Meritless: Unemployed Autoworkers, the Social Safety Net, and the Culture of Meritocracy in America and Canada

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Meritless: Unemployed Autoworkers, the Social Safety Net, and the Culture of Meritocracy in America and Canada

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Title: Meritless: Unemployed Autoworkers, the Social Safety Net, and the Culture of Meritocracy in America and Canada
Author: Chen, Victor Tan
Citation: Chen, Victor Tan. 2012. Meritless: Unemployed Autoworkers, the Social Safety Net, and the Culture of Meritocracy in America and Canada. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This study examines the worsening position of jobless blue-collar workers in an increasingly meritocratic economy, and uses an innovative crossnational comparative approach to gauge how much the social safety net improves their well-being. I take pairs of unemployed autoworkers who did the same job in the same or similar firms—with the only difference being the country they live in—and compare their outcomes to measure policy effects. My analysis is based on in-depth interviews with seventy-one former autoworkers (divided among American and Canadian workers, and Detroit Three and parts factories) and thirty-six industry and community experts in Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario, two metropolitan areas right across the river from one another. It also draws from ethnographic observation within households and the larger Detroit and Windsor areas, which allowed me to put my interviews in context and assemble a rich narrative portrait of unemployment and economic distress. Whereas one school of thought stresses the powerlessness of government in the face of globalization and related economic shifts, and another tends to see an expanded welfare state as a panacea for social ills, I stake out a view somewhere in the middle, arguing that the stronger supports in Canada help unemployed workers cope better with job retraining challenges, health problems, financial difficulties, and fragile family structures, but are limited in their ability to overcome relative inequalities: large gaps in education, family stability, and resources that exist between blue-collar workers and other segments of the labor force. I offer a theoretical and historical framework for understanding the evolution of the labor market and its consequences for less-educated workers, conceiving of the current iteration of capitalism as meritocratic in its focus on human capital as the just arbiter of status, and differentiating this meritocratic orientation from other egalitarian and fraternal approaches to policy and morality in past historical periods. Finally, I examine the meritocratic ideology that blunts political responses to rising inequality, finding that such views, long associated with white-collar professionals, have come to affect the thinking of even unionized blue-collar workers.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10330314
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