Limbo : Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams , by Alfred Lubrano - Book Review

Book Classification : Current Events - Sociology - Social Classes - Careers - Workplace Culture - Working Conditions - Education

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Limbo : Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams , by Alfred Lubrano
Hardcover - 248 pages
First Edition, October 3, 2003
Published by Wiley
ISBN 0-471-26376-1 / ISBN 0471263761

Book Review

Alfred Lubrano, a bricklayer's son from Brooklyn who went to Columbia University and became a journalist, felt like a fish out of water, in the culture of white-collar workers.

In his hardcover nonfiction book Limbo : Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams the author presents his conclusion, with supporting stories and dialogues, based on more than 100 interview with Straddlers, as he calls them. "They were born to blue-collar families and then, like me, moved into the strange new territory of the middle class." [2] Buy the book Limbo : Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams by Alfred Lubrano

I would dispute Mr. Lubrano's conception that this phenomenon involves a "class" transition -- I think the author misunderstands the meaning of socioeconomic class in social science. Apart from this, the subject of the book is an important one. There is tragedy in millions of people reporting daily to work environments where they feel estranged and out of place, or conversely, where their education or work induces them to feel detached from their families.

About the Author

Alfred Lubrano is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer , and has been a commentator for National Public Radio since 1992. He has won various national and state awards, and has contributed to several magazines and anthologies on writing.

- From the Publisher

In fact, the author felt misplaced even before he went to college -- he enjoyed reading books while others around him enjoyed holding conversations about pipes and drywall. [13] There are numerous social variations to be noted. In some cases, for example, kids from families and neighborhoods where racial epithets are tossed around [15, 123] find themselves working in offices where this practice is not tolerated. Or you may be socially progressive, and bowling is your leisure, while you're surrounded by coworkers who discuss racquetball or skiing. [21, 78] Perhaps you feel different from other students when you get to college, because you're the only one in your dorm who has to get a job while going to school. [19, 76]

Family relationships are impacted as well, not only in the career phase, but perhaps starting in the college years. Maybe you come home from college with an enlarged vocabulary, and part of you feels guilt merely to do your best while playing Scrabble with Mom. [76] Some college graduates feel detached from their families and yet perceive that they "owe" the family something undefined [64, 48]; others may be embarrassed by their families [70]. Sometimes it's the Straddler's parent who feels the cultural gap. You may be the traditional parent, wondering what in the world has happened to your kid, when he or she comes home from college and suddenly declares that he or she has become a vegetarian [53] or skeptical about the family religion [60-61].

Many corporate employees never come to understand, or never find it in their hearts to follow, the unwritten rules of office politics. The "rituals and requirements," Lubrano writes, are "forever foreign." [121] Assume that you came from a family where you were taught such values as hard work [18] and respect for one's parents [17]. You get a job in an office -- "sterile, cold, distant" -- where you're judged largely by your clothes, or even your manner of laughing at a joke. [130] If you know your boss is wrong about something, you're not supposed to speak your mind, but instead to put on a fake smile. [131-133].

Excerpts from the book
Limbo by Alfred Lubrano

"My father held himself out as a negative object lesson. If you don't do your homework, ace the test, and apply to college, you'll wind up laying bricks. You'll wind up being just like me. What does that make my father feel like, to have to instruct his son not to be like the old man?" [27]

"There's a brutality to education, he says, a rough and terrible disconnect. Rodriguez says he despised his parents' 'shabbiness,' their inability to speak English. 'I hated that they didn't know what I was learning,' he says." [49]

"On her first weekend home from college, Barbara Peters, 53, a Long Island sociologist, was warned by her blue-collar Wisconsin family, 'Don't get too big for your britches. You think you're so smart 'cause you're in college.' That meant, Barbara says, that you should just come back and act like us. When she had final exams, her parents were moving and demanded that she return to help. She didn't and they held it against her." [64]

"It is, Straddlers will tell you, during the unguarded moments on campus that class differences smack you in the forehead. At the University of California at Davis, Cheryl Shell remembers that the class was reading Jane Austen. She had become disgusted with the balls and social occasions that are part of the characters' milieu, but not Cheryl's. 'God,' Cheryl said aloud in class, "if I read another description of a ball gown I'm gonna go crazy." Eneryone was shocked. The professor looked at Cheryl and said, "Are you, by any chance, from working class parents?" Wham, right between the eyes. Cheryl hadn't seen that one coming." [80-81]

"The rough days of labor by blue-collar men are written in the MRIs, CAT scans, and X rays they're forced to sit still for in pain-filled retirement -- like models posing for the medical arts. Their wrecked insides tell the stories of bricks and blocks lifted, holes dug, and punishment absorbed. If your rough hands and stooped walk don't give you away, your ruined bones and tissue surely will." [115]

Chapter six, on office politics, resonated in my bones. After working for 17 years in an office where I was never comfortable with the culture, and always felt somewhat like Tarzan visiting the Big City, I can attest to the fact that this cultural disparity impedes the advancement of one's career. How silly of me to expect a raise occasionally, just because I perfomed all the jobs my boss asked me to do, I did them well, and on time. When my boss wrote me a performance evaluation that made no mention at all of those factors, but instead refered to such nonmeasurable vagueries as "extent to which employee displays creative leadership qualities,", he might as well have been speaking a different language. I was never able to find out what he meant, if anything.

In addition to conveying the predicaments of others, Lubrano also tells a few of his own stories. After taking his first job with the New York Daily News , he covered a riot in Bensonhurst which followed a race-motivated murder. He was attacked by a street mob as he was covering the news. [109]

Lubrano is sensitive to human needs, and his excellent and well-researched book is throughly humanistic. The only fault of the book is that the author, without realizing it, and without intending to do so, has used what is, in reality, a reactionary definition of social classes. In this conceptualization, one supposedly leaves the "working class" and enters the "middle class" by virtue of receiving a college diploma and getting a job in a facility that has a dress code. In fact, we are and remain members of the working class right up until that improbable day when we might own sufficient capital to enable us to live on dividends, and will no longer have to sell ourselves on the labor market in order to survive. Most talk of a "middle class" proceeds from a pro-status-quo gimmick to impede genuine class interest comprehension, to prevent workers from thinking of themselves as workers. The intra-working-class cultural stratifications and differentiations that are documented so well in the book are real, but they are not classes.

Although Limbo is easy to read and filled with fascinating personal stories, I interpret it as a serious and significant work of research in cultural anthropology.

I note that we are in an age in which many books are written about self-discovery and self-help, yet so little media attention has been given the ways in which social institutions and practices can leave people feeling like outsiders.

In this particular area, dispite the tangible advantages of the automation age, we haven't made solid gains, and may have slid backwards, since Karl Marx wrote, 160 years ago: " What constitutes the alienation of labor? The work is external to the worker, it is not part of his nature. The worker feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working, he does not feel himself. The activity of the worker is not his own spontaneous activity. It belongs to another, it is a loss of his self."

You don't cure that condition merely by instructing the worker to wear a suit, or by telling the worker, "Congratulations - you have been promoted to "Professional" ... That means: when we make you work overtime from now on, you won't get paid for it. Isn't that great? When I look, you had better be smiling." In fact, that management weapon magnifies the severity of the problem.

If you are concerned about social problems of our era, and wish to be competent to comment on them, if you take a compassionate interest in modern lifestyle issues, Limbo is a must-read. This book is journalism at its best.

Book review by Mike Lepore for

Hardcover, 248 pages, 8 chapters plus introduction and appendices, 6-page 2-column index, no illustrations

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Limbo : Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
by Alfred Lubrano
ISBN 0-471-26376-1 / ISBN 0471263761

Book Description from the Publisher

Limbo is a thought-provoking treatise on the lasting consequences of class mobility in America. Drawing on his own story as well as on dozens more from individuals who share his experience, award-winning journalist Alfred Lubrano sheds light on the predicament of some 13 million Americans: reconciling their blue-collar upbringing with the white-collar world they now inhabit.

The son of a Brooklyn bricklayer, Lubrano came of age in a neighborhood imbued with typical working-class values like the importance of hard work, loyalty to family and community, and a healthy respect for religion. Academically gifted, he attended Columbia, and went on to achieve professional success as a reporter. But he quickly found that the lessons he had absorbed in childhood would not serve him as well as the upper-class gifts of subtlety, diplomacy, and cultural capital -- leaving him strangely isolated from both his workplace peers and the world he'd left behind.

Unfamiliar with the rules of upper-class life, which serves as the model for corporate culture, the "Straddlers" (as Lubrano dubs them) find themselves ill-equipped for that buttoned-down world. Yet they share Lubrano's ambiguity, and their choices frequently challenge the philosophical and moral assumptions of working-class life.

Combining personal stories with the latest thinking from leading experts, Limbo offers a unique blend of deeply felt first-person confessional and sociological study that is both profoundly affecting and rigorously informed. Though it wholly dismisses the widely held notion that class is a dead subject in America, it avoids cynicism and easy judgment, seeking only to provide a glimpse at what lies beneath our social and cultural fabric.

The profiles here show a remarkable consistency of emotion and experience across a diverse demographic that crosses all boundaries of sex, race, and religion. Opening a long-awaited dialogue, Limbo reflects the reality of a unique class struggling with an all-American brand of cultural isolation. There is something for everyone in these honest and eloquent stories of life in our modern meritocracy.

A groundbreaking work of narrative nonfiction

In the vein of Barbara Ehrenreich 's Nickel and Dimed , this powerful work of narrative nonfiction uncovers a cultural phenomenon--the limbo existence of people raised in blue-collar families, living white-collar lives. Its approach is threefold: first, the personal story of the author himself, a working-class kid from Brooklyn who crossed over to the middle class after attaining an Ivy League education; second, a distillation of thought about class and mobility from leading experts; and finally, and most importantly, the stories of more than 100 interviewees, all "Straddlers" struggling with the duality that exists in their workplace, their hearts, and their minds.

Book Reviews

"In Limbo , people straddle two social zones.... The future is never assured when you come from a house of rough hands. There are many profound opinions in this major newspaperman's reporting."

-- Jimmy Breslin , Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez

"If you have any bloodlines at all to the working class, you will recognize -- and newly discover -- yourself in Alfred Lubrano's inspired book. Limbo brings to life the minefield crossover from the blue-collar world to the white-collar one in prose that is at once trout-stream clear and luminous. It's the very American, real-as-a-streetfight story of a bricklayer's son's own uneasy journey out of Bensonhurst woven movingly with the journeys of a legion of other 'Straddlers.' Don't pass this gem by."

-- Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of The Death and Life of Dith Pran

"Al Lubrano is a great reporter and the kind of writer whose work is infused with both thought and feeling. He has chosen here a great and often overlooked subject, the role of class in modern American society, and has produced a book rich with insight into both his own life and all our lives. If you are like me, you will nod your head with recognition throughout."

-- Mark Bowden , author of Black Hawk Down and Killing Pablo

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This is an link for
Limbo : Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
by Alfred Lubrano
ISBN 0-471-26376-1 / ISBN 0471263761