The Anxiety Economy

A quiet hero of Walter Isaacson’s unblinking biography of Steve Jobs is the Apple founder’s father, Paul Jobs. Isaacson portrays the elder Jobs as an unfailing source of love and support for his ruthless son, and credits him with, among other accomplishments, awakening Steve Jobs’s passion for lapidary workmanship. The father’s insistence that the hidden backs of fences and cabinets be joined precisely would echo years later in the son’s obsession with the beauty even of parts, like circuit boards, that buyers would never see.

Paul Jobs, who was raised on a dairy farm in Germantown, Wisconsin, was a high-school dropout. He served in the Coast Guard during World War II, ferrying soldiers to Italy, then worked as a machinist and used-car salesman in Indiana before acceding to the desire of his wife, Clara, to move to the Bay Area. There he got a job as a repo man, then as a real-estate agent, before going back to working as a machinist. He did not become wealthy. But in the California of the latter decades of the last century, he and Clara would buy a three-bedroom tract home (with a now-celebrated attached garage) and raise their adopted son in a good school district at the epicenter of the explosion in computing power that would create Steve Jobs’s fortune and erase the broad path to the middle class that his father, and tens of millions of other Americans, had followed.

Today, of course, when someone in, say, Germantown, Wisconsin, places an order over the Internet for a gizmo from a company like Apple, the item can be assembled in Shenzhen, China, then packed up and delivered to his doorstep in 48 hours. In this age of wonders, it’s also a wonder that we make anything in the United States at all. Still, as Adam Davidson shows in his cover story this month, we do. Depending on your yardstick, we are the first- or second-largest manufacturer in the world. But starting in 1999, manufacturing employment in the United States plummeted. Over just the ensuing decade, 6 million manufacturing jobs—a third of the total—disappeared.

Davidson, the co-founder and co-host of National Public Radio’s Planet Money, shows where those jobs went by providing a case study of what success looks like in today’s American economy. I think you’ll find, from his humane portrait of the auto-parts maker Standard Motor Products, that it looks a lot like fear. Not just foreign workers but machines are effectively competing constantly for every position that does not require much skill or education. And while it is tempting to wish that Standard would indulge a little inefficiency by bulking up its payroll or investing in educating its workers, Davidson’s journey from the shop floor to the corner office shows how costly that would be. Caught in a three-way vise—among suppliers able to raise prices, giant customers looking to cut prices, and stockholders insisting on particular profit margins—the company’s leadership must run scared, squeezing out every ounce of inefficiency, in order to survive.

And so Maddie Parlier, one of Standard’s lucky assembly-line workers in Greenville, South Carolina, is holding on to her job by her fingernails. She will have it only as long as her labor remains less expensive, as priced out over two years, than a machine that now costs $100,000. It’s a simple formula, but the variables are constantly changing—for example, the machines may get cheaper.

The result is pervasive anxiety. “Each person in the factory—they have to be constantly making an argument why they should have their job,” Davidson told me. “There are rooms full of decent people, not evil people, sitting around, constantly figuring out: Should those people have that job, or not?”

Under the relentless pressure of globalizing markets, the rewards for the highly skilled and educated are growing, and the opportunities for other Americans are shrinking. And so the nation’s top priority for its long-term health must be its schools. Everyone knows that. But there’s been barely a whisper about the subject in this presidential campaign, beyond the quadrennial posturing about shutting down the Department of Education.

It would be unfair to Steve Jobs to view him as the emblem of our times. He cared far too much about creating wonderful things, and far too little (most of the time) about great wealth. His merciless drive is the spirit of today’s economy, though, and his righteous egotism is coming to characterize our politics. But it’s hard, even in America, to imagine how you can get a Steve Jobs without a Paul Jobs—harder still to imagine what our society would look like without some sort of reliable stairway to the middle class.