Arne L. Kalleberg, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Explaining the astonishing results in the 2016 presidential election will undoubtedly keep social scientists busy for a long time. While the eventual consequences of the election are yet to be seen, it is clear that sociologists have tremendous challenges ahead. At the same time, there are also great opportunities to explain how broad institutional and cultural factors generated the insecurity felt by those whose precarious economic situations and futures were dire, and felt in need of hope and a sense of dignity.
The anger expressed by Mr. Trump’s core constituency—namely white, blue-collar men without college degrees—is not that surprising considering that they were the main casualties of the major economic shifts that have occurred in the United States over the past three decades. During this period, we have seen a rapid growth of jobs that paid low wages and offered few benefits, and which had virtually no long-term security or opportunities for advancement. Long gone are many of the secure, well-paying industrial jobs that enabled millions of American workers to join the middle class in the mid-20th century. Today, only the most skilled workers prosper, while others must settle for jobs with paltry compensation and poor prospects.
This growth of precarious work has led to significant outcomes, both related to work (e.g., job and economic insecurity, inequality) and non-work spheres (e.g., stress, family disruption, community fracturing). The decline of the middle class has spilled over into a very large range of social problems: gender and race disparities, civil rights and economic injustice, family insecurity and work-family imbalances, concerns about immigration, political polarization, and so on. This situation has festered for some time, as many of these formerly middle-class workers increasingly felt that political leaders did not hear their concerns nor provide them with much guidance on how to chart an increasingly insecure and uncertain landscape. Their precarious position thus made them very susceptible to the political overtures from someone who provided an explanation for their plight, ranging from bad trade deals that sent their jobs overseas, a “rigged system” that answered only to the rich and powerful, immigrants that were responsible for terror and crime.
Where Does Sociology Fit in?
The (re) emergence of nonstandard work arrangements, technologically induced changes in work, and the replacement of people by automation and robots illustrate only some of the numerous important issues that sociologists need to explain in terms of the sociological, cultural, economic, and political dynamics over the past three decades. Perhaps even more urgently, sociologists need to identify the kinds of policies that might be effective in addressing these concerns and thereby to contribute substantially to the framing of effective policies to rebuild the social contract.