An incident last week stuck with me. Novelists go to some effort to find naturalistic-looking ways to present key messages. Perhaps as a derivative, journalists fetishize using anecdotes to draw readers into what otherwise would be a dry recitation of facts and statistics. So it’s odd to be going about one’s vacation and, like stepping on a rake and having it whack you in the face, stumble into a vignette that apostrophizes how much young people have internalized the fallen state of the American worker. And in a further bit of synchronicity, this little story dovetails with Lambert’s “My Favorite Job” post.
But to understand the story, it helps to appreciate a bit about Maine. This liberal but poor and rural state lags the nation in many trends by anywhere from 10 to 20 years, and some bypassed Maine almost entirely. Maine is decidedly older (the Census lists the average age of the year-round population of the island I’m staying on as 56), with less engagement with technology and the Internet than most of the rest of the US (vast swathes of the most affluent part of Maine, the coast, have no cell signal). It’s also decidedly unfashionable. Women up here don’t color their hair, wear much or any makeup or invest in stylish haircuts. Plastic surgery? Fuggedaboudit.
Community matters Down East. Some of it is that the lack of population density means you need to rely on the locals rather than big impersonal service providers who are often too distant to be much use. As Lamber, who lives in a town of 7,000, says, “Even if you hate your neighbor, you’ll help him if his boiler breaks down.”
One of the striking ways Maine has been behind the rest of the US is in its comparative lack of class stratification. Yes, there are some rich enclaves, such as Kennebunkport and Bar Harbor. But the wealthy folk are almost entirely summer people (in Casco Bay, “highlanders”) and aren’t seen as part of the local hierarchy. My pet theory as to how this came about is that the long-established culture of self-sufficient households (farmers and fisherman) escaped the domestication of Big Corporate America. The town fathers of Portland, the biggest city in the state, rejected Ford Motors’ plans to build a factory there in the 1920s. Until perhaps 15 years ago, that decision seemed woefully provincial, that of small-minded, entrenched interests refusing see their status erode, even if it meant less local wealth and income.
Maine remains underdeveloped, and as a result, hasn’t suffered much from the hollowing out of American manufacturing. The biggest plants in Maine were those of papermakers, and a typical paper mill is a little fiefdom run by a mill manager. Since each mill is largely autonomous and not all that large, hierarchies are fairly flat. The union-member mill workers typically see only two layers of supervision between him and the local manager. My guess is that the other types of small manufacturers that were and are still here (B&M Beans and in its heyday, Dexter Shoes, which was killed by a misguided LBO), would have similar management structures.
Also keep in mind that what might now seem like modest jobs provided a good lifestyle 100 years ago. For instance, my great grandfather Black was both a lobsterman (as in he hauled traps) and a lobster broker. He made enough during the short fishing season to build a house and acquire additional land on Bailey Island. But schools on the island went only to 8th grade. So he would rent a house in Portland in the winter and work there while the kids were in high school. So there was enough demand in the economy in the early 1900s that men in coastal Maine could find well-enough paid work for them to own property and also pay for a rental home for 3/4 of the year.
Now to the story from last week. I was on a short cruise of the Portland harbor. In the last seven years, since my father died, I’ve been on lots of tours, since my somewhat infirm mother can’t travel by herself and she likes tours. Tour guides (with varying degrees of success) entertain their charges by providing historical and/or scientific background on the various sites. Most seem to see themselves as mini-ambassadors, out to put the best face on their port of call to encourage tourists to spend locally and visit again.
I listen to the guides’ patter see how much reality seeps through, say, whether they comment on national politics or ethnic strife. For instance, when I was in Dubrovnik in 2007, our escort gave a vivid, detailed, and pretty evenhanded account the Bosnian war. Last year, when I was in Spain, France, and Portugal, all the guides (save the one in the French Basque) felt compelled to mention how bad unemployment was, yet also clearly did not want to dwell on the lousy state of the economy.
I don’t go much on tours in the US and tend to dial down my listening for political and economic subtext when I do. Yet I couldn’t not notice it in this Portland session. The guide (who was excellent, this was one of the best talks I’ve heard in a while) was a man in his early 20s that I assumed was going back to college (he mentioned that this was his last week, but it could also have been because fewer tours are given in off season).
But even though he was brimming with youthful enthusiasm about the various harbor sights, his lack of optimism about his own future was palpable. It felt like seeing a poor kid with his nose pressed against a toy store window. And it’s not as if he was poor by any objective standard, but that he’d been robbed of one of the entitlements of energetic, healthy young people, that of a sense of possibilities, of worlds to be explored and maybe even conquered. The saddest part was that every time he talked about dreaming for something, it was clearly something he knew he’d never have.
We rode by Cushing Island. It has long been largely privately owned and became fully private after the residents bought the decommissioned Fort Levett and the land around it in 1970. Our guide said the island’s status was a “sore subject” with Portland residents (not explained, but I’d hazard because it had gotten and/or continued to get services disproportionate to what its residents paid in taxes). Members of the Cushing family had acquired much of the island in the 1800s and planned to turn it into a summer resort. A Cushing engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to develop the island. One of our guide’s dreams was that the Olmstead-designed parks would become open to the public.
We got a view of Cape Elizabeth, the wealthiest community in Maine, where houses sell for $1.5 to $6 million. Our guide pointed out the one he would buy if he won the Lotto (as in he could not conceive of another way he’d be able to afford a place like that). He also defended the Cape Elizabeth residents, saying that they were low key and unassuming. One of his roommates lived there, the scion of a family that held a valuable patent. His discussion was tantamount to “most nobles are bad, but our local nobles aren’t like that.”
We saw the site of the South Portland shipyard, which operated from 1941 to 1945 building vessels for the US and British navies during World War II. It employed 30,000 people, including 3,700 women. I was struck on how our narrator talked about these jobs in a way that placed emphasis on how they were important and temporary. When I’ve heard previous accounts of war-related efforts, the focus was on the scale and speed of mobilization (“X people worked here”) with no concern about what happened to the laborers later (it was just assumed the women went back to domestic duties and the men found other work), not on paid employment as a scarce and valuable commodity.
Now on one level, it should be no surprise to learn that people in their 20s are acutely aware of their poor work prospects and have ratcheted their expectations for the future downward in a serious way. But on another, it’s also not hard to see how people are imprinted by their first encounters with employment. I know that my bearish bias results from starting out on Wall Street when the economy was in an acute recession, interest rates were sky-high, and securities markets were in the tank. But even though that time seemed badly off keel, it didn’t dent the foolhardy optimism of young people very much. By contrast, it wasn’t hard to see through this young man’s cheerful, professional mask to the fear behind it. And people who are afraid are easy to exploit and manipulate.
If this tour guide is representative of our educated youth, he’s been robbed of the main wellsprings of their creativity and energy, which is hope and faith in their ability to influence how things work out for them. And while harboring modest aims is now entirely rational, it also assures modest results. While these fledgling workers are the biggest losers, the rest of us suffer too, with the exception of the top wealthy, who profit from having a compliant labor pool with modest demands. If the US and Europe has a a half generation or more that has come to see terrible job conditions and a poor outlook for income growth as normal, they won’t demand better from policy-makers and the business elite. One has to assume that that suits them just fine.