Friday, February 3, 2023 Feb 3, 2023
33° F Dallas, TX
Publications

HERE AND NOW The New-Collar Class

Politicians and Madison Avenue are just discovering the real baby boomers- they’re married, they’re middle-income, and they don’t drink Beaujolais
By Jon Stewart |

The yuppie, you will have noted, has joined the Cabbage Patch Doll in the museum of American cultural iconography.

We should have known, back when Newsweek proclaimed 1984 “The Year of the Yuppie,” that something was amiss. Across America, headlines proclaimed the reign of a new social order, liberated and liberal {if fiscally conservative), career-oriented and successful, cosmopolitan and sophisticated, savvy to the politics of the office and Congress, and able to afford the good life. Madison Avenue believed. Hollywood believed. Even Gary Hart believed.

The problem all along was that, while many people believed in the myth of the yuppie, few actually knew more than a handful of people who shared the yuppie’s passion for the religion of consumerism and ritual networking. Furthermore, the majority of baby boomers-that generation born in the long birth spasm after World War II-were too busy trying to match the lifestyles of their Depression-generation parents to even aspire to the cosmopolitan, materialistic lifestyle embodied in the yuppie. The real baby boomer, as profiled in a recent demographic report by the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Institute, is married, has a child under twelve years of age, and has a median pre-tax income of just $25,157. This typical family, says the institute, “has experienced a dramatic decline in its ability to pursue the conventional American dream: a home, financial security, and education for their children.”

But like any myth to which millions of people respond, there was a seed of truth in the gospel that proclaimed the reign of the baby boomer, if not the yuppie: within the vast proportions of the baby-boomer generation-the largest in the nation’s history, numbering some 76 million-there lurks a social/cultural force that confounds all past assumptions about society, politics, and the marketplace. But that force, as Gary Hart and other politicians learned to their chagrin, is not the yuppie, who numbers no more than 3 million, according to a recent study by the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. Rather, it is a heterogenous group that forms the bulwark of the expanded middle class and defies almost every known socio/politico/economic category known to traditional demographics: left, right, liberal, conservative, middle of the road, blue collar, or white collar. It has been identified with any precision only in the past year or two, and those who have begun to chart the lifestyle characteristics and values of this group have had to resort to an inelegant and opaque label: new collar.

The name, says University of Massachusetts demographer and political strategist Ralph Whitehead Jr., the man who coined the term, intentionally “echoes the blue-collar roots of the new-collar Americans. They are to the Eighties and Nineties what the blue collars were to the Forties and Fifties and Sixties. And many of the “news’ are the sons and daughters of the ’blues.’”

The concept of a new-collar worker and voter is fast gaining currency among key trend watchers. From Massachusetts to California, politicians-Republican and Democrat-are tailoring future campaigns to what they believe to be the themes of the new-collar voter, pollsters are rewriting surveys to reflect their impact, and ad agencies and direct-mail houses are spending millions to figure out who they are and how to appeal to them. So who are they?

The new collars “are essentially the workhorses of the service economy,” says White-head, just as the parents of many of them turned the wheels of the industrial economy. They range in age up to forty-five years, meaning they experienced and probably participated in the cultural earthquake that was the Sixties in their youth. They earn anywhere from the upper-teens to the mid-thirties, or up to as high as $45,000 per working couple. They work in the jobs “that stand between traditional blue-collar work and a career in upper-middle management or the professions’-occupations like nurse, salesman, insurance agent, teacher, office manager, keypunch operator, computer programmer, fast-food manager, painter, clerk, junior loan officer, lab technician. They have at least a high school education, probably a two-year college degree, and possibly a bachelor’s degree from a state college.

Whitehead goes on to sketch a portrait that, with each statistical stroke, comes to resemble more and more the guy next door or across the street. At any rate, it is a person you certainly know-and probably like. Ironically, it is also a person who, despite his familiar visage, is almost invisible. And yet, says Whitehead, these new-collar Americans are 25 million strong-fully 15 percent of the nation’s adult population and eight times as numerous as the yuppies.

The known characteristics of the new-collar man and woman have been identified in some depth in demographic profiles produced by the Claritas organization, a private market research firm based in Virginia. The Claritas studies identify forty separate “clusters,” or types, of neighborhoods that have common characteristics. Among those clusters, six are composed primarily of people who fit the broad economic, age, and educational backgrounds of Whitehead’s new collars. Taken together, the six new-collar clusters account for 19.7 million households, with the heaviest concentrations in California, Texas, Ohio, and Michigan.

What do these neighborhood clusters tell us about the new collars? Let’s examine just one of them-Claritas cluster No. 30, nicknamed “Blue-Chip Blues,” as an example. (Other new-collar clusters have similarly suggestive nicknames, such as “Blue-Collar Nursery,’1 “New Beginnings,” “Black Enterprise,” “Young Suburbia,” and “New Homesteaders.”)

In your typical new-collar “Blue-Chip Blues” neighborhood, more than half of the household incomes range from $15,000 to $35,000 (mean $21,000), and only 4 percent exceed $50,000, Nearly 60 percent of the adults have completed high school and/or some college, but only 13 percent have four-year college degrees. Three out of four households own their own home, and the median home value is $51,000. (Remember, these are national averages.) The neighborhood is predominantly white, with a disproportionately small scattering of ethnic families. (The “Black Enterprise” neighborhood cluster is, of course, the preserve of the new-collar black.)

If you could walk into one of the estimated 128,000 “Blue-Chip Blues” households in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, you would gain a little more insight about who lives there by the products they buy: VCRs, citizens’ band radios, various tools and yard implements, diet pills, natural cold cereal, a Renault in the driveway, and a Chrysler in the garage. If the TV were on (and it probably would be), it would be tuned to a football game or, if none were on, perhaps “Entertainment Tonight,” “The A Team,” “20/20,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Family Ties,” or reruns of “Hill Street Blues.” Magazines in evidence might include Bride’s and Skin Diver, or possibly People, Woman’s Day, Sports Illustrated, Outdoor Life, Ms., and Weight Watchers.

What you will not find is almost as important: The New York Times, Grit. The National Enquirer, Esquire, or Ebony (except in the “Black Enterprise” neighborhoods). This information is not fanciful. This is the kind of hard research data for which direct-mail retailers spend fortunes.

In short, cluster No. 30 is a bastion of the nuclear family, with a high proportion of native-born whites, married couples, school-age children, double incomes, two or more cars, and owner-occupied, suburban homes. It is, says Claritas, “the essence of the traditional American dream.” and it is similar in most ways to the other five new-collar clusters.

None of these neighborhoods is home to Archie Bunker, the prototypical blue-collar worker. But they could be home for Archie’s daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Mike- especially the “Blue-Chip Blues” neighborhoods. The meathead may have thrown away his blue chambray shirt by now, but there’s no way that he and Gloria have discarded completely their Sixties dedication to racial equality, feminism, environmental-ism, and rock music. In the voting booth they’re notorious ticket-splitters, voting for Reagan in ’84 at the same time they elected liberal Democrats at the state and local levels.

But what is most significant is that Gloria and Mike, like the real new collars, do not become Archie and Edith, the incarnations of the previous generation’s blue-collar man and woman.

As Whitehead says, the traditional blue-collar workers “tend to be fatalistic, and for good reason. The ’news’ are anything but.” They grew up in an era that taught them that they could shape their own destiny, and they have faith in that freedom. “For the yuppie,” says Whitehead, “the challenge is this: how do you use all that freedom? For the new collar, it’s tougher: how do you create the world you want by balancing your freedom against your responsibilities?” For the new-collar American does have responsibilities he takes seriously-his family, his community, and, probably last, his job or career, which is the reverse order of concern to both the yuppie and the blue-collar worker.

The new-collar man also distinguishes himself from his blue-collar father in having-and acknowledging-an emotional inner life, says Whitehead. “These are the guys who sit in front of the TV and watch a tough guy like Frank Furillo [on “Hill Street Blues’1] slowly but steadily reveal his emotional life, layer by layer, week by week.” Such a man is not apt to vote for a Rambo or a cold technocrat, a George Wallace or a George Bush; but he can and does respond to a Ronald Reagan or a Mario Cuomo- men who aren’t afraid to reveal a spot of human, male warmth.

There are many other distinguishing characteristics from the old blue collar, as well. The new collars, for instance, identify more closely with their leisure time than with their work, because they have more control over leisure time. Give a new-collar man a choice between staying late at the office to finish a project and impress the boss or going home to play in a regular Tuesday night neighborhood softball game, and he’ll be at the ballpark on time. For the same man’s father, the security of his job and his paycheck would have been the deciding factor; and for the yuppie, the chance of a promotion and another step up the ladder of power would have determined the choice. The new-collar worker’s job security is important, but his real life is lived in the home and the neighborhood.

Finally, says Whitehead, the blue-collar worker “has come to see stability as an ideal, and change as a departure from it. The new collars see change as the norm, stability as the exception.” Their whole lives have been lived in an era of rapid and radical change, and they are comfortable with it. This, too, helps to determine their politics, which can shift from year to year, from issue to issue, and from national to local. They are not realigning to the right politically, as the blue collars have done; rather, they have de-aligned-moved outside the ideological orbits of either party. The fact is, no individual or institution has emerged to speak for the new collar, or to represent anything like leadership. The closest spokespeople may be the pop culture icons like Bruce Springsteen or Frank Furillo, or maybe the guys in the Miller Lite TV ads who watch the game together at the local bar.

“What they have in common isn’t narrow enough to make the basis of an interest group.” Whitehead says. Their future, and their impact on the rest of society, is still very much up in the air, he believes. Given the economic uncertainty of our times, “they could walk off into a bright new day, Or they could step off a cliff, lose their youth, and surrender their sense of possibility. If there’s a Disappearing Middle in America, these are the people who will do the disappearing.”

But Whitehead has high hopes, nonetheless. “The concept of the new collar-not asa social-science term, but as an appealingembodiment of self-reliance through trustand community-can offer the new workingclass a set of values, a few heroes, and something far more fulfilling and high-mindedthan the redneck life, or the materialism ofthe yuppie.”