The last time I had a job that felt like actual work, I was 20 years old and earning $1.60 an hour at the Lasting Paints factory, where I made aluminum ladders all day long. With all proper appreciation of my skill level and aptitude, I was probably overpaid.
The work was mind-numbing, and I wondered how any individual could spend a lifetime at it. For me, it was strictly summer fill-in work. I labored over one ladder-making machine and then another, and set an unfortunate record for botching up more aluminum than anyone at Lasting Paints had ever counted.
At summer’s end, the foreman, a grizzled old fellow with a flat-top haircut, bid me a gentle farewell as I headed down to my junior year of college.
“What are you studying down there?” he asked.
“Journalism,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said. “Because, son, you’ll never be a ladder maker.”
Well, we all have to find our way in this world, don’t we? As we enter the Labor Day weekend, I see polls that say many Americans are still trying to make their way.
The most recent numbers I’ve seen this year had only 45 percent of us satisfied with our jobs. This is a drop of 16 points over the last three decades. Only 20 percent of Americans say they’re “passionate” about their work.
And some of the unhappy folks aren’t even ladder makers.
Be happy if your job offered some time off this summer, because we’re the only advanced economy that doesn’t guarantee workers any vacation. By comparison, the European Union’s 28 nations guarantee at least four weeks of paid vacation.
America’s got the second-highest percentage of low-wage workers among the richest three dozen industrial countries. The American Dream tells us one story, but government figures tell us another: We’ve only got an 8 percent chance of climbing from the bottom of the income ladder to the top. Oh, and we’re the only advanced industrial nation that doesn’t have national laws guaranteeing paid maternity leave.
When President Donald Trump pushed through his tax cut for the wealthy in 2017, he delivered the modern version of trickle-down economics baloney, insisting that it would raise average pay by $4,000. Two years later, be advised: Don’t hold your breath waiting.
As Steven Greenhouse, author of “Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present and Future of American Labor,” wrote recently in the New York Times, “Labor unions are weaker in the United States than in other industrial nations. … Just 10.5 percent of all American workers, and only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers, are in unions.”
Those union figures have dropped dramatically in the four decades since Ronald Reagan became president. We were a nation with a solid middle class back then. Now, we’re a nation with grotesque gaps between the super rich and the rest of us.
Across America, the median income has risen only modestly since Reagan took office, while the income of the richest 0.1 percent of the population has quadrupled.
But money’s only part of it. The world is always changing, but the pace of change has quickened faster than our beating hearts, and we’re moving from the old industrialized economy – when there were plenty of jobs available making aluminum ladders and such – to an information economy.
Millions are still feeling their way in the new world. Young people need more education than ever, but how do you get that education in a world where the cost of college has skyrocketed? It’s left millions unable to afford college, and millions more with college debt they won’t be able to pay off for many years.
That $1.60 minimum wage I was paid half a century ago at Lasting Paints has now gone up. But the new minimum wage probably carries less muscle than it did back then.
Around here, we had many thousands who used to find work at places such as the Sparrows Point steel mills – and Lasting Paints. Those jobs are gone. Most of us, we’ll never be ladder makers.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).