On Professionalization

By Scott London:

In [Fear of Falling] Barbara Ehrenreich offers an assessment of the “retreat from liberalism” by the “professional middle class” from the 1950s to the 1980s. She describes how this class came to see itself first as a class among others, and then as an elite above others. This class-consciousness not only estranged members of the professional middle class from “ordinary” Americans, in her view, it also brought with it hedonism, self-indulgence, and a pervasive and deep-seated anxiety.

By professional middle class, she means those people whose economic and social status is predicated on education rather than the ownership of capital or property. . . . Today, she writes, “this class plays an overweening role in defining ‘America’: its moods, political direction, and moral tone.”

Ehrenreich observes that the professional middle class is a product of the early 20th century battle between labor and capital which gave rise to the profession of management. By introducing new methods of “scientific” management and manipulation, the early managers not only restructured the workplace but also robbed the skilled craftsmen on the shop floor of the more creative mental aspects of industrial work.

The rise of a new professional ethic had an unpleasant side-effect for the managerial class, according to Ehrenreich. Because expertise — the currency of the professional — cannot be passed on or inherited by the next generation, like wealth or property, the professional middle class lives with a constant “fear of falling” from its privileged place in society. . . . Once the poor were “discovered” in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for sociologists to characterize the poor as childishly hedonistic, untrustworthy with money, unable to “defer gratification,” etc. — the very qualities the middle class worried they might contract from affluence.

Ehrenreich believes the rise of professionalism was, and remains, perhaps the greatest of all generators of middle-class insecurity. The creation of “the professions” was designed as much to keep people out as to let them in, with each generation forced to fight for admission to the club. Unlike the truly wealthy who could guarantee that their children would also be wealthy, a lawyer could not guarantee that his or her child would be a lawyer, or even wind up a member of the professional class. Through professionalization, Ehrenreich points out, the middle class sought to gain purchase in an increasingly uncertain world. But they soon learned that the barriers erected to exclude intruders from other classes also stood in the way of the youth of the middle class. . . .

Using populist rhetoric, neoconservatives succeeded in convincing the working class that they shared a strong commitment to traditional American values. This tactic not only scapegoated middle-class liberals as a conspiratorial, anti-American new class, it also turned “liberalism” into a dirty word by the 1980s. As a result, the middle class was fraught with doubts and insecurities by the late 1980s, exemplified by what Ehrenreich calls “the yuppie strategy” — the superficial and self-destructive emulation of the rich that has exacted a high price in terms of both money and self-respect to a class that once defined itself by its professional autonomy and moral integrity.


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One Response to On Professionalization

  1. profacero says:

    She talks about professionalization as a way to keep people out, but also professionalism as a way to keep to the standards of one’s profession (and not sell out to business, for example).

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