We're working on a big project about jobs - in particular the fact that the quality of jobs in the U.S. has been declining. I went off into the heartland -- Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana -- to conduct our version of ethnography. It was a week asking people, "So, whadya think about the job situation? getting better? worse?" and then settling into a meandersome conversation about the nature of work, the economy, what we want and what we owe one another and, more often than I'd expected, whether or not America's best days were behind it. We might converse for 5 minutes or 20 or for an hour or more. Louisville, Lexington, Georgetown, Kentucky; Cincinnati, Ohio; Shelbyville, Anderson, Columbus, Indiana. I videotaped about 40 interviews at people's kitchen tables, along the sidewalk, in the beauty parlor, sitting in the grass, in McDonald's till they chased us out. About 40 more weren't taped, but took place on front porches, restaurants, with beers around the bed of a pickup truck, on a park bench while a harmonica man played nearby and the City Council met. A white women in Indiana selling out her stock in a failed used clothing business; the black men of Cincinnati's West Side, unhireable in this economy with felonies in their pasts and maybe futures; 20-somethings trading their college degrees for $8 an hour folding shirts at the Gap; the old men in the barber shop worrying about the coming generation; a half dozen high school kids eating homemade burgers and mustering hope that there'll be jobs for them; the family waiting in their car outside the food pantry; the clerks, teachers, businessmen, factory workers, retirees, carpenters, students, nurses . . .
Traveling among Americans always has the potential to depress me. The landscapes ruined by franchise capitalism, the people who work too much and think too little, the bad food and all the cars; the awful realization that it is for this concatenation of mistakes that we destroy the earth. But there was a strange grandeur to the tiring, sobering America of this trip. The long, slow-motion implosion of the American experiment in middle class capitalism seems to have reached a terminal stage, and there are few individuals any longer who doubt that it could soon be them dancing at the edge of some personal ruin. I couldn't resist asking the middle of America whether the prosperous days were gone forever, and the middle of America told me that yes, it reckoned, indeed they were.