Politicians who complain about "corporate bosses" gaining at the expense of "American workers" are often accused of engaging in class warfare, which clashes with America's proud self-image as a classless society. But soaring executive compensation amid stagnant pay for average workers, the continuing hangover from a wave of corporate scandals and other realities keep this us-and-them issue very much alive. Indeed, Sen. John Edwards's "Two Americas" stump speech is but a polite and politic way of introducing social class and economic power into public discussion.
But the bipolar view of class and economic interests that shapes this traditional Two Americas view reflects an outdated understanding of the American workplace. For decades, when academics, politicians and others spoke of "workers," they generally meant people who used their hands and backs to produce things. The growth of hotel, restaurant, health care, Wal-Mart and other service sector jobs has not changed this: Real physical work is at the core of what it meant to be a "worker." CEOs and other executives, meanwhile, remain atop the economic ladder.
But I've conducted interviews over the past year with members of a significant and growing segment of American employees who are in the middle of this us-and-them perception. These are middle managers in large corporations, such as loan officers leading a team of lenders, office managers responsible for administrative infrastructure, engineers in charge of teams of software developers, managers of local bank branches, human resources supervisors and many more who form a major, if underrecognized, population: About 7 million employees are now classified as managers, while 11 million employees are production workers.
These people are not paper pushers who simply clog up a useless bureaucracy. They are people with real skills who care about and enjoy their work and who can make useful things happen. Their skills are concrete, take time to learn and are to some extent portable to other companies. In short, these millions of middle managers are a new kind of craft worker, much like skilled electricians, carpenters and plumbers.
They are certainly no longer the Organization Man (or Woman) of the 1950s and beyond, who, while conformist and restricted in what they could do, at least tended to have job security. Many of today's middle managers have more opportunity to be creative entrepreneurs within their companies, but, like other workers, they now also tend to have, at best, modest job security. Waves of corporate restructuring have left them vulnerable to layoffs and outsourcing. Also, like other workers, many of these middle managers feel their "bosses" are making poor decisions beyond their control and even their understanding. But unlike traditional workers, who use unions or ties to political parties to make their case and press for relief, these middle managers tend to be apolitical and have little sense of alternatives to their insecure world and how politics might reduce their insecurity.
These millions of Americans are thus trapped between two worldviews. On the one hand, they accept the proposition that the same economic forces that create their insecurity are both inevitable and lead to efficient outcomes for their firms and for the economy. On the other, they often see their work devalued by leaders of their own organizations, who they think should owe them something in return for their years of loyalty.
The challenge for both policymakers and candidates is to speak to these conflicting impulses -- to address middle managers' issues of insecurity and cynicism about their bosses in a way that does not devalue the role these managers play in their companies or the companies themselves. The most common response, that the workers themselves should get more training so that they can successfully change jobs, is fine, but inadequate: If everyone is packing his own parachute and jumping at the same time, there will be a lot of collisions without broader efforts to support the process and these individual efforts.
Other partial answers include portable benefits, job search assistance, aggressive support for local economic development and wage insurance. But rather than any particular policy, what really matters most is to understand that these "new" and "old" workers actually have a lot more in common than might be supposed. And it isn't just complaining about "class warfare."
The writer is deputy dean and professor of management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. His most recent book is "Gathering Power: The Future of Progressive Politics In America."