America's Blue Collar Nostalgia Masks Future Challenges

Author: Brian Bremner

Will the world soon “hear the roar of our engines,” as Clint Eastwood suggested in Chrysler’s viral Super Bowl spot? You hear similar sentiments from Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney, now speechifying at Michigan factories ahead of that state’s Feb. 28 Republican presidential primary. President Barack Obama talks about “an economy built to last, an economy built on American manufacturing.” Yet when one looks at the economic trend lines for the U.S., future American workers are more likely to be manipulating ideas, numbers, and designs than bending metal.

The recent outbreak of factory-hand nostalgia resonates with baby boomers, who are old enough to remember the steady income growth and middle class expansion that manufacturing jobs helped deliver from about 1950 to 1973. In the early 1960s, roughly one-third of U.S. jobs were directly tied to manufacturing (that figure is 9 percent today), as America’s global dominance in autos, steel, appliances, and other fields created a plentiful supply of assembly-line jobs that didn’t require fancy academic credentials. “The romance associated with it is actually economically legitimate because it reminds us of the period of the greatest growth that we had in the U.S. economy,” wrote Jeffrey Bergstrand, a finance professor with the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, in an e-mail. “It’s also, at the same time, an association with the boom in the middle class, and the reason is that you had so many people’s incomes tied to the manufacturing line and they were all sharing in that economic boom.”

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