are a distinct class, a group with interests that are different from those of other groups. The Redsox, the Dodgers; the faculty, the students.

“The workers” also implies that social class is based on relation to the means of production. That’s not a thought that comes easily to Americans. When I ask students about social class, the first thing they mention is income, but when I ask for other aspects of class, long before someone mentions occupation, the responses run to “lifestyle” choices – consumption not production.

I was reminded of the absence of “the workers” recently when my colleague Vikas Singh noted this sentence in a student's paper on alienation: “We, the customers are alienated from one’s own labor.” “Alienated customers”? Was this a slip of the pen? Or was it, as Vikas thought, an indication of how far we have come in conflating “consumer” and “worker”?

To see what has happened to “the workers,” I ran the phrase in Google nGrams, and just to check on American exceptionalism, I compared the British and American corpuses.


The trends follow a similar pattern – rising to about 1940, then declining – but the rise of “the workers” in the 1930s was much steeper in the UK than in the US. After the decline during the War, Britain, with its socialist government saw a renewed interest in “the workers.” The downturn begins almost exactly at the point that the Conservatives and Thatcher come to power in 1979. In the US the downward trend is a nearly uninterrupted decline starting in 1937. By the end of the century, “the workers” appears only about a third as often as it had during the 1930s.

There’s a more recent trend in what we call people who work. They are still “workers” (though not “the workers”), but that term is fading. More and more they are “employees.”



From 1930 to 1980, workers outnumbered employees two or even three to one. Since 1980, that margin has fallen to about 1.5 to one. Perhaps the trend in words reflects the change in the labor market. “Workers” still wears its blue collar, and those manufacturing jobs have fallen from about 19 million in 1980 to 12 million today.


Fewer workers, more “employees,” a term that elides the difference between the sales clerk and the CEO. And perhaps that is the way we think about class. The sales clerk and the CEO have the same relation to the means of production; they both go to work and get a company paycheck. It’s just that the CEO’s paycheck allows for different lifestyle choices.


1 comment:

Vikas said...

Good "work,"Jay!