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 Unions and their members have refused to reform outdated and inefficient work rules, as well as fighting often needed cuts in the face of harsh economic realities.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.

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