The Next Shift | Gabriel Winant

Summary of: The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America
By: Gabriel Winant


In this summary of ‘The Next Shift: The Fall of Industry and the Rise of Health Care in Rust Belt America’ by Gabriel Winant, we explore the transformation of the US labor market from heavy industry to the rapidly growing care sector. Learn about the decline of Pittsburgh’s steel industry, the rise of health care, and the racial and gender divides inherent in these shifting economic landscapes. As the care sector continues to grow, the author looks at issues such as low wages, job shedding, and government intervention faced by an industry with limited options to increase productivity.

The Trilemma of the Care Industry

The care sector in the US faces a trilemma as firms that provide mass employment operate at low margins, while those that don’t rake in huge profits. Despite this, the care sector provides one in every seven jobs in the US, and some firms are trying to shirk responsibility through subcontracting work and misclassifying workers. Care workers are responsible for everyone, yet no one is accountable for their well-being. To resolve this trilemma, the sector must choose from increasing wages and shedding jobs, keeping wages as low as possible to maintain employment, or relying on government intervention.

Pittsburgh’s Industrial Past

Pittsburgh was once a major industrial city with a workforce dominated by blue-collar workers. Black men were predominantly unskilled laborers, while white women held clerical roles. The city’s economy relied heavily on the steel industry, which also determined its demographics and social hierarchy. The decline of steel in the 1970s led to a significant impact on the city, exacerbating the divide between union and non-union workers and driving them into the healthcare industry.

The Steel Industry’s Costly Mistakes

In the late 1940s, America’s steel industry received government support to increase capacity. However, instead of investing in more advanced technologies, they built larger plants. When demand for steel decreased after the Korean War, they were left with outdated plants. Unionized workers’ significant wage increase didn’t help as policy makers feared rising steel industry costs would increase inflation. Policy makers unsuccessfully tried to nationalize the steel industry as the conflict between them escalated in parallel with the economic downturn. The steel industry raised its prices during a severe recession in 1957 and failed to invest in improved technology, leading to reduced workforce size and a divide between managers and workers.

Women in Working-Class Families

After the Second World War, working-class families in Pittsburgh enjoyed a high living standard due to the economic security provided by jobs in the steel industry. Men were the sole breadwinners while women bore the responsibility of running the home and raising future generations. Despite the seemingly high standard of living, interruptions in work left families struggling to meet the “modest but adequate” standard of living. Women often lived in multi-generational family units and worked around their husbands’ shifts, waking early to take care of the household and children throughout the day. They also determined how to stretch their husbands’ wages as far as possible through frugality and ingenuity. In times of shortage, working-class women faced the pressure of maintaining their family’s appearance of affluence while hiding their struggles from others. The community believed that failure to provide for one’s family was humiliating, so women worked to maintain this image while replicating their parent’s lives for their children.

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