A Man's Life: An ongoing conversation about what it means to be a man in the 21st century
by Alfred Lubrano
January 12, 2005
You move from blue- to white-collar in a single generation. You’re alienated from the very people who raised you, but you don’t fit in with the middle class, either. It’s an odd existence—an American limbo. And then the kids come along…
My father and I were college buddies back in the late 1970s.
While I was in class at Columbia University, struggling with the esoterica du jour, he was on a bricklayer’s scaffold not far up the street, working on a campus building.
My dad has built lots of places in New York City he can’t get into: colleges, condos, office towers. He made his living on the outside. Once the walls were up, a place took on a different feel for him, as though he wasn’t welcome anymore.
We didn’t know it then, but those days were the start of a branching off— a redefining of what it means to be a workingman in our Brooklyn family.
Related by blood, we’re separated by class, my father and I. Being the white-collar child of a blue-collar parent means being the hinge on the door between two ways of life. With one foot in the working class, the other in the middle class, people like me— the first in their families to graduate from college— are what I call Straddlers, at home in neither world.
After college, I soon realized that I was becoming a different person from my parents. The things I valued and the choices I made as the white-collar son of blue-collar people were sometimes at odds with my folks’ ideas and instruction on how to live life.
I talked to others about this, wondering if they felt this way. And it led me to identify an overlooked social issue: the emotions involved in social mobility. How does it play in the head and heart to leave family and friends behind and scale the ladder out of the working class?
If you move from blue- to white-collar in a single generation, you risk feeling hopelessly alienated from the very people who raised you. But once you emigrate to the new country of the middle class, you can feel lost and out of sync, unable to fit in. For people like me, it’s an odd existence, like living in an American limbo.
And I recently compounded my confusion: My wife, Linda, and I adopted a baby girl from Guatemala. She will start out middle-class, without the working-class background that grounded Linda and me. It kicks off so many questions: How do I keep from spoiling a child when I can afford to offer her more than my parents could? How do I build in a work ethic, when the only example I can offer is that of a writer who types, rather than a bricklayer with rough hands? Finally, how do I teach my daughter about her place in the world, when I’m living in limbo myself?
We perpetuate certain myths in this country, one of the more enduring stories being that anyone can pull himself up by his bootstraps. Well, that isn’t always true. Just 50 percent of Americans rise above their parents’ economic class, while 40 percent fall below it, and 10 percent remain the same, according to social mobility guru Michael Hout of the University of California at Berkeley. Our precious rags-to-riches myth is operative only half the time.
So when I made it out of the working class, it was a big deal. But my father thought I would do better financially than I have. He had a tough time accepting my decision to become a mere newspaper reporter. He long wondered why I hadn’t cashed in on that education he paid for, brick by brick, and taken on some lawyer-lucrative job. After bricklaying for 30 years, my father promised himself I’d never pile bricks and blocks into walls for a living. He figured an education— genie-like and benevolent—would somehow rocket me into the consecrated trajectory of the upwardly mobile, and load some serious loot into my pocket.
To lots of blue-collar parents, college is simply a crowbar to pry money out of a corporation so the kid can have a better life. They don’t see that college isn’t just a tool you work with, it works on you. The first-generation college kid is filled with non-blue-collar notions, like pursuing a career because it makes him happy, not necessarily because it makes him money. So often for Straddlers every bit of learning takes them further from their parents.
But as the distance opened between me and my family, I was not feeling comfortable in my new world.
On my first day of classes at Columbia, I walked into a classroom filled with sockless young men. Shoes, no socks. I had never seen that before. I also noticed that the guys were wearing wrinkled dress shirts. Sloppy khakis completed the picture. The seemingly superficial aspects of the new culture required an education all their own.
There I was among the graduated preppies, my shirt ironed, my pants creased, and my socks on. I never felt so out of place, so dumbly lost. These guys seemed confident, cocky even. It appeared as if they all knew each other, or at least knew the secret handshake. They’d light up Camels and opine on everything from the Yankees to politics in India. They seemed smarter, and worldly in a way I had never seen.
To my astonishment, the Barnard women from across Broadway would respond to these guys, who would have been dismissed as prissy and stuck up in my old neighborhood. I should say here that it was a symptom of my blue-collar background that I didn’t know that women did not like being addressed as girls. Back home in Brooklyn, there were girls only. When I dated someone from Barnard, I’d tell my father I was seeing a woman.
"A girl," he’d correct me. "‘Woman’ sounds like you’re takin’ out your grandmother."
But the Barnard women were drawn to the middle-class assuredness of the preppies—the attitude that the streets of Manhattan had been laid out for them, that the professors worked for them. Unlike me, they were unawed by the buildings and expanse of Columbia. It was as though the granite and marble were a birthright. Success was preordained; they didn’t have any doubts. They were the people for whom the school was erected.
At the end of the day, I would leave them all and go down in the subway for a trip to a world that was starting to feel smaller. I’d get off at my stop, then walk in the dark past the shuttered salumerias and apartment buildings whose lobbies smelled like cabbage and onions. I could not find 1 in 100 people whom I could talk to about my day—about the sockless boys, about Plato, or about the growing realization that there was a world of people with self-esteem and feelings of entitlement we never knew existed. Up on Broadway, I felt stupid. Back in the neighborhood, they thought I was a snob. And it seemed I could never reconcile that duality.
When I told my folks how much my first newspaper in Ohio was paying me, my father helpfully suggested I get a part-time job to augment the income. "Maybe you could drive a cab." Soon afterward, the city editor chewed me out for something trivial, and I made the mistake of telling my father during a visit home.
"They pay you nothing and they push you around in that business," he told me, with rage building. "Next time, you grab the guy by the throat, push him against the wall, and tell him he’s a big jerk."
"Dad, I can’t talk to the boss like that. And I can’t touch him."
"Do it! You get results that way. Never take any garbage."
I should have realized. Blue-collar guys have no patience for office politics and corporate bile-swallowing. You have a beef, you air it.
That’s not the way it works in corporate America. Workers have to be reserved and unemotional, and must never show anger.
What’s a Straddler to do?
Here’s the dilemma: You come from a culture in which the boss is the common enemy and you’re expected to be loyal only to your fellow workers. People are not trying to work their way up to own the plumbing outfit in which they sweat. It’s noble enough to hang in there and knock out those rent payments.
Meanwhile, you go to college, then find yourself embarking on a white-collar career, where you are required to pledge allegiance to the firm, not to your coworkers. And success is measured not by the secure stasis and comfortable consistency your parents struggled for, but by constant movement upward, spurred by a class-taught, sleep-robbing dissatisfaction with your current spot on the corporate organizational chart. Stop climbing and you die. And to facilitate this grand journey, you might well have to schmooze a boss and kiss a fanny or two, anathema to your working-class forebears.
Try resolving all that.
Not everyone can. I myself have gotten into trouble by opening my mouth when I shouldn’t have and speaking out when silence was the smart, middle-class alternative. Especially in the early days of my career, there was no such thing as an unexpressed thought. I suppose I can thank my dad for that.
These days, happily, my father doesn’t complain about my being an underpaid journalist anymore. He’s learned to accept me, and what I do, I suppose. Recently, in an unguarded moment, he turned to me and said, "For a man to do what he wants for work, that’s fantastic." I took it as a benediction. My becoming a father myself this summer has also earned me some points with the old man.
But being a middle-class parent born to the working class has its problems.
As a working-class child, I was expected to speak only when spoken to. My needs, beyond the basics, did not matter. No one worried whether I was self-actualizing over in the corner of the living room. "We fed you, we clothed you, shut up."
For middle-class children, it’s different. Sociological research has shown that children born to college-educated, middle-class parents are taught to speak up among adults; are chauffeured around from one enriching activity to the next; are solicited for their opinions. This engenders a sense of entitlement in the kids, a notion that their happiness matters.
Besides, middle-class kids grow up with more stuff—stuff I never had. When I was a kid, we lived cramped and crowded in an apartment one block from the elevated train in Brooklyn. Now, Linda and I own a 13-acre horse farm in South Jersey. I worry that my daughter will assume privilege, and not know anxiety. She won’t know that none of what she has is inevitable, that not everyone has horses in the yard.
Mariela will grow up with a sense of entitlement, and I’m not sure how to avoid that. People like me take it a step further and wonder whether they’ll even like their own kids as they grow up middle-class. A guy I know told me, "I saw my daughter in $800 of hockey gear, skating in a $300-an-hour rink, and I realized that she has become the type of kid I hated growing up."
It’s not that I want my daughter to know the deprivation I had, the times when my father couldn’t find work. But there are good things to being born working-class: the whatever-it-takes work ethic, the lack of pretense, people’s forthright manner. As soon as she can understand, my daughter is going to hear about her immigrant grandparents who built lives here; about the importance of family, and the danger of thinking you’re better than someone else; about the dignity of work, and how it lifts you. I hope she hears me.
What she’ll never know is my duality—how I am grounded in a working-class past, and how I still feel like an immigrant to the middle class. Maybe that’s a part of me she will never understand.
I only hope that she will try.
Alfred Lubrano is an award-winning journalist with 21 years of experience. He’s currently a staff reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a contributing editor to G.Q., and a commentator on National Public Radio. Lubrano is the author of Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams.