A living wage

In the context of a discussion about why one low-skilled worker's salary is no longer enough to support a family,  MC writes:

Look, there have always been people who could command a wage that could support a family, and people who could not.

In the old days, the people who could not were called women. And various other names related to skin color that I will not include here. That whole notion of earning a family wage with no specialized education or skills only applied to a subset of the population, and the organizations protecting their interests worked to keep it that way.

Nowadays, white men have no special protections. If they want to buy a house and raise a family, they need to learn a trade better than Walmart clerk. And they may need to move away from depressed rural economies.

The gain is that a lot of people who never had a shot at the good jobs in the past do have that shot now. White men are competing with everyone now, and they can't coast.

They are even competing with the entire populations of China and India. Terrifying thought, but you can't get around it.

The 50s were fake, so we can't really use them as our baseline. And even that fake only applied to some people.

It's also worth remembering that companies were not only legally allowed, but expected, to pay married men more that anyone else, and that ordinary people lived much, much more modestly than they do now.  Many workers lived with other family members, or in rooming houses--the houses in television and movies from the era are, just as now, abnormally large because average-sized houses would be too small to film.  In the popular mind, every blue collar worker in 1950 was pulling down a hefty wage at GM, but union membership peaked at about a third of workers, and most of those jobs were at companies that didn't have the profits, or the freedom from competition, to support those kinds of wages.  A lot more blue collar workers were people like the mechanics and pump operators at my grandfather's gas station, who raised families on . . . the kind of money you could generate working at a gas station.

Our memories are distorted by two things:  first, the tendency of all cultures to focus on their own outliers (many fewer people work for silicon valley startups in real life than in either our entertainment, or the popular imagination), and second, the fact that the people who have written about the period are abnormally likely to have come from successful families who pushed them through an education.  Their memory of a well-appointed blue-collar childhood in a nice suburb on Dad's generous steelworker wages endures; few memories of a straggling blue-collar childhood as the child of a factory janitor do, because those kids were less likely to go to college and become people of letters.  The successful and educated are disproportionately likely to be represented in all parts of our written and spoken culture, from man on the street interviews to letters to the editor.  History really is written by the winners.

Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Business

Just In