The summer of 2013 saw strikes by fast food workers in seven cities. I doubt the increased difficulty in getting burgers and fries will endanger the republic. But we really should consider what this development tells us about conditions in our economy and our culture.

Few of us think about it, but economists and policymakers for decades, now, have been obscuring the decline of our standard of living through the use of jargon-filled euphemisms. One of the most damaging is “service sector.” As American factories have closed, their workers have “moved into the service sector.” Sounds relatively benign, no? But it is not. Pay and benefits have dropped precipitously for millions of Americans. And this decline has not been simply the result of inevitable shifts in economic reality; it has in large measure been the product of political and cultural changes that both parties have championed and that too many of us have gone along with as we have pursued our own self-interest, both economically and, more importantly, in our personal lives. 

In the conflict over wages and benefits for fast food workers, sadly, both sides are right. Flipping burgers and taking orders simply is not worth more than $7 or $8 per hour. People who patronize fast food restaurants neither will nor could afford to pay more for their food, and the business model will not support significantly higher labor costs. By the same token, one of the slogans of those behind the strikes—“no one can survive on $7.25”—is clearly true. Yet thousands upon thousands of Americans must do just that.

So, how did we get into this situation in the first place? A combination of factors, some political, some economic, and some cultural, but all rooted in a rejection of our responsibilities to one another, and especially to American families. The source of the tragedy of Americans making careers out of fast food service (and it truly is a tragedy) is, in the end, in us all.

The most obvious cause of the fast food career is the outsourcing of better jobs. There is plenty of blame to go around on this issue. Corporations have chased short-term savings and shameful high-level executive salaries at the expense of quality, service, and decency toward workers. Unions and their members have refused to reform outdated and inefficient work rules, as well as fighting often needed cuts in the face of harsh economic realities. The federal government has continued new mandates and regulatory schemes that make it too expensive to do business in the United States, while pursuing tax and trade policies that actually encourage outsourcing. Perhaps most important, there has been a massive loss of trust between consumers and producers in this country—with the one too often seeking only the absolute lowest prices, and the other putting short-term profits over quality and service. All these factors have combined to make India, China, or Bangladesh seem like good places to ship what once were good American jobs. And, as we know, when the decent jobs went away, permanently, more and more Americans had to settle for what work they could get. With less and less real job creation going on in our increasingly over-regulated economy, that has meant, too often, the “service sector,” which only occasionally means good jobs, more often leaving less fortunate Americans asking “would you like fries with that?”

I do not want to give the impression that I think work in a fast food restaurant is intrinsically degrading. It is not. Not only is it the case that any honest work is honorable, it also is the case that for many people working in a fast food restaurant has been an important starting point in developing successful work habits and experience. I know many, many people whose first job was at a McDonald’s, Burger King, or other fast food restaurant. But some jobs really are not meant to be careers. In fact, too many of the jobs in which Americans are struggling today are not, by nature, intended or capable of sustaining individuals as vocations or families as economic units. Some jobs—the vast majority in the “service sector”—are appropriate for kids, young single people, and/or spouses bringing in extra income to their families, not family breadwinners.

And this brings me to the second reason for the tragedy of the fast food career: we have done away with the very idea of “starter jobs” and of “second jobs.” Much of this has to do with rejection of the so-called “pink collar ghetto” of relatively low paid jobs predominantly occupied and intended for women. I remember during the 1980s, working over the summer as a temporary worker (another “pink collar ghetto”—remember the “Kelly Girl” temp agency?). When working inside, usually in clerical jobs, more than once I was almost the only male in a building not repairing something.

Those jobs still exist. But where they once were the province of wives and young singles looking to existing or future families for fulfillment, they now are simply places where people of both sexes are stuck until (all too rarely) something better comes along. And this is the higher echelon of the “service sector.” Low wages, dreary work, little chance of advancement, and this as the central activity of one’s life. Small wonder there is a fight for unionization, here. Moreover, where once such jobs were characterized by consideration of family responsibilities (unofficial time off to take a sick child home from school was not uncommon, for example), today everything is about efficiency, with time cards and inflexibility the rule. Even many fast food jobs now require workers to be available at all times, further crowding out the possibility of workers improving their careers and lives.

Another, related factor has been our addiction to fast food. Where once Americans ate at home most of the time, and ate out at real restaurants that cooked real food, all too many of us respond to the dictates of the consumer and convenience culture by turning in at the drive through. The result is disastrous in a culinary as well as a cultural sense. But this, too, is part of a larger trend toward speed, convenience, and the ceaseless pursuit of satisfactions-of-the-moment that leave us with nothing substantial.

We should not, of course, leave demographics out of the mix. More than once, my wife and I have noted the paucity of kids working the fast food counter or window. The reason for that, of course, is simple: we have aborted them. When one totals up the abortions of the last four decades, the numbers reach over fifty million. These would have been both the workers at and the customers of our service sector, and of our economy in general. But they are dead.

Fewer young workers, fewer young customers; combined with a culture that now demands that both parents work, the obvious product is an overabundance of adults who want full-time jobs, faced with fewer customers for their products and services. The result is good for the upper echelons of the corporate world—labor costs have gone down. But it is very, very bad for regular people, and families in particular.

Of course, the typical response to this argument will be that I am calling for a return to the oppressive, sexist past. And clearly it is true that our government, and society, have become actively hostile toward traditional families. But the core problem, at its most basic level, has been that both men and women have chosen their own “careers” above raising families. And that has meant fewer and smaller families, less family time, and ever-more chasing after “careers” that, as it turns out, are far less rewarding then we thought they would be. Whether it be the CEO in the boardroom, or the fast food worker at the drive through window, people who live only for their job are sad creatures. And a society that is organized only for them is even more sad, because it makes it harder and harder for people to form and support families.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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9 replies to this post
  1. The truth is that the fast food workers are not needed either. About Jan., 1991, I was serving in a school system as an Industry Education Coordinator and Counselor. The Vocational Director for the county school system attended a conference on Jobs in the future. Upon her return, she gave me some of the materials she had collected and asked that I write an evaluation of it which I did. Basically, I argued from the evidence of the materials before me that there would be no jobs in the future for our children. Why? Because of automation, computerization, and robotics. One of the papers contained something that was a death knell for the fast food employee. A Burger King in New York, a 24/7 operation with 400 workers, decided to automate. The corporation hired a Lazer cooker operator from German at $90/hr. and an assistant from Japan at $60/hr. The rest of the crew, 18 people, were clean-up workers, getting the minimum pay. The fast food workers on strike have no idea how easily they can be replaced with machines. Even in the 80s Japan built two automated automobile factories run by 60-70 technicians to keep the machines running, but then they closed them down as they unemployed too many workers in the society.

    Our Corporations are suffering from being blinded by short-term profits, not realizing that they are contributing to a growing problem that is going to break with fury on our society, The unnecessary workers constitute a class that some folks consider as “useless eaters.” Being desirous of being relieved of such consumers of their (some folks think everything belongs to them) resources, the best method is a breakdown of civilization and a civil war. 80,000 dead in Syria will be nothing as to the 80-150 million that will be exterminated here. You all might want to read H.G. Wells’ Open Conspiracy along with Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope and his The Anglo-American Establishment, Cleon Skousen’s The Naked Capitalist, and various and sundry works in the area of conspiracy. After all as Jerome Corsi has made plain, the ACLU intends to criminalize Christianity in America. Already, efforts are being made to identify such believers as “terrorists.”

    • “I argued from the evidence of the materials before me that there would be no jobs in the future for our children. Why? Because of automation, computer…”

      I’m sure that when the plow was invented, there was some guy writing that they’ll be No jobs for our children in the future due to these damned plows.

      • Chris: As a former farm boy, I remember when the mechanical pickers, etc., came into cotton country, and I left just before unemployment hit. I remember driving through Southeastern Missouri and Northeastern Arkansas and seeing the empty houses where the hired hands use to live or even where the sharecroppers lived. The people had moved away, some to the cities, to hunt for jobs there. Anyway farm employment went from the millions down to just a little over a million at the last count I had. Here in NC, textile, furniture makers, and tobacco jobs (the last has to be mentioned due to the wages paid, though the product leaves a lot to be desired) have practically vanished way. The amount of employment in those areas numbers now in the thousands perhaps, but not in the several millions. The jobs were exported over seas or South of the Border, or some other country down South. I have known the workers in textiles and furniture and what an impact it made on them. The state is now offering tax incentives for other industries to get jobs for its workers, but they really are supernumeraries (is that the right spelling, my dictionary is in one of 300 boxes somewhere). Anyway they might work for a while, but the job can be automated, computerized or roboticized. Unless we come up with some other means of gainful employment, like paying people to go to school for the rest of their lives, we are going to have a dismal time of it.

        • Yep, when the plow was invented,employment scratching the dirt with sticks Went through the floor. All of this bellyaching is fatuous.

          • Fatuous Gene? Really? The difference might mean something, if you had read some of the materials I have about certain folks wanting to get rid of the excess population of “useless eaters,” and were replying in the light of what they had written. Otherwise, your comment is simply empty.

  2. Sorry, I beg to differ. “No one can survive on $7.25” is clearly NOT true. No one can live affluently on $7.25, perhaps, but if we’re talking about survival, we’ve to use the word less offhandedly. I thought on a site like this we’d use words more accurately, and be more critical of today’s “culture of plenty”.

  3. The jobs still exist, but they are jobs without a future. Indeed, at any time the coporations so desire, they can automate and let the workers go, except for a few technicians. Circa 1991 I wrote an evaluation of some papers on jobs in the future, supplied by a Vocational Director of a county school system who had attended a conference on the matter. My conclusion from the materials supplied to me: THERE WILL BE NO JOBS FOR OUR CHILDREN IN THE FUTURE DUE TO AUTOMATION, COMPUTERIZATION, AND ROBOTICS. I will cite but one example. A Burger King somewhere in New York (I forget the location), a 24×7 operation with 400 workers, automated. They hired a lazer cooker operator from Germany at $90.00/hr. and his Japanese assistant at $60/hr. The rest of the crew, 18 people, were cleanup employees, paid the lowest wages. Effectively, the firm unemployed 380 people. Just think what would be the results, if all of the fast food operations in the USA automated, etc. To fast foods one can add practically every other kind of employment, even teachers can be replaced by computers. I knew of one teacher who took retirement early, because the was basically doing what ever the state office of education told her to teach by the computer in the room….and she was teaching third graders or some such grade. We are not facing the reality, and the future that will blow away all of our society, reducing it to a murderous chaos, if we have not a Third Great Awakening with the appropriate governmental and societal changes that usually follow such visitations. True, the secularists think they want a religion free society, and some religions give cause for such desire, but there are those which do, indeed, produce the kind of friends and neighbors that every one desires to live next doorl

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