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ILR professor looks at end of blue-collar males

Tue, 09/14/2010 - 2:20pm
Cornell University

"Stayin' Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class," by Jefferson Cowie, examines an often misunderstood decade through the lenses of social history, politics and popular culture.

"The first half of the decade was infused with a conflicted sense of hope and possibility for working people of all colors and genders," said Cowie, an associate professor of labor history at Cornell's ILR School. "The second half, however, was marked by despair in the emerging new order, as the 'working class,' even in its restricted pale and male postwar incarnation, lost much of its narrative punch, existential weight and political draw."

Cowie interprets America's transition from New Deal optimism to widening economic inequalities and dampened expectations. "I have tried to work out a complicated narrative in three-part harmony -- social history, politics and popular culture -- that together offer a shared argument about how white, male, working-class America revived in civic life in the '70s and then all but disappeared," he said.

From workplace insurgencies of the early 1970s to the nation's politics, the creations of Hollywood and Nashville, the book chronicles a shift, Cowie said, "from when the concerns of working people dominated the headlines to our own time, when they have less place in our civic imaginations than any time since the industrial revolution."

He continued, "By the time of the opulent new world of the '80s, the American story was recast and re-edited, and those who did the nation's work were left out of the discussion. I hope this narrative serves a small part in rekindling some of the big questions and rediscovering the most significant loss of the '70s: a sense of open-ended possibility."

Cowie is also author of "Capital Moves: RCA's Seventy-Year Quest for Cheap Labor" and co-editor of "Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization." He is house professor and dean of William Keeton House.

On Sept. 22 at 4:30 p.m., the Cornell Store will sponsor a presentation by Cowie on "Stayin' Alive" in the book department and offer a 20 percent discount on the book during the event. C-SPAN's "Book TV" program is scheduled to record the event. More information about the book is available at http://www.jeffersoncowie.com.

Mary Catt is the ILR School's staff writer.

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