Working Class Without Work: High School Students in a Re-industrializing Economy

reviewed by Sue E. Berryman - 1992

coverTitle: Working Class Without Work: High School Students in a Re-industrializing Economy
Author(s): Lois Weiss
Publisher: Routledge/Falmer, New York
ISBN: 0415902347, Pages: , Year: 1990
Search for book at

Working Class without Work explores the formation of the identities of young white working-class men and women in a town (“Freeway”) dominated by a steel plant and located in the northeastern “rust belt.” Despite some flaws, it is a thoughtful book and worth reading. Using an observational and open-ended interview methodology, Lois Weis examines emerging identities as revealed by the young people themselves and their parents in an attempt to understand the role of the school, high school teachers, social movements (especially the feminist movement and the New Right), and the restructuring economy in these identity processes.

Weis finds a break with previous studies of working-class male youth in their more positive attitudes toward education, school, and mental labor, a change attributable to the shock of factory closings and the visible drying up of low-skill, middle-wage jobs. These young men have a highly utilitarian view of school, connecting more education to getting a “good” job. Education is equated with years of schooling and getting a high school diploma, not with excelling in school or any clear vision of the skills that they must acquire to get jobs that in fact will pay well.

She finds the young men and women on a conflict course. Freeway white working-class males show the same virulent sexism as documented in previous studies, viewing women as “less than” men and subject to male control. They construct traditional pictures in which the male goes out to work and the female stays home, the males’ control over money being instrumental to controlling their wives. Although they show some adjustment to new economic realities by adhering more to the form of school, they do not recognize that their mediocre school performance with its implications for postsecondary options will make it exceedingly difficult for them to earn enough by themselves to support families without their wives working.

White working-class girls, on the other hand, show marked shifts in career identities relative to earlier studies. They see jobs and careers as their primary goals, not as adjuncts to marriage, and have specific educational plans to realize these goals. They perceive men as unreliable for a variety of reasons: high divorce rates, drinking, lack of jobs, lack of skills, and infidelity. Their focus on jobs and career represents an attempt to control their own lives independent of men. It is not clear how or whether these young men and women will negotiate their differences in family role expectations. These young women may show a decline in marriage rates.

I found Weis’s treatment of the roles of the school and teachers in the development of these young people’s career identities less convincing. It focuses on the teachers’ careers and working conditions more than on the role they play in the emerging identities of their students, However, what is clear is that students, faculty, and administrators seem to have struck an implicit bargain to observe the form of education without regard to its substance or quality. The price of this bargain is that it leaves the students ill prepared to enter the more demanding postsecondary programs and colleges that can be key to better jobs.

Throughout the book, Weis tries to place the private, personal, and individual words of students, teachers, and parents in a larger social context: the restructuring of the U.S. economy, the decline-of the U.S. labor movement, the emergence of the New Right, and the feminist movement. In the process she raises some interesting questions and illuminates how these larger realities weave through and frame these young people’s emerging career identities.

This discussion is marred in two ways. One is the use of turgid jargon, which obscures rather than clarifies the author’s meaning. The other is an inaccurate image of occupational trends in the United States. The basis for her discussion of the career options available to Freeway youth comes from reliance on partial descriptions of changes in the U.S. occupational structure. She uses statements about past and projected occupational changes for the “largest” occupations to define the projected nature of the U.S. occupational structure. The issue, however, is the total structure, not some subset of occupations, such as “faster growing” or “largest.” Had her image been more accurate, she would not have made such statements as “there will be relatively fewer [well paying technical and/or professional] positions in the future as compared with low-level occupational jobs” (p. 206). When we look at the 1976-1988 trends for the total occupational structure, we find that occupations with above-average educational levels (as measured by the share of workers in the occupation with at least some college education) grew 51 percent; those with below-average educational-levels, by 19 percent. Occupations that used above-average education still constituted only 37 percent of total jobs in 1988. However, their higher growth rates are projected to continue between 1988 and 2000: 23 percent versus 10 percent for occupations that require below-average education.1

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 94 Number 1, 1992, p. 175-176 ID Number: 215, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:43:54 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review