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We have a summer home in New England in a semi-rural area, just ~10,000 people in town, with a potato farm across the street. Drive down the road and you can see the tall stalks of corn waving on other farms. Most people aren’t in tech or law or teaching in universities; they fall solidly into what is called working-class. They work as electricians, carpenters, plumbers, in hospitals, restaurants, as clerks, office managers, farmers, etc. They have solid middle-class values of work, family, education, and country — work hard, own a home, have a secure job, and save for their kids’ college and their retirement.
This summer I was sitting in the Delekta Pharmacy in the nearby town of Warren having a Coffee Cabinet (a coffee milkshake). It’s one of the last drugstores with a real soda fountain. The summer tourists mostly come through on the weekend, but during the week the locals come by to gab with the guy behind the counter. There are four small wooden booths along the wall in front of the fountain, and as I drank my Cabinet I got to overhear townie conversations from the other three booths.
Unlike every cafe I sit in the Valley or San Francisco, their conversations were not about tech.
While they own tech, smartphones, and computers, most can’t tell you who the ex-CEO of Uber is, or the details of the diversity blowup at Google. More important issues dominate their daily lives.
I was listening to one guy talk about how much his mortgage and kid’s college expenses were increasing while he hadn’t gotten a raise in three years and was worried about paying the bills. A woman talked about her husband, and how after 21 years as an electrician in the local hospital, he had just been laid off. Others chimed in with their stories, best summarized by a feeling of economic anxiety. Of being squeezed with no real exit.
It was a long time ago, but I knew the feeling well.
I grew up in New York in a single-parent household that teetered on the bottom end of working class. My parents were immigrants, and when they got divorced, my mother supported us on the $125 a week she made as a bookkeeper. The bills got paid, and we had food in the house, but there was nothing extra left. No vacations. New clothes were bought once a year before school.
Years later when I got out of the Air Force, I installed broadband process control systems in automobile assembly plants and steel mills across the industrial heart of the Midwest. I got to see the peak of America’s manufacturing prowess in the 1970s, when we actually made things — before we shipped the factories and jobs overseas. I hung out with the guys who worked there, went bowling and shooting with them, complained about the same things — wives, girlfriends, jobs, and bosses — and shared their same concerns.
Listening to these conversations in the pharmacy, and the other stories I heard as I explored the small towns here, reminded me that people I grew up with, served with, and worked with still live in this world. In fact, more than half of Americans fall into the working class. And the conversations I was listening to were a real-life narrative of the “middle-class squeeze.” While the economy has continued to grow, in the name of corporate efficiency and profitability we’ve closed the shipyards and factories and moved those jobs overseas. The bulk of those gains have ended up in the pockets of the very affluent. Income inequality stares you in the face here. The level of despair is high. The small city next to us has been hard hit in the opioid crisis: 63 people died last year.
My annual trek out here reminds me that that I live in a Silicon Valley bubble — and that a good part of the country is not reading what we read, caring about what we care about, or thinking about what we think about. They have a lot more immediate concerns.
It’s good to spend time outside the bubble — but I get to go back. My neighbors here, people in that pharmacy and the many others like them, can’t. In the U.S. people used to move to where the jobs are. But today, Americans are less mobile. Some are rooted, embedded in their communities; and some are trapped — because housing is unaffordable where the better paying jobs are. And the jobs that are high paying are not the jobs they built their lives on. Likely their circumstances won’t have changed much by the time I return next year.
I don’t know how the people I listened to and talked to voted, but it’s easy to see why they might feel as if no one in Washington is living their lives. And that the tech world is just as distant as Hollywood or Wall Street.
There isn’t an app to fix this.
Steve Blank is a retired serial entrepreneur-turned-educator who created the Customer Development methodology that launched the lean startup movement, which he wrote about in his book, The Four Steps to the Epiphany. Blank teaches Lean LaunchPad classes at Stanford University, U.C. Berkeley, Columbia University, and NYU. This post first appeared on his blog.
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