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Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich
Fear of Falling:  The Inner Life of the Middle Class
ISBN: 0060973331
Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class
Barbara Ehrenreich talked about her book Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class in which she examined social stereotypes. A freelance writer and a columnist and contributing editor for Ms. magazine, she also holds a Ph.D. in biology. Coming from a blue-collar background, she uses her experience to present a unique analysis of America, focusing on the professional middle class, its prejudices and how stereotypes are proliferated.
Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class
Program Air Date: October 8, 1989

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Barbara Ehrenreich author of "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class." Why the title "Fear of Falling?"
BARBARA EHRENREICH, AUTHOR, "FEAR OF FALLING: THE INNER LIFE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS": Well it's a book about anxiety -- about the anxieties the secret self doubt and worries of the middle class. Actually it's about the professional middle class. The you know the doctor or lawyer or social worker teacher, college professor stratum of people. And fear of falling well that refers first to the kind of obvious fear of just sliding down in terms of income down into a poorer class. But it also about something I don't think has been written much about. A more subtle psychological fear of going soft really. Of losing that will to succeed. That drive that it takes for professional achievement.
LAMB: Do you think most people in that category of professional middle class are happy?
EHRENREICH: Happy? I think anxious is more like it. I mean this is not a psychological study of you know individuals and how they feel. But it's using a lot of kinds of data I'm looking at. Also it a product of professional and middle class people because the professional middle class is a source of our opinion makers. I mean this is where our pondets come from. Our professors, our commentators, our talk show hosts, our writers, journalists, etc. So you don't have to look far to see what's on their minds. It's everywhere.
LAMB: Where did you grow up?
EHRENREICH: I was born in Butte, Montana and grew up in all sorts of places. My family traveled around I guess as we were moving up from in terms of social class and income. My father had been a miner a copper miner in Butte, Montana. And as he moved up toward the white collar ranks we just moved around the country too.
LAMB: And you live now?
EHRENREICH: Now I live in Long Island in New York.
LAMB: Where if you went back in your past where did you first get a sense of what you thought about the world do you think?
EHRENREICH: That's a hard question. Everything I thought about the world?
LAMB: Oh no but you know who do you remember first influencing the way you think?
EHRENREICH: Well I would have to say of course my parents had a lot to do with the point of view that's in this book. That they came from you know they were from the blue collar working class. They were proud of it. They were strong union people. There were two rules in our family. One was you never cross a union picket line and the other was you never vote Republican. And this was the spirit of the whole community. A lot of people felt that way. So you know part of it is growing up and getting an education myself. Coming into the professional middle class and seeing real prejudice for blue collar working class people. That effected me.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
EHRENREICH: I went to college in Portland and then I have a somewhat irrelevant PhD in biology. But don't ask me too many questions about biology.
LAMB: When did you think you wanted to be a writer?
EHRENREICH: I never actually said to myself Brian I want to be a writer. I think I started writing things because I felt the ought to be written. Or I had an assignment or an investigative something I wanted to do. And only in the last 10 or 15 years have I realized that's what I put down on my income tax forms writer.
LAMB: What'd you do before that? As a matter of fact I saw in here where you at one point worked for John Lindsey when he was Mayor of New York.
EHRENREICH: That was one of my few actual jobs. Yes I once did work for the city government of New York. And I once taught in a part of a state university for two years. So other than that it's been the freelance life.
LAMB: I want to show the audience this cover so they can see what book we're talking about. It is in the book stores and published by Pantheon. "Fear of Falling." What is..look over here and..what is this?
EHRENREICH: You really can't expect the author to account for things like that. That if you look very closely is little people it looks like little men and they're in a kind of a ladder arrangement and they're actually polishing each other shoes. Now I don't think this actually says too much about the theme of the book. The guy at the top interestingly enough has a martini glass. So it says something about social hierarchy there.
LAMB: I thought they were going to get another shot of it. Who was this book written for?
EHRENREICH: Well to tell you the truth I didn't start thinking who am I writing for what kind of audience is this for. I just followed my imagination followed my curiosity where it went. And thought maybe..we'll see who's interested. But I've got to follow my hunches and my leads.
LAMB: When did you start writing it?
EHRENREICH: I started writing in Spring of '87 Summer of '87. But I've been doing research for a long time before.
LAMB: In the back of the book there are 261 notes. Never seen anything quite like that. What was your..and we'll show the audience what I'm talking about it's not that mysterious but it..what was your objective here in listing the notes this way. They are not footnotes are they?
EHRENREICH: They are end notes. They are..I didn't want numbers in the text if you want to know the truth so I..they're all there in the back though. So that anybody can check out anything I want to say can go to the source.
LAMB: Did you read all that. I mean it..
EHRENREICH: An awful lot of it. Yeah. But it's fun. I mean because this is a book that doesn't just draw on other things in print. I mean I do draw on some sort of census bureau things. But draws on movies. Draws on TV. Draws on books about how to raise your children. Things about fitness. Things about fashion. So it's a lot fun to work on.
LAMB: Where are we politically in this country at this point do you know?
EHRENREICH: Well the book is about how the professional middle class moved to the right over the period roughly from the '60's to the '80's. I don't know if it's going to stay that way but that's the shift that this documents in that sort of educated professional elite in our society. At one point it was very fashionable to be liberal. At this point it's very fashionable to be conservative among a certain intellectual elite of the professional middle class.
LAMB: Where are you?
EHRENREICH: Oh I'm not conservative. I'm definitely on the left. A feminist too.
LAMB: Have you always been there? And have you stayed the same throughout this period?
EHRENREICH: You can never really answer that for sure I guess. But I would say so. Probably my politics aren't that different either from in some ways from my parents way back in Butte, Montana.
LAMB: When you say intellectual elite what is that?
EHRENREICH: Well a lot of this book "Fear of Falling" tracks opinion in addition it's tracking things like media, and movies and TV. It looks at the opinions of people who are considered to be intellectuals who are considered to be scholars and commentators whose views are very respected and not often scrutinized for prejudice. I mean I'm sort of a myth buster by trade. I mean I like to say I specialize in ideas. Bad ideas. And I was looking at ideas which are tak..ideas say about other classes. Where do they come from? Prejudices that the professional middle class has about everybody else in America. And these often come with a stamp of a great deal of authority. For example one of the things I did in researching this I wanted to see what sociology textbooks college textbooks had to say about what the so called lower classes are like. So I got them out stacks of them in college libraries and there was what I could only consider unexamined incredible prejudice. Statements to the effect that the "lower classes" are ignorant, dumb, inarticulate, one even said they are boring which I thought was going to an extreme. But they are parochial. That they don't understand the world. You that's..I..that's rank prejudice.
LAMB: Where's it come from?
EHRENREICH: I don't know but it' seems to's endemic in the professional middle class if that's what you read in your college textbook if that's what you're even going to be tested on in college that's what you'll believe. If that's what you hear being represented as expert opinion. And we don't I think if I may criticize the media just a little bit here..hear enough from other people. If you look at the Public Affairs talk shows you will see a group of fairly conservative well dressed gentlemen and I do mean men usually from this professional middle class this upper middle class they might even be talking about the minimum wage. Something they've never experienced earning in their lives. We hear very little from people who are let's say I hate to use the word ordinary Americans because no one's ordinary but steamfitters, truck drivers, receptionists, nurses aides, really the American majority gets closed off and then it's..shut out I mean and then it's possible for that professional middle class to persist in its prejudices.
LAMB: Why is that? Start with why are there white middle class american males hosting call in shows, talk shows, public affairs shows, appearing on them, commenting where does that..why isn't it broader?
EHRENREICH: That's a good question. I don't know Brian but I think partly when a group becomes something of an elite and gets a grip on some institutions it's hard for them to give it up. And then there are other prejudices that help justify that monopoly. I have talked to media people and said just this why don't we open it up. This is a democracy. Let's you..and expertise doesn't always mean a PhD. And they'll..and the answer will often be but..well find me a of those people who's articulate. They're not articulate. There's a belief that you know that people who are working class or poor can't even express themselves. So that preserves the monopoly of a few.
LAMB: Have you seen any change and let's talk about the media for a while. Have you seen any change in the media say in the last 15 years? Any positive change?
EHRENREICH: I think the media have opened up a lot to..along the lines of gender and race. Not enough but we do see more women. We do see more minorities. That's good. But I still think it's too class bound. When you look at the sitcoms there aren't many that represent anything but a professional middle class family. Look at the Cosby's. A doctor, lawyer couple. That's highly unusual. When we do get the working class we're likely to see a stereotype. Roseanne is somewhat better. Married with Children is disturbing and not just for the sexual innuendo but for what it says about average middle income americans. Another example in the news we've had for the past few months a very dramatic very large coal miners strike in this country. Lots of americans don't know that. 65,000 coal miners out. Thousands arrested along with their families in non violent civil disobedience daily. But you ask most people they'll say oh yeah the coal miners in Siberia right? We don't..I don't think we pay enough attention to events like that. And then we're able to go on with our stereotype that well those blue collar folks they're dumb they have nothing to say. They are all reactionary and not worth listening to.
LAMB: Does the media lead or follow?
EHRENREICH: Both. Both. I think sometimes it follows to uncritically the so called experts in fields and isn't good enough at going out and busting stereotypes and doing investigations on its own. And sometimes it too passively follows what it takes to be public opinion at one moment or another.
LAMB: Is there a cause and effect here on the society? I mean does the media have an impact both movies and television and print on the public to further stereotypes you are talking about?
EHRENREICH: Oh certainly.
LAMB: Does it..or does it create the stereotype?
EHRENREICH: I'm not sure that the media actually creates the stereotypes all the time. I'm know the case of Archie Bunker "All in the Family" which is just the classic stereotype of the white, blue collar, male. That started..that program started in 1970. Well the idea that the average white, blue collar, male was like was already around in 1969 when the media discovered I have to put quote marks around that word "discovered" the american working class and some of that was shaped by as I said by scholars and intellectuals. Not just by the media. What do you think? You're..I mean you're in the heart of the media here.
LAMB: I got no thoughts in this matter because you're the one that wrote the book. Actually one of the things I thought was interesting in the beginning of this book was your acknowledgements. I wanted to get some..and one name popped out of this that I wanted to find out it's the same person the David Basalon (?) who thought up the new class long before John and I ever did and we'll talk about John and I is that the judge David Basalon or is this another one?
EHRENREICH: No this is a I think a cousin of the judge. This David Basalon is a very interesting elderly man who wrote some great books in the '60's about american society and about this professional middle class.
LAMB: You lead off in the beginning with acknowledgements and I wanted to ask you about this. "Many innocent people must be implicated in this unorthodox undertaking." John Ehrenreich. Who is he?
EHRENREICH: He's my former husband and we had done some writing. We had written an article on this subject in 1976.
LAMB: Still in touch with him?
EHRENREICH: Oh yeah. Yeah. We share two children so have to be.
LAMB: And you collaborated with me on the article that laid the formal ground work for my thinking about professional middle class. Did you..when you set out to write this book did you sit down with him and talk over that article and where he right now in his own mind about the middle class?
EHRENREICH: We talked a little bit. We've talked you know over the..over the years in which I was working on this some. But he's gone into other directions other interests now at this point.
LAMB: You dedicated this book to Gary let's see if we can get a close shot of this here and I want to ask you who Gary is right there. "To Gary and the old fashioned struggle against class injustice that he so ably served." Who is he?
EHRENREICH: Gary is my husband. My current husband. Gary Stevenson is his name and he is a union organizer. That's what the reference is. So he is somebody there who's on the front lines you know trying to organize people to get better wages and benefits and move up a little bit.
LAMB: Is it tough being a union organizer today?
EHRENREICH: Very tough. And his experience has also helped shape what I wrote about. He's been doing this well throughout the Reagan years he's been a union organizer and these haven't been easy years to organize. The national labor relations board was weakened considerably under the Reagan administration. Which meant that it's been harder for workers to find those protections. You know to guarantee for example that you won't be fired if you engage in union organizing. There are physical risks. I mentioned in the book three of our friends I just think I called them acquaintances there in the last year and a half were beaten up while trying to organize. This is real old fashioned kind of thing that we associate with the 1930's or something. But that kind of heavy handed union busting unfortunately still goes on.
LAMB: Why are people changing their outlook on unions?
EHRENREICH: Who's changing their outlook on unions?
LAMB: Well if it's tough to organize and there aren't as many union members today as there used to be what's happening there. I mean why are the people joining unions?
EHRENREICH: Well one of the reasons is what I was just saying is that when you don't have those protections of law that you should have and you risk being fired if you participate in a union organizing drive that's scary. Especially if you're down there at the $4.00, $5.00 level. That's how you support your family. So a lot of fear has helped..has helped prevent people.
LAMB: Who do you blame for no longer having the protection of law?
EHRENREICH: I would blame the Reagan administration and if you recall he started out Ronald Reagan by busting CATCO the flight controllers union and that..while at the same time we were applauding solidarity in Poland. Unions always look better when they're far away like the coal miners in Siberia we like them. Coal miners in West Virginia not so interesting. So we have had a very anti-labor move.
LAMB: What happened in this period to the Democrats? Didn't the Democrats control the House during this period? And now have control of the Senate again why haven't they come to the aid of union members and reinforced the law?
EHRENREICH: Well I'm quite critical of the Democrats in the last eight or nine years. I think that it's certainly until about 1986 the first few years of the Reagan administration they seem to go underground. I mean they just became you know silent. We didn't have a liberal opposition to what was going on and to what was being done to labor and to what was being done to people in poverty through cut backs in social programs. I think they lay low.
LAMB: Why?
EHRENREICH: And I think it was a big mistake.
LAMB: You think the union the attitude toward unions is here forever? The new attitude?
EHRENREICH: Hard to say. I mean because I just can't predict. A lot will depend I think on if..whether things keep going downhill for the average wage earning person. Because at some point I think there will be some sort of turn around and we'll be seeing more rebellions like the coal miners strike and maybe on a larger scale.
LAMB: What is..go back to your..let me show the audience what this cover looks like. "Fear of Falling" and we're talking about the professional middle class. How do you define what a professional middle class member is besides being a lawyer or a doctor or somebody in the management or in the media. How much money do they make?
EHRENREICH: Well this isn't a strictly financial definition. We..I based it mostly on occupation. Whether it's an occupation that requires college and some higher degree beyond that. It's just the usual definition of a professional. About how much professional middle class are earning today a couple the average two income professional and managerial couple is making well above $60,000 a year now. While the average working class couple which might be a blue collar male and typically a pink collar woman is making in the low thirties. And that's an interesting thing. That gap has been growing between the professional middle class and the blue and pink collar working class.
LAMB: Is there a difference between the classes and if there is a difference about the way they live their lives and what they read and what they watch what is the difference?
EHRENREICH: Well you see this is tricky ground. I mean..which I decided to stay away from because once you start generalizing you start stereotyping in all kinds of ways. Everybody thinks they know that the professional middle class eats shushi that the blue collar working class eats whoppers and french fries. There is some truth to that just because the whoppers and french fries are cheaper than the shushi. There are..I mean there are all sorts of ways we're getting into the ground now of how we go around making class distinctions. We look at a person and we say well hum what class is that person in? We may not use those words we may not say what class but we look for little clues. We look for example it would be another example in clothing the professional middle class will favor natural fibers. It looks down on synthetics. Blue collar working class does not have that. Hence one of those little class slurs we often hear calling the polyester crowd. So there are all kinds of ways but I hate to just say you generalize and say that's true about everybody.
LAMB: If you are in what you are referring to as the lower class or I don't know what the right they aspire to be a part of the middle class?
EHRENREICH: Sure. I think everybody..everybody aspires to enter the professional middle class who can through education. Education is our big means of upward mobility in this society. People want that for their children. People know it's a easier life. You're not breaking your back. That you have more control over your work if you're in the professional middle class. You're know people aren't breathing down your neck every moment. You can go to the bathroom when you like. Your vacations will be longer. So yes people aspire to the professional middle class.
LAMB: "The Fear of Falling" again. Is there a great anxiety among the middle class that they are going to fall into another class or lose money or lose status or how anxious is that group?
EHRENREICH: Well this is a very anxious class. Probably everybody's anxious right now except the very rich. But there is a lot of anxiety about just sliding down economically. Because although the professional middle class is affluent on the whole costs of housing has gotten so high and cost of college tuition. Those are key things. I mean you're not really middle class in any sense unless you own your own home or can send your children to college. I think there is real worry even if you're in the middle class will your children be. Young people are saying you know people in their 20's and 30's I'll never live the way my parents live. I just can't afford the house. So there's that and that's pretty as straight forward rational anxiety. There is another anxiety though which this book dwells on even more which is somewhat subtler more psychological. And that's a fear of going soft. Of losing it. Of losing the..this self discipline and will power that it takes to achieve in a professional career. Because if you think about it if you're rich you know your children will be rich too because you can just leave them all the money. But if you're in the professional middle class the children will start..have to start out almost where you did. They'll have to go through all those years of educations. Credentialling. Maybe some sort of apprenticeship if it's medicine or law. It's a long long haul. So even though this is an affluent class there is a fear of affluence. A fear of getting spoiled by it and becoming just hedonistic and self indulgent.
LAMB: In the acknowledgements you said something interesting. I am also indebted to that familiar beach head of socialism the public library system. And to the patient employees of the Nassau County System. What did you mean by beach head of socialism?
EHRENREICH: Well public libraries. There we have know it's a free service. Of course if your books are as overdue as mine usually are it's not that free. It's free for everybody. Anybody can use it. Rich poor whoever. Don't even have to dress up fancily to go to the library. I think it's great. You know I wish we had more things like that which provided a service without any talk of money except when your books are late.
LAMB: Do you have any idea of how successful our library system is in the country?
EHRENREICH: Well I don't know but it sure is important for someone like me. I am not employed. I am not a professor anywhere. To do research I have to use mostly public facilities and there would be a whole lot more ignorance in this country if we didn't have that open library system.
LAMB: Also you talk about your dad. You say "My family has provided much more than loving support. I thank my father Ben House Alexander for his fine honed scorn of class pretensions." Is he still alive?
LAMB: When did you get a sense that he had a fine honed scorn for class pretention?
EHRENREICH: Well. He raised me I guess with his own kinds of class prejudices. Blue collar sorts of class prejudices that he brought with him from Butte, Montana. From that mining community. He looked down on doctors, lawyers, clergymen, executives. He said they don't do anything. I don't see what they're doing. He called them phonies. So that I grew up hearing that and of course I aspired to be one of those professionals somehow myself. But I always kept in mind his own judgment which came from..I think is shared by a lot of working people as I point out in the book that they look up at..they look at the professional middle class and they see people who seem well rested. Who seem to be in control of what they're doing and it looks like they're not really working very hard.
LAMB: Are they well rested and are they in control of what they are doing?
EHRENREICH: No. Probably not. Probably that's one of the misconceptions that the working class has about the professional middle class. I..especially in the last eight years along with the frenetic super binge that the professional middle class has been on. There's been a I don't know how to put it almost a glorification of work which is odd. Usually social elites in the past have liked to show off how lazy they were and how they didn't have to work. We have a social elite that prides itself on having the absolutely packed appointment book. Can't squeeze you in unless it's for breakfast etc. That's..busyness has become a mark of status. Whether it's real work or not I don't know.
LAMB: Why did you father have his attitude about the middle class and disdain them and say they weren't working very hard and why did you want to aspire to be in that category?
EHRENREICH: Good question Brian but confusing. It's all I can is you get mixed signals sometimes. But I think what it added up to me was it was a message saying yes aspire if you a professional other than what would I have been if we remained in Butte a waitress I don't know. Do that if you like. Get the education but don't forget your roots. Don't forget where you came from. Don't forget that this country was built by people like your dad and your grandparents and so on. Don't forget that's still those people who make it work.
LAMB: Have you had a problem and you've written one, two, three, four, five, six books besides this one?
LAMB: Successful?
EHRENREICH: Reasonably.
LAMB: Have you had a problem becoming successful and remembering where you came from? And do you find yourself saying hey this is pretty good I've got money in the bank and living fairly well and people are reading what I have to say and I'm part of the elite?
EHRENREICH: I don't have enough money in the bank yet to be able to say that Brian. No unfortunately circumstances have kept me well in touch with my roots.
LAMB: What about the book "The Hearts of Men?" In the reviews they're..often your reviewers mention that book "The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment." When did you write that and what impact did that have on our society?
EHRENREICH: That was written in 1983 "The Hearts of Men." And it's about a phenomenon that hasn't gone away. The apparent flight from commitment on the part of American men. The decline willingness to be breadwinners. To get married and be responsible for a family. I'm not saying that's always a bad thing. I think men were very trapped into their sex role too. But I was looking at how that came about. How not only women through the women's movement had rebelled against our assigned sex role which was to be the homemaker and mother but how men had in the '50's and '60's increasingly been thinking do we really want to do this. Why should we take on this entire burden of responsibility. Why not spend our money on ourselves.
LAMB: If we went back and read your book today some six years later would it still be true? You kind of said that in the beginning here that your thesis has proved out to continue through the last six years?
EHRENREICH: Yes. We tend to think of the '80's as the time when everyone went back to traditional values so called and big weddings and so on. Not true. Actually the number of people living alone and is single just keeps going up and up. Marriage may know the married may one day be the minority group. And men..the age of marriage for men first marriage keeps going up and up.
LAMB: Why during say during the Ronald Reagan years, which I guess you'd call the conservative years, did we as a society continue to loosen up so much in so many of these things that you've been talking about. You know divorce isn't as controversial as it used to be and I don't need to go through the litany of things but in some ways we live a much more liberal life but yet the country's voted conservative. Or has it? Do you call it conservative?
EHRENREICH: Well that's a big question in itself. How conservative is this country? It is confusing because know people voted for Reagan obviously and Bush. But during the Reagan years polls were showing that people were becoming more not less liberal on key attitudes toward social spending on foreign policy on wanting to see less money spent on the military more on human problems. So it may be that the Democrats just haven't been presenting a very believable alternative. Or haven't had very good representatives in their presidential campaigns.
LAMB: What's your instincts? That the Democrats will have to change in order to get the White House back or that society will change and once again endorse the Democratic philosophy?
EHRENREICH: I think the Democrat..Democratic leadership would have to get a lot clearer and tougher about what they're saying. They would have to say things like..they would have to point out you know one of the themes of this book is how we are becoming more unequal as a society. How we're being pulled apart. The rich are richer. The poor are poorer. I mentioned that pool in the middle. The growing split there. They would have to talk about that and point out the way Republican policies conservative policies have contributed to that growing inequality. Have to talk about no..I mean I get so tired when I hear people saying what do you want more taxes. You have to talk about taxing the rich. The very rich.
LAMB: If you were President of the United States what would you do differently? Do to bring about what you think ought to be done to make it a fairer place to live?
EHRENREICH: Well many many things. But two things right off. One I would try to reverse some of the I think false steps missteps we took under Reagan. He actually carried out a program of redistributing the wealth. Which sound pretty radical is pretty radical but distributed it upwards toward people already wealthy through tax cuts for the very wealthy. I would reverse that. I would say let's go back to a more steeply graded system of taxation. I just don't want to watch another Malcolm Forbes $2 million birthday party.
LAMB: Made you mad?
EHRENREICH: Oh does it make me mad. Yeah. If he can't figure out a better way to spend money I think maybe we should all discuss democratically good ways to use that kind of money.
LAMB: By the way when you saw that in the press how mad did you get?
EHRENREICH: Well actually I shouldn't say mad. I had to laugh because I think they have gone so far the ultra rich in flaunting it that they are going to be getting quite a backlash. The Leona Helmsley syndrome, you know, fantastic wealth combined with total arrogance toward the rest of us. We see some of that in Donald Trump quite a bit of that I should say. We see these parties. There was the famous Steinberg party in the Hamptons we all read about. I think that's provoking a backlash and a kind of revulsion against the Reagan era policies of soak the poor soak the middle class and funnel the money upwards.
LAMB: Maybe this isn't fair but you are an author getting a lot of national publicity. What if somebody calls you up and says come to my party and you know good and well that it's the same kind of party that you just said you don't like. Do you go?
EHRENREICH: Nope. No I'm not comfortable in that kind of situation frankly. I'm a little more comfortable with the Budweiser crowd.
LAMB: Who do you hope reads this book?
EHRENREICH: I hope all kinds of people read it. I certainly hope people in the professional middle class read it and that it provokes some kind of soul searching. And it's not just negative but looking at our anxieties. Why are we so anxious? Why are we so driven? What's it all for? In the way we raise our children in our forms of recreation I touch on all those things.
LAMB: How old are your kids?
EHRENREICH: I have a nineteen year old and a sixteen year old.
LAMB: What are they doing?
EHRENREICH: The nineteen year old is in college and the sixteen year old is in high school.
LAMB: And are they different than you are in any way in the way they think?
EHRENREICH: I should hope so.
LAMB: What I mean by that..
LAMB: know in another generation your collar was blue collar..
LAMB: ..and now I don't know would you consider yourself a blue collar part of the blue collar family?
EHRENREICH: Oh no. No it's sort of a mixed family. My husband's a union organizer, I'm a writer, the kids are kids.
LAMB: And what do you see in your daughters though about what they aspire to be?
EHRENREICH: Well I'm very proud of them. My daughter is a..has been a real activist on her campus. She's been involved in supporting a union organizing drive on it and I think that's great. I think that's the family tradition showing up.
LAMB: What is she finding among her fellow students? Are they interested at all in what she's trying to do?
EHRENREICH: Yes more so than I would have thought. I think that the worst mood on campus in some ways may have peaked in the mid '80's when all of the students were abandoning English, Math, History, Social Work and majoring in things they thought would get them rich quick like Business, Banking and so on. I think there's a tiny move away from that. I think the young people are beginning to say why am I giving up my idealism when I'm only eighteen or nineteen. There's still the economic pressure which is hard to face but at least there's a little more evaluation of where we're going.
LAMB: Talk about how you write.
LAMB: Where do you write?
EHRENREICH: Where do I write? I write in a basement room just because that's the room where there's space at a computer and it's cluttered. Very cluttered.
LAMB: What time of day do you write?
EHRENREICH: Anytime of day. Generally normal times of days you know nine until four or five. I'm not much for..I mean I have plenty of writer friends who'll stay up all night. I don't think you do your best work then.
LAMB: How long can you write at one stretch?
EHRENREICH: Oh that varies a lot. I think normally I'm pretty productive for four hours or five hours I need a break. But you can really get on a roll and go a lot longer.
LAMB: Do you write from memory or from notes?
EHRENREICH: You..I make an outline. I have an outline more or less telling me what..where I'm going almost paragraph for paragraph but I could change my mind. I could be going through that and suddenly say no I'd better..I'm going to head off in this direction right now and see how that works out.
LAMB: From your experience from writing six other books what do you do in a book to keep people's interest?
EHRENREICH: To keep people's interest you have to have lots of things that are concrete. It can't be all generalizations. You have to be able to sort of see, feel, hear, touch, smell what's going on. Personalities have to show..shine through. Even you know brand names I talk about movies in this book and television a lot things that are familiar and concrete.
LAMB: You have to name them?
EHRENREICH: And there have to be surprises. There have to be surprises.
LAMB: What do you think one of the best surprises you have here in this book?
EHRENREICH: Well one..I'll tell you what was surprising to me what I didn't expect is what the very title is about that anxiety about going soft. I did not expect to find at all that and yet it was a theme that at first surprised me I couldn't escape from coming through in so many writings whether the subject was politics or how to raise your children or how to keep fit whatever. You coul..its common theme was emerging to my surprise.
LAMB: Who named this book for you which is "Fear of Falling?"
EHRENREICH: My publisher.
LAMB: And did..what did they do get a manuscript, look it over, and then all of a sudden it pops out at them and somebody says that's the title?
EHRENREICH: Well they agonize over it. I agonize over it. Everybody agonizes over a title for a long time. And some people are better at coming up with those little phrases than others.
LAMB: What..and maybe you've already said this but what proof do you have that the middle class professional middle class really is fearful? I mean do you try to prove it in the book or do you just sense it from all the research you've done?
EHRENREICH: You draw it out if anything to show an attitude. I mean you can''s not something obviously you can go and measure with some kind of instrument. But you have to's a matter of interpretation. It's a matter of looking a little bit below the surface of things that we usually look at. It's I guess it's..I mean I guess an analogy would be like what a psychoanalyst does. I mean we are all in the same world. We're all getting the same signals seeing the same media. This is a job of really studying and trying to get to a level of meaning beyond what's on the surface.
LAMB: What kind of publications or television shows do you watch to get the information on a day to day basis that just helps you live?
EHRENREICH: Well I read newspapers at least two a day.
LAMB: Which ones?
EHRENREICH: Newsday and the New York Times. I read Newsweek and let's see watch some TV pretty randomly. I'll watch a sitcom sometimes or a movie whatever.
LAMB: Do you watch it to study it or do you watch it for entertainment?
EHRENREICH: Both. If it's really bad I'm just studying it. If it's good of course it's entertainment. But at least I have the excuse with my work that I can sometimes just watch it to study it.
LAMB: Who are your barometers? Who are the people you read columnists or other authors that you just always check know either people who you totally disagree with so you can see where you are or people who you respect and follow?
EHRENREICH: Well I read the Nation which is a magazine of opinion where I often find good ideas or interpretations of what's going on. If I want to know what people very unlike me are thinking I might read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal or go really far and read something like the National Review. You know I try to read a broad range.
LAMB: Is writing today better or worse than when you started in this business? How many years ago did you write your first book?
EHRENREICH: First book was in the late '60's but I wasn't doing it for a living then. You mean how is it to live as a writer?
LAMB: No. No. How is it..what do you think of writing in America today?
EHRENREICH: I don't know. That's a hard question. I think standards of journalism have certainly gotten higher. I feel that as a writer and that's all to the good. I mean you're under a lot more pressure today. You can't get away with just so much fluff and making up composites. You really..I think it's it's much better. We're held to higher standards on that.
LAMB: One of the things you write about in the book is greed. How much is there. How many people out of 242 million people in this country are greedy?
EHRENREICH: Well I don't know how many are really innately greedy but I think we've had..I think we've had bad role models on that. I would say that I think the Reagan's were bad role models on that. That for all their talk of traditional family values and so on that they presented a very wealthy life style that showed..with very little concern I think for people you know having..the have nots, people having a rough time of it. Greed was exalted..has been exalted too much in the '80's. I think it's not a matter of what are people innately like but what messages are we getting what alternatives are we seeing. I don't think we see enough imagery for example in the media that honors and respects the person who doesn't want to be a millionaire. Whom maybe doesn't want to enter the professional middle class. Who says I'm really happy to be doing what I'm doing as a crafts person or crafts woman or man whatever. That's what I like.
LAMB: Are Democrats and Republicans..I mean are only Republicans greedy and Democrats aren't?
EHRENREICH: No. I mean I'm partisan but I wouldn't go that far. But the Republicans do represent the wealthy. You know as other people like Thomas Burn Edsel and Robert Cuttner have written our political parties have become very polarized in terms of class. You don't find Republicans collecting welfare or too many of them anymore on assembly lines in factories. You don't find very many Democrats going to high society events in the Hamptons or that would be New York I don't know what the equivalent would be in every city. We have our political parties have become quite polarized in terms of class.
LAMB: Who invented the term Yuppie?
EHRENREICH: Yuppie. There are several people who claim credit for that word. But it appears in 1984 possibly made up out of a combination of Yippie which was the old word for Abbe Hoffman's political party Youth International I forget the rest of that Youth International and Young Urban Professional. It was sort of making a commentary in the difference between the '60's and the '80's. So it first pops up then.
LAMB: What's happened to Yuppies? Are they still..are they still out there or were they ever out there?
EHRENREICH: Well they..there..that's a stereotype too. There weren't that many of them that really fit the stereotype because the official Yuppie to be a demographically official Yuppie you had to earn about $40,000 a year just for one person. So only 5% of the entire baby boomer generation qualified as Yuppies. But I think a lot of people who earned less still followed what I call the Yuppie strategy here. They would major in college in things that they thought would as we were talking about before would lead to a lot of money. They wanted to hit the ground running at $50,000 a year or so. And another part of the Yuppie strategy has been that you have to marry someone who makes as much money as you do. It used to be that women married up. The man could marry a secretary. The doctor married a nurse. That's changed. Today the doctor marries another doctor. A lawyer marries another lawyer. And that's part of the professional middle class's strategy for holding their ground as we become a more unequal society.
LAMB: Have you done any statistical analysis of how many people are in that professional middle class?
EHRENREICH: It's about 20% of the population. And that's a pretty maximum estimate. You get that large an estimate by throwing in all the public school teachers for example who are somewhat borderline. You know who could be counted in some ways as working class with it but that's a maximum 20%.
LAMB: You also write about at a certain point and I'm not going to be very articulate on this once you've made so much money there's not much difference between where you are and I don't know if the figure is $115,000 or something like that and the rich in the sense you have most everything the rich have..there's not much difference in your lifestyle other than you can't go as many places or live in as fancy a house that basically your life is the same. Am I right about that?
EHRENREICH: Well I think it's it's more disturbing than that. I think what we're finding we hearing now is complaints from people who are making $100,000 a year $200,000 even once in the New York Time $600,000 a year and say they're not making it. Say that's not enough. And I think that reflects a lot of things. It reflects that those high costs of housing and education and to the professional middle class education private education could start in the pre-school years with expensive Ivy League style nursery schools. But it also reflects this consumer binge the professional middle class has been on. I mean these have been the years of raspberry vinegar and what is it raspberry vinegar and roses doesn't sound right but of extreme status consciousness where you have to spend to signal your status. Where you have to belong to the $1,000 a year health club in some cities so you'll meet the right other people. Where you have to have a certain make of car or you'll be sending the wrong signal to people. So that's contributed to the consumer binge itself has contributed to the pressure on the professional middle class.
LAMB: Where's it all going?
EHRENREICH: Well I don't think..I don't think any group can keep that up. I think it's just been a frenzy of striving and climbing and hustling and then spending and consuming to compensate for the misery of having to earn all that money so fast. It's become a vicious cycle. The professional middle class I think has to slow down, look where it's going and say if we have these economic pressures like cost of housing and tuition where are our political allies to make change. And then if we could get over those stereotypes of everybody else I think we would see that there are a lot of people who would be allies in change. Who would join as a constituency for you know greater financial aid for whatever it takes to really open up opportunity and put this country back on the path toward greater equality.
LAMB: You said earlier that your father when you grew up your father resented a lot of the doctors, lawyers and..does he still?
LAMB: How has he changed?
EHRENREICH: Well I think he's mellowed somewhat on that because he became you know a white collar executive himself.
LAMB: Where?
EHRENREICH: He ended up working in Boston and now he's retired. Yes so he certainly mellowed. But those same att..those attitudes they are hard to shake.
LAMB: How did he change though. I mean what was the impetus to move from Montana as a miner to a white collar job in Boston?
EHRENREICH: Well the first impetus I guess comes from the fact that mining is very dangerous work. You know if you..there were men in my family men we knew they always had missing fingers. You could be crushed you could be burned. We just had a mining explosion the other day in West Virginia where 10 miners lost their live. I was just reading about it. It's very dangerous. So know it's a survival thing that you would like to get out if you could. And he did. He managed to get a scholarship and get an education and that's that's the kind of opportunity I think we'd like to..I'd like to see opened up to more people.
LAMB: When you sit around and talk to your husband who's a union organizer about this basic mood there is in the country what do you say about what's going to take to change it where his job might get easier? I mean is he..are you together very frustrated about this society. I mean are you mad all the time. I mean did all your frustration come out in this book.
EHRENREICH: No if you go around being mad all the time I think you'll feel terrible because there are a lot of things to feel good about too. But yeah it's frustrating. I mean my husband as a union organizer is constantly working to organize people who are earning near the minimum wage which is $3.35 an hour comes out to about $6,900 a year that's way below the poverty level. These people can't make it at all. I mean there are people working full time who are on the brink of homelessness that he is organizing and other people are organizing. What I would know one thing that would help is if we had if we had more political leaders if our President for example was saying yes you people do deserve a break. Yes FDR once did Roosevelt said yeah America needs unions working people need this. We've had a very negative attitude though and that doesn't make it any easier.
LAMB: One point you write that life in this country is not necessarily a cycle. You know we hear a lot that it is. If it is a cycle or if the cycles that you've studied were to come about what would be the next cycle? And do you expect it?
EHRENREICH: Well Arthur Schlishinger Jr. one of our liberal intellectuals believes there is a cycle. He believes..he talks about the move from idealism and liberalism in the '60's to this conservative and materialist mood of the '80's he says we're going to swing the other way. I don't know if I believe that that's automatically going to happen but I think there are signs. I mean I think that revulsion about the wretched excess as some people have called it of the super rich is having an impact on people. I think a lot of professional middle class people think they're giving up too much. You're giving up a lot if you decide when you're nineteen years you're not going to follow your own idealism and your own curiosity. Instead you're going to go into a field which you may not even care about such as banking. I think people maybe are reexamining those sacrifices and looking for ways to measure success and human achievement that aren't in dollars and cents.
LAMB: What's happened to religion during this last 10 years or so?
EHRENREICH: Well I wish I could say that religion had been some kind of counterpoint to this materialism but the religious trend to..we all know about and I refer to in here was toward fundamentalist christianity which has not been critical of the extreme materialism of our society which has not I am afraid represented alternative values. I'm..Jim and Tammy know people who are parodies of that greed and consumerism. So unfortunately I think religion has failed. Religion should always be critical of materialism of selfishness of failure to be concerned about the down and out.
LAMB: We only have a couple minutes. We started this off by you saying you are a feminist. What does that mean today?
EHRENREICH: Well to be a feminist today is to be in the majority of American women as so many polls show. It means we're working to give women an economic fair share too. I mean that's been my theme for a long time. Give women a break. Too many women are still in the pink collar ghetto trapped into stereotypically female low paying jobs.
LAMB: Looking back on the activism of the feminists years ago did it work? And if it did where? And where didn't it work?
EHRENREICH: Well what worked I think..I mean what we achieved was a..that women got into those professions. Women broke into the professional middle class on their own. We broke down the doors that were keeping women out of medicine, law, business schools. That's great. The bad side of that though the down side is that so many women didn' know were not college educated didn't get..have not benefited from that change yet. So the next big agenda for feminism I think is going to be looking at the economic situation of the average woman working class pink collar whatever.
LAMB: Only have a minute what's been the reaction to your book as you travel around?
EHRENREICH: Well I would say it's been a controversial book. I'm delighted to get very good reactions. And I'm getting some you know hostility too from defenders know the far right. It's interesting though I did have a very thrilling call last night on a radio call in show. A guy said he thought he was a new rig..member of the new right and he read this book and it changed his mind. So I guess that's a good enough reason to write a whole book.
LAMB: Barbara Ehrenreich author of "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class." Thank you for spending the time with us.

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