Monday, September 06, 2010

The Waterfront—and Engineering—Ain’t What It Used To Be

A few days ago, I watched “On the Waterfront,” the famous 1954 movie starring Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, and Eva Marie Saint. Brando plays a morally conflicted longshoreman named Terry who eventually takes a stand against the corrupt union that has murdered fellow longshoreman Joey, the brother of Edie (played by Saint). Karl Malden is the Catholic priest who gets involved in Edie’s freelance investigation of Joey’s death, and ultimately persuades Terry to confess his involvement in Joey’s death and testify against the union bosses, who thereupon beat him within an inch of his life.

This Oscar-winning movie’s context is the New York City dockyards of the 1950s, and was shot mostly on location. And here’s where engineering comes in.

As I watched the movie, I began to notice the backgrounds in outdoor scenes: gritty alleyways, buildings that were already half a century old in 1950, ships constantly plying the waters of the harbor, and factories, factories, factories. Not little one-story light-industry jobs, either: big towering brick-and-steel piles with steam coming out of pipes and tanks, places that were bustling hives of physical work for hundreds or thousands of people, as the dockyards themselves were. And the longshoremen union’s members were mostly first- or second-generation Irish immigrants, men who had spent all their lives busting their backs as they hauled heavy barrels, bags, and boxes around in the days before containerized shipping rendered most of their jobs obsolete.

The fact that the American economy depended vitally on the large quantities of stuff that flowed in and out of our ports made it possible for longshoremens’ unions to gain an illegal stranglehold on the commerce flowing through the docks, profiting from all kinds of corrupt practices ranging from preferential treatment of workers and shippers in exchange for kickbacks to organized-crime-style theft of shipped goods. The best thing many of the longshoremen could do with their lives, beyond simple survival, was to scrimp and save in order to send their children to college, where the next generation might learn enough to get professional jobs in air-conditioned offices doing something like accounting or engineering.

Today, most of the longshoremens’ jobs are gone. The New York City factories are gone. We still move a lot of stuff through ports, but containerized shipping is to the docks in “On the Waterfront” as an elevator is to a horse and buggy. Most of the jobs that Americans are willing to take these days are inside office-type positions. Such a job may not be engineering, but it probably involves computers, and its connection with physical stuff is likely to be remote, if it exists at all. And engineering increasingly keeps its practitioners in front of a computer too, rather than on the shop floor, or factory, or even a test bench.

To the extent that most of our citizens no longer have to work in dangerous, physically demanding jobs that wear your body out and dull your mind, the changes that have taken place from 1954 to 2010 are good ones. I wrote a few weeks back (July 19) about the arrogance that can creep into our attitudes toward people who still work with their hands as much as with their minds (I’m not counting typing as working with your hands). All workers who are not positively engaged in evil activities are worthy of honor, right down to the strawberry harvesters and janitors, many of whom dream of better jobs for their children just as the dockworkers in “On the Waterfront” did. Almost a quarter of the students at Texas State University where I teach are of Hispanic origin, and many are the first in their families to attend college. This is by and large a good thing.

But something else has also changed in the last half-century or so that I have trouble putting into words. A large and growing fraction of the U. S. economy consists of activity that either simply moves wealth around for a fee, or delivers purely symbolic content—software, generously defined. By this I mean things like movies, video games, and basically anything you pay for that comes in the form of bits rather than stuff. Engineers are heavily involved in the production and design ends of these parts of the economy. The products, and therefore the jobs, tend to be evanescent, the original meaning of which is “to vanish like vapor.” That doesn’t mean you can’t get another job doing something similar, after a while, perhaps. But the nature of this area of the economy encourages extreme competition, constant demands for novelty (often without a true improvement in quality), and a consequent shortsighted outlook on life.

Don’t get me wrong. I would rather live in today’s economy and state of technological advancement than in 1954 (although technically, I lived in both—I was born the year before the movie came out). And it’s hard to organize a corrupt union around the shipment of bits on the Internet, although crooks have found many ways to operate in that environment too. But perhaps what I’m looking for nowadays, and don’t see much of, is a simplicity and stability that life had back then—even if it was often simply and indefinitely bad.

Engineers starting their careers today have to accept the idea that their first job will probably not last longer than a couple or three years, and their company itself might not even make it that long without a buyout or significant shakeup. And your next job may require you to learn an entirely new discipline, on your own dime, before you can even think about applying for it. And moving, which involves uprooting whatever face-to-face relationships the modern workplace allows, is a fact of life now, making traditional community life, which requires staying in one place for at least the amount of time it takes to establish meaningful friendships, a distant esoteric memory for more and more people.

On this Labor Day, let us be glad that labor, and many unions, ain’t what they used to be, at least as portrayed in “On the Waterfront.” But let’s also honor all honest labor, and see if we can think of ways it can be more lastingly meaningful and part of a life of integrity and honor.

1 comment:

  1. Great post. I think new grads know they won't be at the same company for long, though they may not realize it'll be the company's choice not theirs. My coworkers/family like to regale me with stories of companies they used to work for that went under in "the recession of 197x" or the company that got bought out in the 80s. From that perspective things seem almost uncannily stable around here for the last decade. I admin I'm afraid and waiting for the next shoe to drop.

    I also wonder if we haven't as a society gone back towards an appreciation for a "hands on" career. Not fruit picking, sure, but there seems a new trend to applaud construction workers, mechanics, plumbers, etc has having "real" jobs and people leaving office jobs for a 2nd career in these jobs. Though I'm not sure how that lasts really as back-breaking labor for a 2nd career seems like a challenge.