Bringing the Walmart Workers Out from Under Wraps

January 27, 2008

In today’s New York Times, Christopher Caldwell writes that

The economy as politicians present it is a folkloric thing.

While candidates go out of their way to be photographed with factory workers to show their concern for “the people”, many more Americans now work in casinos, in retail, or as security guards than work in manufacturing. The “jobs of the future” that candidates promised 20 years ago are now here, Caldwell writes, and the news is not good:

Choreographers, blackjack dealers and security guards have replaced factory workers as the economy’s backbone, if not yet its symbol.

While candidates steer clear of being photographed with the cashiers at Walmart, educational policy makers seem also to be living in folkloric times, promising us that high test scores will sustain the nation’s economic competitiveness in new global markets and enable individuals to live lives of material comfort.

Indeed, recently, I’ve seen any number of bloggers and pundits (such as this recent post) argue that we’re putting too much emphasis on preparing kids for college, not enough on encouraging kids to pursue lucrative career paths that don’t require college degrees.

I fear that they’re missing the point.

Like the politicians who want us to see the hard harts but not the ill-fitting uniforms of the minimum-wage earning, night-shift security guards, educators seldom talk about the Walmart and call center jobs for which so many of our young people are heading, with or without vocational training or college.

In campaigns, Caldwell argues, the hypothetical needs of the employers of the future have superseded “the real needs of today’s dental hygienists and landscape gardeners”.

In educational policy making, the life circumstances of today’s low-wage workers are rendered invisible when our deliberations go no further than wondering whether their children should go to college or into a high-paying trade.

The trouble is that in today’s economy, most kids will able to do neither.

At least until we’re willing to bring the Walmart workers out from under wraps and talk frankly about how people like them have come to be the backbone of the U.S. economy.

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