Working Class Culture


Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams

by Alfred Lubrano

Wiley (2004)

Book Review

Limbo is based on the premise that working class Americans (regardless of ethnic background) have their own distinct culture, values, language and world view. This cultural conditioning, based on early childhood experiences, provides an instinctive approach to the world that persists throughout adulthood – regardless of advanced education or changes in social status.

Lubrano coins a new word in Limbo: “straddler.” It describes a professional of working class origin, who owing to profound cultural differences, never totally fits in with middle class colleagues. As this perfectly describes me in relation to the medical profession, it’s a subject very dear to my heart.

For the most part, middle class Americans are totally unaware that working class people have their own distinct culture. Although many liberal academics and professionals happily weigh in on America’s scandalous wealth inequality, the concept of social class is much more difficult for them. They unconsciously cling to the myth that class differences have vanished in the US – that all Americans have an equal opportunity to become billionaires if they work hard enough.

America’s Loss of Class Identity

Meanwhile, thanks to a steady diet of pro-corporate propaganda, low income Americans have lost any sense of working class identity or solidarity. They, too, cling to the myth that all Americans are “middle class.” This is unsurprising, given that TV is often their sole source of information and entertainment. The average American watches an average of 5 hours of TV a day, with the heaviest viewers coming from low income households

Based on income,* more than 70% of Americans qualify as working class. Yet nearly all the characters we see in TV dramas and sitcom are unquestionably “middle class.”**  Recession-themed programming (where people are thrown out of their homes, work three jobs, wait in line at the food bank or struggle to see a doctor) are virtually unheard of. Instead we get reality TV, cooking and renovation shows, dystopian fiction with or without vampires.

The issue of working class culture received little attention until World War II, Korean and Vietnam veterans began attending university on the GI bill and Kennedy and Johnson established federal student loan programs to allow other working class Americans access to tertiary education. Kennedy’s Health Professions Student Loans program made it possible for me to attend medical school.

Despite being immensely grateful for the opportunity to attend university, the realization that we have nothing in common with our mainly middle class peers can be extremely alienating. In my own case, post graduate psychiatric training was particularly difficult. My middle class peers often complained I made them uncomfortable. They had absolutely no awareness that we dressed, thought and talked differently due to differing backgrounds. Instead they insisted I had “personality problems” and in one instanced suggested I take medication. change.

World’s of Pain

Sociologist Lillian Breslow Rubin published one of the first definitive studies of working class culture in her 1976 classic: Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family.

Limbo differs from Worlds of Pain in being more descriptive and less scientifically oriented. Personally I prefer Limbo, which Lubrano bases on personal experience and 50 interviews with self-identified “straddlers.” I especially appreciate his effort to describe the value system that characterizes working class culture.

He starts his book with an analysis of fundamental working class values that distinguish them from the middle class:

1. A powerful work ethic (unlike the middle class, which places higher value on getting something for nothing).
2. A strong, unambivalent respect for parents that persists into adulthood.
3. Strong ties to extended family..
4. A forthright approach to interpersonal communication devoid of hidden agendas.
5. Intense personal loyalty.
6. Firm limit setting for children.
7. A preference for common sense problem solving as opposed to book learning.
8. Comfort in openly displaying affection and anger.

*Based on 60% working poor and 10-15% unemployed.

**I can count working class TV series on one hand and most are pre-1980: Jackie Gleason’s The Honeymooners, Amos and Andy, Roseanne, Cheers  All in the Family and possibly Two Broke Girls. I don’t really watch TV that much, and I’m sure people can think of others.