Author Talks: What happens to Americans when they lose their jobs?

A new book shines a light on race, class, and American values and how jobs serve as a bedrock of people’s lives and drive powerful social-justice movements.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times editorial board member Farah Stockman. In her book, American Made: What Happens to People When Work Disappears? (Penguin Random House, October 2021), Stockman offers a look at the profound role work plays in our sense of identity and belonging as she follows three workers whose lives unravel when the Rexnord factory, their place of employment, closes down. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Are these factory-floor stories still relevant now?

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The seed of this book started on election night of 2016, when I realized how many millions of Americans had cast a ballot for a man who had not even served one day in government. Why? I’m from Michigan. I’m from the Rust Belt. So I started asking around, “Why Donald Trump? What do you see in him?” And I kept hearing, “He’s going to bring the factories back. He’s going to save my job.”

That’s what made me decide to follow a factory in Indianapolis that was moving to Monterrey, Mexico; [Donald Trump] had tweeted about that plant. I followed Shannon, a White woman; Wally, a Black man; and John, a White man, who all worked at this plant for the entire duration of the Trump administration. It really taught me how much jobs mean, far beyond a paycheck. A lot of jobs are a source of identity. These factories were places where jobs were passed down from father to son, and in some cases from grandfather to son to grandson.

They were the most valuable thing that a blue-collar child could inherit from their parents. They were a status symbol. It was the best of the best job a blue-collar person could get in Indianapolis coming out of high school. Shannon, a woman I followed, used to talk about the factory in the same way that I talk about Harvard. Her high school friends would say, “Where do you work?” She’d say, “Link-Belt,” which is the old name for the plant, and she would watch the envy spread on their faces, because they knew what a great job that was. I came away with the idea that the factory served the same role in her life as Harvard served in mine. It’s the place you go, it’s a powerful social network, and it’s where you go for advice on your career, and if you lose your job, they’re the ones who are going to help you get a new one.

It’s very tempting to say, “Oh, the factories are never coming back. Get over it.” A lot of people in my world would say that. But imagine someone saying, “Oh, the colleges are gone and they’re never coming back. Get over it.” What would that do to your life?

At the intersection

How are we missing the working-class reality of America?

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We talk a lot about the White working class. The working class is not White. It is very diverse. It’s a disservice to working-class people not to truly see that. I started to realize that for blue-collar people, the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement had so much to do with jobs. They literally boiled down in many cases to one thing, which is are you allowed to operate a machine on the factory floor, because the labor movement made those jobs middle-class jobs, and White men got those middle-class jobs. And so what was the civil rights movement, but the fight for those jobs, the fight to be able to operate a machine. The uncle of Wally, the Black man who I followed, got a job at that plant and was made a janitor, like every other Black man at the plant at the time, and the day after the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, he went to his boss and said, “I want to operate a machine. I want that job.”

My eyes were really opened about what that act really did for Blacks and for women, in being able to expand access for what had previously been good jobs reserved for White men. But of course, within 15 years, after the Civil Rights Act passed, factories start moving away, first to the American South, where there are no labor unions, and then overseas. We’ll never know what racial disparities would look like today if those factories had remained.

In some educated quarters, there is a way that we talk about the working class and laid-off factory workers as if they’re just a bunch of privileged, whiny White men who need to get over it. We don’t look at the fact that in the ’70s, many of them were forced to share their jobs with Blacks and with women. They didn’t want to do it, but they did. Guess who didn’t? Corporate boards. Today, [corporate boards] look an awful lot like they did back then. In a lot of ways, race is used as a way to dismiss these economic grievances of a whole class of people.

How should race on the factory floor be covered?

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The conversation that we have in educated circles about White privilege is really important, but oftentimes it pretends that the laid-off White factory worker has the same amount of privilege as the White CEO. That’s just crazy; it’s not reality. And when the laid-off White factory worker hears these discussions of White privilege on TV, he can’t take it. He’s angry about it, because he’s saying, “I lost my job twice.”

John, the White guy who I followed, was the vice president of the union. He was as militant as anyone I’ve ever met. Sometimes he sounded like a Marxist, yet he voted for Donald Trump, and he did it because of the factories. This was the second plant closing he had gone through. John grew up a Democrat. He said he used to tell his kids, “If a Democrat’s in office, old Dad has a job. If a Republican gets in there, old Dad’s out of work.” He really believed that the Democratic party was fighting for the little man.

We think we know these White working-class guys who voted for Donald Trump, but when you really get into their history, you understand that there was a broken promise to the working class, which had once been a pillar of the Democratic party. When we talk only about race and race privilege and we forget about class, we’re sending a message to guys like John that we don’t understand their lives and that we don’t care. It’s almost a perfect storm, because he’s seen his ability to earn money drop from $28 an hour to $25 to $18, all in a span of ten years, and yet instead of people feeling sympathetic, they dismiss him as privileged. That is the surreal disconnect that is really upending our politics today.

What are we missing when we don’t talk about gender on the factory floor?

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I looked at how many women are working in manufacturing. It’s something like three million American women who work in manufacturing, far more than those who work as lawyers, and yet they’re almost invisible. Their needs are almost invisible. We don’t hear a lot from them. But if you were to go to them and talk about women’s issues and what they would be looking for, it’s childcare, it’s the ability to have a baby and take paid leave. They’re the only women in the industrialized world that don’t get paid time off to have a baby.

It goes back to the disconnect of educated people in this country, who are far more likely to be Democrats today than 50 years ago. They’ve forgotten how to talk to blue-collar people. A lot of the women’s issues that I read about are, “How do we negotiate salaries like a man?” A woman in a factory like that doesn’t have to negotiate salaries like a man. They don’t negotiate their salaries. The union has salaries that everybody who is this machine operator with this many years of seniority is going to get. We don’t understand their lives very well. I think that's one of the reasons it’s so hard to communicate about their needs and about what we can do for them.

Bridging the disconnect

What did the book teach you?

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It led me to see what’s wrong often with American capitalism. Someone just sent me a video about a pipe-fitting company in North Carolina that’s been around for 100 years and never had a mass layoff. Never one. They were deeply embedded in the community and deeply committed, and the guy said, “How could I lay people off? I’m going to see them in the grocery store.”

It really raised a lot of questions in my mind about how capitalism is practiced. I’m a capitalist. I believe in it. But you look back at the ’30s, this very same company—it was called Link-Belt back then—something like 30 percent of its shares were owned by employees, and that was considered key to its success. Compare and contrast that to today, where everything is short term.

I was just out in Oakland, Silicon Valley, and people there were like, “Oh, my boyfriend’s going to be a billionaire. He’s going for the IPO tomorrow.” Everything is about getting rich, selling your company. It’s not about keeping it for 100 years. There’s a cost to that.

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I realized that, even though I’m a Black woman, I am the child of two PhDs who went to Harvard and worked for one of the most powerful newspapers in the world. I have a lot of privilege. The most shocking thing I learned through this process is that only a third of American adults have a four-year college degree. We are a minority in this country. Two-thirds of Americans do not have a BA. And yet I had to sit there and think, “How many people do I know who aren’t college graduates?” I count off all the people I interact with on a daily basis: my friends, my husband, my parents, my sister, my neighbors; they have not only college degrees, but advanced degrees. These are the people who are making decisions for the country. Almost every decision of significance is made by people with advanced degrees, and yet we are a tiny slice of the country. We have the power to make these decisions, and yet our economic reality is vastly different than the people who have to live with our decisions. That disconnect, culturally and geographically, is so clear.

Almost every decision of significance is made by people with advanced degrees, and yet we are a tiny slice of the country. We have the power to make these decisions, and yet our economic reality is vastly different than the people who have to live with our decisions. That disconnect, culturally and geographically, is so clear.

I just hammer that home everywhere I go. If you want to cure what’s ailing our country, we have to talk about why it is they don’t trust what they’re hearing on the news, why it is that there’s such a widespread disdain for the “elites,” and it’s being exploited. That’s not their reality, and it’s not the reality of anyone they know. So that’s the beginning of “fake news,” for them. It started a long time ago, but no one picked up on it.

We have to rebuild our ties to working people, if you want to represent them and be elected and keep making these decisions and running the country. We have to make globalization work for them.

Comments and opinions expressed by interviewees are their own and do not represent or reflect the opinions, policies, or positions of McKinsey & Company or have its endorsement.

Watch the full interview

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Farah Stockman on what happens to Americans when they lose their jobs

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