A Sociologist’s Perspective on the Changing Economy; Q&A with Victor Chen

Victor Chen is an assistant professor of sociology at VCU whose work focuses on inequality and social stratification in labor markets. His book, Cut Loose: Jobless & Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, examines the plight of auto industry workers who were forced into long-term unemployment by technological advances and the outsourcing of jobs. More recently, Chen also wrote some articles on the state of the economy, and how to fix it, which appeared in The Atlantic. This year Chen won the LERA Outstanding Scholar Award for his work on industrial relations and employment.

What originally made you passionate about the issue of income inequality?

When I was a kid of my father was an engineer. He’s an immigrant from Taiwan and he lost his job when I was in middle school. He was a civil engineer helping to build nuclear power plants and that industry kind of went into a downward spiral after some incidents like Three Mile Island. So he lost his job and he was for many years unable to find steady work. He left his chosen profession and worked as a janitor at an elementary school and drove a cab for the airport. It wasn’t his area of specialty and I think it was partly because of being an immigrant and not speaking the language fluently and those kinds of issues – It wasn’t necessarily just the economy but that left an impression on me at an early age. Children are self-centered and not having steady finances in the home relative to other students or friends kind of has an effect on you growing up.  

Could you describe the state of the economy and in what direction you think it’s going?

I think the economy is really good for some people and becoming increasingly bad for other people. There’s winners and losers and that’s becoming more and more apparent. People that have good educations from good schools and have very evident talent and skill do extraordinarily well in this economy. Think of Silicon Valley, think of Wall Street. People can really make much more in terms of income than they could in the past. The top one percent in terms of earnings are doing really well but for the rest of us it’s a mixed bag and especially for those with less education, people in working class and poor communities, they’ve been really struggling. They’ve seen their income stagnating, they haven’t grown to the level even of 1999 when we had the peak year of median household income in this country.

We’re still living in a way that’s worse than 1999. And there’s a problem more generally in finding good jobs, ones that pay well, that are full time, that have some kind of career advancement to them and that’s for a variety of reasons like free trade, the automation of a lot of jobs. These are dangers that have disproportionately affected the middle class and those below them, so those are in some ways the individuals that have been losing out. And that frustration, the sense that the future will not be bright for either themselves or their children is leading to, on one side, despair which you see in some communities hit hard by drug addiction, crime, and poverty. But also this sense of anger which you saw channeled in the recent election toward immigrants, toward other groups that are seen as contributing to that downward slide for the middle class and working class families.  

You mentioned the automation of jobs as one of the factors that are disproportionately hurting middle class and working class jobs, and your book Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy addresses the plight of auto-industry workers whose jobs were replaced by robots. Is the automation of jobs a trend that you expect to see in all fields, or just the auto industry?  

I picked auto workers because the auto industry is kind of a symbol of American manufacturing might. It was such an important industry and still is in terms of our economic growth, in terms of our influence across world markets. America was the world’s workshop for a while, the world’s manufacturing hub and the auto industry was an essential part of that. What you had for a period of time in the 20th century was high-paying jobs with benefits that went to people with just a high school education or less. That helped reduce levels of inequality in this country and the auto workers were on the forefront for that kind of improvement or upward mobility for ordinary workers, because you had strong labor unions like United Auto Workers that really pushed good contracts that helped these individuals and their families. So those kinds of jobs have disappeared or at least been reduced greatly because you don’t need as many people on the assembly line as you did in the past. Machines do a lot of that work, people at most are operating those machines and increasingly at auto plants they require people with at least an associate’s degree, who are skilled in a specific trade, to work at these plants because they’re so computerized and automated. So those jobs that employed many many people are disappearing. You have fewer workers operating more machines than you did in the past. So there’s still jobs in the auto industry, there’s still jobs in manufacturing in general but they go to fewer people and people with more skill. The auto industry – I see it as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future in the sense that they represent this past of equality and improvement for the working class. Right now they have gone through a period of downsizing through automation and free trade. And in the future they kind of represent what more white collar workers are experiencing in terms of automation for those middle-class jobs because of advancements in artificial intelligence and other aspects of technology.

What can young people today do to prepare for an economy that could potentially replace the jobs they trained for with automated systems?  

I think education is often what everyone recommends. On both sides of our politics, Democrats, and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, we agree that education is important and we have very different ways of bringing that about, of expanding access to education. But I think for young people, in particular, you want to have the skills that will get you a good job. It’s not anymore just about getting a college degree. The bar has risen. You have to be really conscious about which major you take, what kind of skills you get through internships and through summer employment. You have to think about graduate school perhaps and finding a particular profession that will be high paying but also employ a lot of people in the future, because one estimate says that about half of jobs are under threat of being automated to some extent, some completely, some partially, but there is that risk that is very real for a wide variety of professions and not necessarily those that require less skill or that require less education.  

What is the status of the American Dream today?  

I think it’s threatened now. The American Dream is such a vibrant part of our culture, it’s something that draws immigrants from around the world because they feel, if I come to America I can make it on my own merits and live a prosperous life. That in some ways is one of the key principles that brings us together as a nation. But the fact that it’s harder to attain that kind of goal leads to a certain degree of disenchantment, a certain degree of anger. The levels of upward mobility, the chance that you will do better than your parents did, those kinds of rates of mobility have gone down over recent decades. It is harder to achieve that American Dream and I think a lot of Americans realize that and that’s what drives high levels of pessimism, especially among the white working class in recent years.

Written by Megan Schiffres