“Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams” is a book by Philadelphia Inquirer
reporter Alfred Lubrano
addressing the challenges faced by working class
children who transition into the middle class world
via higher education
. It deals with the feelings of alienation and disconnectedness experienced by “Straddlers
,” those people who straddle the blue-collar and white-collar worlds, but truly belong to neither.
Lubrano is a journalist, so rather than approach the issue through research and scientific study as a social scientist might, he makes his case through anecdotal evidence gathered through his own experiences, as well as in interviews with over 100 other Straddlers. The result is an often-moving account of how social and cultural mobility affects the individual lives of blue-collar expatriates and how despite conventional wisdom in two centuries of popular culture, a rags-to-riches story isn’t necessarily a celebration.
Among the stories “Limbo” recounts is the disconnect between the newly middle class children and the working class parents and community left behind. This includes parents who make themselves an example of what not to be (unlike middle class parents, who set themselves up as paragons of achievements), as well as friends and family who do their best to obstruct the Straddlers pursuit of education. On the flip side are the trials of being a blue-collar tourist in the foreign lands of college and middle class offices -- how without being culturally equipped by their parents to survive in a white collar world, many Straddlers feel like they never quite fit amongst their middle class counterparts. Whether it’s a discussion about Mozart, or ordering dinner at a fancy restaurant as part of an office outing, the Straddler never feels quite comfortable speaking the language of the middle class.
Perhaps most poignant of the cases made in “Limbo” is the feeling of alienation Straddlers feel from their own children -- middle class progeny who do not share the values or life experiences of their parents. This truly hammers home the fact that those who experience social mobility are a bridge to a middle class future, but will never themselves be fully middle class, just as they will never themselves be fully working class.
This is a book I’ve been waiting for since the day I stepped onto the University of Maryland campus in 1992 and found myself in a world I scarcely understood. The son of a printer, I was ill equipped to cope with my new relationships with the children of doctors, NSA security specialists and businessmen I encountered in college. Even today, working for a journalism program at a university, I almost feel as though I’m speaking a second language, desperately trying to hide the jargon and mannerisms of my working class upbringing.
The stories in “Limbo” vividly remind me of the time I tried to declare myself an English major, but was discouraged by the blue-blood advisor who refused to sign my paperwork. Looking at my ripped up jeans, faded flannel and long messy hair, he said: “I’m not sure someone like you is right for the English department.” The next day, I signed up at the Sociology department, which gladly welcomed me to the fold.
“Limbo” is a fascinating read for anyone with an interest in the subject of social class in America. It takes a more nuanced look at a controversial topic than our media will allow, expanding class beyond the scope of race and ethnicity, for once allowing working class whites an opportunity to participate in the broader issue of stratification and mobility in American society.