Who Will Do the Dirty Work?

Author, far traveler, and shrewd student of American economics, DAVID L. COHN here scrutinizes a question which has become a subject of pressing importance in American industry ever since the flow of immigration teas halted: Who will or who wants to do the dirty work? Mr. Cohn has published an interesting study of rare relations in the South entitled Where I Was Born and Raised; he is the author of a war diary covering some 10,000 miles, entitled This Is the Story, and two entertaining books, The Good Old Days and Love in America.



LARGE numbers of us in I the United States are corroded by resentments, conscious or subconscious. The worm of discontent, for all our riches, gnaws at our secret hearts. We are restless, dissatisfied, vaguely troubled; haunted by we know not what. Our cup runneth over with gadgets but we are not serene.

The source of our resentments, in my opinion, is that many of us are not what we should like to be, or what we think we ought to be. We do not occupy the place in business or society to which our merits “entitle" us. Saddest of all, having been “educated" fora higher (economic) place in life, through no fault of our own we are condemned to what we regard as a lower place.

An outward evidence of our inward resentment is our growing aversion to physical labor. The modern man and the modern woman, wrote D. H. Lawrence, “hate physical work. Ask your husband to peel the potatoes and earn his deep resentment. Ask your wife to wash your socks, and earn the same. There is still a certain thrill about ‘mental’ and purely mechanical work like attending a machine. But actual labor has become to us, with our education, abhorrent.”

Lawrence was writing of Britons in the period between the two world wars. But what he said of them is applicable to us and is intensified by factors purely American: our widespread education; our riches so dazzling that it would seem ignominious to offer a gold mine as a gift if the recipient should have to bend over to pick up the nuggets; the illusion that all of us can, and should, be freed from phvsical labor; the notion that, as Huey Long promised with great political eflectiveness, every man can be a king"; and the further notion that ours is a classless society when actually it is riddled with class and caste concepts.

The causes and possible cures of our resentments have been little explored; indeed the subject is seldom mentioned, as though it were taboo in polite society. Why? Because to probe here is to take in the surgeon’s hand the palpitant heart of the American dream with the fear that it may stop beating before it can be returned to its place within the chest wall. But since the spread of disease is neither stopped by fears nor cured by looking the other way, it may be well to peer into the heart whatever the risks.

Our dilemma is difficult. It is fraught perhaps with a certain inevitability, given the nation’s needs, the manner of its growth, the quality of our industrial genius, the nature of men. For more than a century we have been a people furiously on the run, engaged in the business of settling this continent and bending the resources of nature to the uses of men. And if, as the British say, their empire was put together in abstraction, so the clement of abstraction seems to have entered into the conquering of this continent, despite our alleged purposefulness.

Thus, for example, when Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition to the Northwest to find out what was in the grab bag of the Louisiana Purchase, a large body of public and legislative opinion held that much of its contents was worthless. The Great Plains, for example, must forever remain a desert. A quarter century later, Senator Thomas Mart Henton of Missouri told his colleagues that it would be centuries before the Pacific Coast was settled. Hurrying Americans did not even take time out to laugh at these words. They pushed westward in search of riches to be had there, it was believed, for the taking. By 1869 a transcontinental railroad was Operating, the Indian and the buffalo were receding into the shadows of oblivion, the Great Plains were soon thereafter thickly tenanted with cattle driven northward from Texas, and clouds of homesteaders, with seed and plow, pressed closely on cattlemen s heels to make an agricultural empire where none had existed before. Then, as the United States threw wide its doors to immigration Irom 1870 to 1914, it imported not only millions of people to build this country but also a mass market in the consuming and purchasing power of these same people.

A nation on the run does not stop to take stock. But the United States has long been engaged in transforming itself from one kind of economy into another, and how far we have gone in this transformation was made plain by the Bureau of the Census in 1920. Then it was found, for the first time in ihe nation’s history, that more men were living in cities than in small towns and on the farms. A rural-agricultural society from our earliest beginnings, we had become an urban-industrial society, the process receiving its greatest impetus in our furious expansion after the Civil War.

In this society, business has constantly grown bigger; so have the farms. The hundreds of telephone companies that were operating at the turn of the century have become one giant company. Where once there were many automobile companies, now there are a handful, and one of these accounts for roughly half the output. Retail distribution was formerly the Elysian fields of the little man, because only small organizational ability and capital were required to run the small-town grocery, drugstore, and similar businesses. But retail distribution today is more and more pre-empted by huge chain-store organizations, the sales of one in 1948 amounting to nearly 2.5 billion dollars, and the sales of another to almost 1.5 billion.

Here the testimony of the eye is eloquent. Compare Main Street’s tenants of twenty-five years ago with those of today. People still buy groceries and drugs, but what has become of Tom Hunt, Your Grocer for Forty Years, and Doc Stillwell,’proprietor of the Busy Bee Drugstore, who sold Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup to your grandmother? More pertinently perhaps, what has become of Tom Hunt, Jr., and Doe Stillwell’s boy, Sidney?

The disappearance of independent proprietors is a matter of deep concern to the Federal government. It troubled Franklin and Jefferson, who feared that industrialization of this country might lead to a propertyless proletariat. The theme has been recurring ever since: you find it in the third annual report to President Truman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

“Year by year,” says the report, “control of the market is passing more largely into the hands of the large corporations, not only by internal growth but by the absorption of smaller firms. The process of expansion of large corporations by swallowing smaller firms continues, and the concentration of economic power becomes more intense,”

But I am not concerned here with the question of whether big business or small business is better for the nation in terms of efficiency in general and the lowering of costs and prices in particular. My concern is with a stubborn and somber fact; namely, that as economic power becomes concentrated, the great majority of employable Americans, whatever their talents or aspirations, cannot rationally look forward to becoming independent proprietors or executives of big business, but must content themselves with becoming, at best, skilled workers.

According to Seymour E. Harris, Professor of Economics at Harvard, “The need for executives does not increase in proportion to the growth of population. From 1910 to 1940, while the population was increasing 36 per cent, the number of openings for executives was increased only 8 per cent. And from 1929 to 1940 the number of active proprietors of unincorporated enterprises (roughly, the field of small business) actually declined 2.6 percent (New York Times Magazine, January 2, 1949).

This is also true, if to a lesser degree, of the land. the American farm has long been growing larger, and the larger farms, which are in reality farmfactories owned by corporations, account for a disproportionately large fraction of total farm output and income. Roughly speaking, 10 per cent of our farms produce 50 per cent of our food. This means the constant thinning of the ranks of the subsistence farmer — the “noble independent farmer” as he was called in the 1830’s — while machinery has converted the once large farm family from an economic asset into a liability. Fewer people being needed on the land, they must turn to the cities and factories for a livelihood.

The remorseless process of the big becoming bigger is accompanied by a collateral process through which many corporations have expanded into fields foreign to those for which they were chartered. A paint company processes foods; an oil company manufactures cosmetics; recently a railroad-car manufacturer wanted to buy two rayon mills.

Yet, as the big grow bigger, we have continued to preach a doctrine valid perhaps during much of the American past for large numbers of men, but of increasingly dubious application since the turn of the century. It is: Rise above your station. At the same time, parents have been saying that their children must have advantages they did not have; the opportunity to get an education, to “amount to something,” to do clean, white-collar work, instead of dirty handwork.


WHAT does it mean to rise above your station in an industrial society dominated by giant corporations? What can it mean except the opport unity to acquire a managerial job with one of them? (This aside from the self-employed in a variety of occupations some of which are already overcrowded, such as the law or civil engineering.) Yet how is one to win the grand prize of manager? The number of such positions is tiny compared with the number of aspirants, and the competition for the limited quantity of managerships is so fierce that usually they go only to the superlatively equipped. What of the rest of us? How are we to “amount to something" even when we have gone to college?

Our dilemma — the dilemma of those of us who would rise above our station—is the; more cruel since it stems from the noblest instinct of our democratic society: the right of every man to have the opportunity to realize to the utmost his potentialities. This is the cornerstone of the nation, it is a concept so deeply ingrained within us ns to become embodied in the folk saying that every American boy may expect to become President. Nor is this all. The right to rise above one’s station has acquired a touching poignancy because millions of our citizens derive from communities overseas where a man was expected to stay in the place denominated for him by king, bishop, landlord, or even God. “Once a cobbler, always a cobbler" was a maxim almost as effective as law over wide reaches of the world.

Furthermore, we are faced with a melancholy paradox. It would almost seem that as ihe dimensions of the nation have widened in riches and power, the dimensions of opportunity for the individual have decreased; that, while we may be leader of the democratic world, we afford less and less room for business leaders here at home. The nobilily of the instinct of which we have been speaking remains unsullied, the attractiveness of the aspiration undimmed. But the hard fact remains — let’s face it unblinkingly — that most of us cannot now reasonably expect to rise above our slation as the term and the opportunity were once understood in the United Stales, even though we may be the world’s richest nation with much of our potential richness as yet unrealized. If this is true of the so-called average man, what of the better-equipped mem and women, the college graduates? What are their prospects in the immediate future?

The President’s Commission on Higher Education has proposed for 1960 — only eleven years hence — an enrollment of 4.6 million college students. This is almost double the present enrollment which, in turn, is ten times larger than the student body of 1900. We all agree that the wider the diffusion of education among us, the better for the nation. But we, more perhaps than most peoples, have it pathetic faith in the cash value of an education. Here, generally speaking, education is not a preparation for the good life — born of love and knowledge, as Bertrand Russell defines it, with the great virtue that both are indefinitely extensible — but an allegedly almost infallible method of rising socially and financially. And in so doing, we tread increasingly unstable ground, for we are turning out more college graduates than the economy is prepared to receive.

While the President’s Commission on Higher Education was proposing that we have more college students, the Veterans Administration addressed itself to a cold fact. There will soon be more college graduates than there are jobs for them in their chosen fields.

By 1950, for example, close to ,50,000 engineers will be graduated, as against an annual replacement need of 7000. Lawyers will become a surplus commodity with few takers, yet they continue to flock to college although many members of the class of 1948 are jobless. There is still room for chemists and psychologists but only it they have a graduate degree. There are already too many personnel men. The fields of physical education, social science, and English are crowded. Recruits are badly needed in the ranks of medicine, dentistry, nursing, and grade-school teaching, but even here we could quickly reach the saturation point under a vigorously expanded program.

If large numbers of college graduates could not find employment in their specialties; if we should bring about an overproduction of intellectuals, what would be the effects? Would these ambitious men who had undergone rigorous disciplines of study in order to get a, degree just sit and take it when they found themselves jobless? Or, embittered and frustrated, would they become enemies of society as it is at present; fanatical advocates of some form of authoritarianism, more dangerous since they are ambitious, trained, and resentful?

What to do? I he Veterans Bureau suggests that more students ought to prepare themselves for the trades, or begin their careers as clerks and office workers. This suggestion flows inevitably from the facts, bul will it commend itself to the aspirant? How stem the force of drives among a highly aggressive people? Will a man who thinks of himself as a potential engineer be content to run a lathe?


IF IT is difficult for the best equipped to rise and next to impossible for the mediocre, how are we affected when constantly told that we can and should rise? Suppose you say to a worker in a fertilizer plant, a garbage collector, a car washer, that he ought to rise above his station, and be cannot do it. Or you tell a coal miner that he ought to get out of his black pit and become a white-collar gentleman, and he is unable to escape. (When we were holly discussing the coal strikes some time ago, I never heard one man say that he would like to be a miner.) Is it not likely that he will resent being a miner, and begin to wish that bis son should not follow in his footsteps? And if this is true of the miner, is it not equally true of all who perform the unpleasant bul indispensable tasks of society?

Let’s look at what is happening in other occupations. Custom labors (along with cabinetmakers and other handiwork craftsmen) are a dying race. They were largely first-generation immigrants, proud of their craft and ranking among our higher wage earners. But their sons do not want to become tailors. They are sensitive to the status they must occupy in our society as workers, and they yearn for the white collar. How archaic seems that day when it was noted in the Talmud: “Rabbi Judah would enter the House of Study carrying a jug (which he himself had made), and Rabbi Simeon carrying a basket (which he himself had woven). They said, ‘Great is handicraft for it honors those who engage in it,’“ and it was laid down as law that “artisans are not required to stand up from their labor when a sage passes by.”

We resent physical labor for many reasons: the exaggerated claims of manufacturers and “science" that machines can give us all a push-button existence; the feeling that if we work with our hands we are less likely to “ better ourselves"; and the effects of middle-class snobbishness which dictates that physical labor is not respectable. But many of us resent it because clearly or dimly we believe that we have little chance of rising above our station as, actually or legendarily, we once had in this country. And if our resentments have been temporarily stayed, it is because of our war-born prosperity, high employment during recent years, and phenomenal wages paid oven to the most unskilled. Yet this is the shakiest of foundations upon which to rely. For one of the most striking phenomena of the past five years is that businessmen, farmers, and large numbers of workers have had little faith in their prosperity, and if they have accepted it gladly, there has been more than a touch of wariness and skepticism in their acceptance.

Consider three other phenomena of our times. One is that many otherwise honorable men and women — without losing caste among their fellows — have often preferred to loaf on an unemployment dole rather than to take a job which in pay prestige seems an affront to their amour-propre. Another is the lack of men’s pride in their work: the waiter who throws food at you, the sloppy hotel maid, the slipshod carpenter, the hit-and-miss house painter, the careless garage mechanic. To what extent is this aberrant conduct a reflection of men’s resentments in our society?

The third is our search for economic security. We who once disdained security, now want it double-barreled. We desire to be prelected not only through devices of the Federal government, but also through industrial pensions for which labor unions are pressing. Where once we believed the sky was the limit, now we see it starred with pie. This is the measure of our changing dream.

What remedies are in sight?

If men’s work attitudes are affected by snobbishness, we must make labor truly dignified, not in the sense of the bogus exaltalion of the worker by Communism, but in the sense of evaluating a man for what he is and his usefulness to society rather than by his clothes or his occupation. This, however, is diflicult to achieve. We do not truly believe in the dignity of labor — a concept mouthed by politicians and sung by poets who never sweated for a day in a Kansas wheat field. Nor will it be simple to knock the snobbishness out of the heads of many American mothers who would rather see Sister marry a whitecollar moron than become the wife of a skillful, highly paid patternmaker.

Yet this change of point of view is the condition precedent to the next step. Since it is arithmetically demonstruble that many professional fields will soon be overcrowded, it is reckless for men to enter them unless they are extraordinarily gifted. Their only recourse under the circumstances is to fit themselves, as the Bureau of Labor suggests, for the trades however short this is of their aspirations.

The third step involves a realization bv big business that the trend toward the obliteration of small operators and independent owners, the whittling down of the middle class, and the stultification of men’s aspirations to rise economically may ultimately wreck the structure of present society. Here, fortunately, many enlightened businessmen are aware of what is happening: they are worried lest the American dream become a nightmare; and they know that men are more than statistical digits called consumers. It is for these reasons that some of the oil companies, for example, distribute their products through independent owners of filling stations.

But many sections of business are less enlightened, and numerous maladjustments in our society flow, not from the greed of businessmen, but from their social illiteracy, their lack of imagination and sensitivity, their unwareness of the hour, and a dangerous time-lag in their thinking. Yet unless large numbers of representatives of these groups take such steps as may be necessary to preserve the American dream, unless they understand that men are prideful as well as aggressive and acquisitive, then the industrializing of the United States will come to the bleak end anticipated by Jefferson and Franklin. “When two men ride a horse, one must go in the front,” said Thomas Hobbes. The time has come when Americans must consider whether their countrymen will be long content to ride on the mare’s rump.