You Wanna Make America Great Again? Save the Bank Tellers, Not the Coal Miners

What if instead of hankering over jobs that are already lost, we try to make the most of the jobs we have?

Illustration by Francesco Bongiorni

Illustration by Francesco Bongiorni

A couple of decades ago, my sister confided to me that she tried to buy only clothes and household goods that are made in America. She wants to support American manufacturing and preserve American jobs. I thought at the time that this was cool, but also impractical for me to emulate. Nan was married to a big-shot lawyer; I was married to a musician. It’s easy to order your sheets from Holy Lamb Organics when you don’t have to worry about the price.

What she said got me thinking, though. I thought about it a lot during this last election cycle, as I listened to Donald Trump tell Americans he was going to bring back the jobs of coal miners and steelworkers.

He’s not. Nothing is; experts are agreed on that. These industries that once sent workers home sweaty and covered with grime now employ robots to do the hard labor; the jobs that still exist are for skilled technicians and require specialized training rather than a strong back. 

Anyway, just about the only people who want to bring back coal-mining jobs are coal miners (and the multinational conglomerates that employ them). Coal is dirty and polluting and the single greatest contributor to global warming. Its primary alternative as an energy source, natural gas, causes earthquakes and demands the erection of controversial pipelines. The future lies in wind, solar and geothermal power, which have far less impact on the Earth. Trump may have campaigned on making America great again, but you can’t get back to 1950, no matter how much some folks would like to try. As Tim Worstall wrote last year in Forbes, “We cannot plan our economic policy on the basis of nostalgia, on what people used to do. The only practical thing we can do is turn our minds to what people might usefully do in the future.”

So what might people still usefully do? The jobs that aren’t coming back — not on a grand scale, at least — are in fields like manufacturing and mining and electronics and textiles. The jobs we have left, increasingly, are in the service industries, like health care and retail and dining. They pay less, and they’re less likely to be full-time. For evidence, read the story in the January issue of this magazine on the locally based Five Below chain, which sells cheap Chinese gewgaws to kids. Five Below has 1,500 full-time employees and 6,100 part-time. Or take retail megastar Walmart. Half of Walmart’s workforce is part-time. In many states, Walmart workers make up the largest pools of Medicaid and food-stamp recipients. That’s because you can’t support a family by working 20 hours a week at a $10-an-hour job. American commerce, that conservative bastion, is teetering on the backs of workers propped up with food stamps and health-care subsidies. You may be getting your underwear and dog chow cheaper by shopping beneath those newly restored smiley signs, but you’re more than paying the difference in taxes.

This is rock-dumb. But what’s a pinched consumer to do?

What if instead of hankering over jobs that are already lost, we try to make the most of the jobs we have? I can’t afford to do as my sister does and only buy American. But I can make everyday economic decisions with the larger social question of jobs and our future — the sort of future I want to see — in mind. I can try, on a tiny, independent scale, to kick back against the tide.

KICKBACK NUMBER ONE: I don’t have a debit card. This makes people under 30 (and lots of older folks, too) crazy: You don’t have a debit card? How do you, you know, pay for things? The answer: with cash. I visit the drive-in lane at my bank once a week and take out the money I need via a very cool pneumatic tube installed beside a mini TV screen that shows the teller who’s waiting on me. Sometimes, if the line at the drive-in is long, I park my car and walk inside the bank, where I stand in line, then get to interact with the very pleasant women who work there. I’ve known them for years now. They ask about my kids. They show me photos of their kids. We wish each other Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

But — but, you say. That takes so long! Eh, it doesn’t, really. I see people queued four and five deep at the ATM across the street from the building where I work all the time. If you’re willing to wait there, why not inside a bank? Especially now that it’s winter. Banks are nice and warm. Mine even offers free coffee — and lollipops, too.

You probably do all your banking online, though. I mean — doesn’t everybody? It’s so much more efficient. That’s what my husband tells me, anyway — which is kind of perplexing, since he spends hours and hours each month reconciling a mess of little receipts and ATM slips with his online banking statement, not to mention paying fairly regular overdraft fees. Whereas I, armed only with a checkbook and cash, can tell you exactly how much money I have at any given time and have never overdrawn my account. (I’m way too cheap for that.)

That’s not why I don’t bank online, though. I don’t bank online because not doing so keeps the nice tellers at my bank branch employed. It pays for their mortgages and their kids’ college educations and the groceries in their kitchens. It costs me a little more time, maybe, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.

There are a lot of jobs like that.

Where’d you get your lunch today — Wawa? Sweetgreen? Did you consider a sit-down restaurant instead, one where a waitress takes your order and a busboy clears your table and trained cooks man the stoves? More jobs tacked onto the world. Are you buying spring flower bulbs from a catalog? Call the 800 number instead of ordering online, and talk to a person. Subscribe to your local newspaper instead of reading it on the Internet; you’ll support the editors, the writers, the advertisers, the printing-plant workers, the delivery guy. Order magazines. (Such a deal! A whole year of Philly Mag for less than $10!) Be subversive. Be retro. Pay your bills with checks you write out by hand and put in envelopes you buy in person at Staples. Stick on a stamp you get at the post office — from a worker, not from the machine. Cancel your Amazon Prime.

You think it sounds exhausting, living this way? That you’ll spend your whole day running errands? Who are you kidding? You were just going to waste that time on Facebook anyway. We live in a world that’s determined to convince us: Everything faster is better. The truth is, it’s not. That’s why there are brave pockets of resistance to the ever-faster mantra, Luddites who knit their own sweaters and brew their own beer and practice penmanship and fix their own cars. We admire them, but we don’t imitate them. For the vast majority of us, the siren sings of the future, of ease and speed.

Listen closely, for instance, to those commercials trying to convince you to see your doctor via computer instead of in an office. It’s so convenient for you! the commercials say. No more hauling your sick kid or self around. You know who it’s really convenient for? The doctor, since such long-distance diagnosis eliminates the need for an office, a receptionist, a couple of nurses and a cleaning crew — and that many jobs.

A couple months ago, my husband announced he’d signed us up for a free trial of Blue Apron, that delivery service that sends you a weekly refrigerated box of food and recipes for it. I had a bad, bad feeling about Blue Apron, and it got worse when the box of three meals arrived. There was a single scallion, shrink-wrapped in plastic like a crown jewel. There was a shallot, and three leaves of chard, likewise individually wrapped. One orange. A chicken breast. A thimbleful of aioli. Who on earth cooks — or shops — this way?

“It’s just food,” Doug told me, puzzled at my resistance. “Just use it as food. You don’t have to follow the recipes.” But Blue Apron was the inverse of my usual kitchen modus operandi, in which I open the fridge and cabinets, contemplate the contents, and assemble a meal. Blue Apron says: Here! You have two ounces of pomegranate seeds, a tilapia fillet, three sprigs of rosemary, a frond of fennel and one baking potato! Cooking with such random stuff is like getting a nightmare basket of ingredients on Chopped. (It was the instructions to hand-strip the rosemary leaves from the stems and pan-toast them that put me over the edge. NO ONE’s life is made more convenient by toasting rosemary leaves.)

The thing is, today’s innovation has a way of becoming tomorrow’s norm. We don’t think about the long-term consequences of having our groceries delivered until it’s too late — until robots are picking fennel fronds off a conveyor belt and sealing them in plastic shrouds. Until the grocery stores and shoe stores and drugstores and bookstores all close and even the delivery vans vanish, and we live forever after in the drone-world of Amazon.

BUT, YOU SAY: Isn’t such thinking the essence of nostalgia? How many of us would have to rip up our debit cards to save even one bank teller? How many are likely to? The bank-teller crusade is just part of a larger picture, though — one I try to keep in focus as the world evolves around me. There are differences between bank tellers and coal miners. For one thing, the tellers aren’t melting the polar ice cap. For another, the jobs I want to preserve aren’t those traditionally held by — I’m sorry — straight white men.

The Great Trump Revolt was fanned by frustration over the loss of a certain way of life: middle-class hubby who works, stay-at-home mom, 2.5 cute kids. As America grew — as its railroads and skyscrapers and highways rose and spread — so did the self-regard of such workers. It’s easy to translate the substantiality of coal and asphalt and steel into a meaningful existence, one that has heft and weight.

It’s much more complicated to derive self-worth from squishier stuff, like looking after children or changing the dressings of a diabetic or filling the bins at the salad bar. These are often minimum-wage jobs, those that were traditionally devalued because they were performed by minorities and immigrants and women. They weren’t “manly.” They didn’t pay a living wage.

But they’re what we’re left with, now that so much of the middle class has been hollowed out. Perhaps the lack of prestige in such employment is one reason so many able-bodied men in the prime of their lives — 10 million of them between the ages of 25 and 54 — are neither working nor seeking jobs. They’re collateral damage in a culture that continues, against all example and reason, to deify Wall Street studs and Silicon Valley moguls and look down on teachers and nurses and social workers.

Still, there are signs things are shifting. My 20-something son, then six months out of college and still looking for a job, with hundreds of résumés sent out into the ether, was with me one day last summer when I drove to the pneumatic tube. “Why don’t you just get a debit card?” he asked in exasperation as I waved to the cheery teller on the TV screen.

“Because I want Deb to keep her job,” I told him.

He hasn’t teased me about my debit-card aversion since.

Maybe we should stop trying to conjure those vanished jobs back into being and focus on adjusting our values instead.

In the wake of the election, the New York Times asked unemployed Appalachian miners whether they think Trump can keep his employment promises. Some admitted: not really. Quoted in the story was 32-year-old Kayla Burger, who’s been working three jobs since her husband was laid off as a miner: She waitresses, substitute-teaches, and cooks in a school cafeteria. Burger’s husband stays home with their kids. “He doesn’t feel like a man,” Burger told the Times.

The article didn’t say how she felt.

For now, those 10 million men sit idle, unwilling to cobble low-paying jobs together to make a living, as minorities and women have historically done. Trump’s “forgotten people,” they wait for the plant to reopen, for the clock to turn back, for their supremacy to reemerge. Here’s what the real forgotten people could tell them: The hard work of home health aides and waitresses and bank tellers is as worthy of respect and fair pay as chipping coal out of the ground. When once-mainstream men become convinced of that, maybe the minimum wage will become a living wage.

Hey, it’s not as though we’ve never changed our minds about the worth of a profession before. Consider, if you will, the lawyer, once the epitome of career aspiration. Back in the 1990s, all the TV shows seemed to be about flashy lawyers — Law & Order, The Practice, L.A. Law, JAG, Matlock, Murder One, Ally McBeal. Today, law schools are begging for students. Class sizes at the nation’s top 20 schools have gone down five percent in the past five years, and applications are down 18 percent — even at Harvard Law. Lawyers today are seen not as crusaders but, as Northwestern Law prof John O. McGinnis has put it, as “the technocrats of regulation and redistribution.” Sexy? Not. Speaking of Harvard Law, one 1990s grad, a partner at a big East Coast firm, told Esquire magazine a couple of decades later: “My dream is to become a clerk at Barnes & Noble. Not the manager or the guy who orders the books, but the lowliest clerk they’ve got.”

Knowing that Masters of the Universe dream of trading places with them should make Barnes & Noble clerks way more contented with their lot despite the lousy pay. Of course, that’s assuming there are any bookstores left.

Published as “Crankcase” in the January 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.