Lena Dunham as Hannah in Girls and Emmy Rossum as Fiona in Shameless.
Post-recession, we often blur the distinction between the downwardly mobile and the permanent underclass—especially when wringing our hands over what will become of millennials, many of whom entered the job market just as it was weakest. Here’s an easy way to tell them apart: both are struggling, but the former has a safety net. One has the luxury of moving back home or tapping their college networks for a break; the other faces diminished earning power, a dramatically more precarious job market, and sometimes homelessness—often without any help from parents.
Watching the season premieres of HBO’s Girls and Showtime’s Shameless this past Sunday put the contrast in stark relief. The two main characters, Girls’s Hannah and Shameless’s Fiona, are both penniless twentysomething women finding their way through big cities, but they live in completely different worlds. Hannah’s infamous humiliation is that she relied on her professor parents for rent money for years; Fiona’s deadbeat folks have left her to raise her five siblings alone. Hannah struggles to find a job worthy of her college degree; Fiona juggles several gigs at a time, leaving no time to even finish high school. In other words: Hannah is broke. Fiona is poor. And never the twain shall meet?
Maybe not. The funny thing about Hannah and Fiona is that they have pretty much the same job. Hannah works at a coffee shop and Fiona is a cocktail waitress (though that’s just one of Fiona’s many gigs). In context of the modern economy, it’s not hard to picture the two rubbing shoulders. As the service sector grows and the opportunities for the middle-class shrink, young people of all classes find themselves making minimum wage together, and our class distinctions are getting more complicated as a result. Retail and food service are where the post-crash jobs are—the US economy is expected to create 18 million more service sector jobs by the end of the decade—so it’s no surprise that 16 percent of bartenders now have a bachelor’s degree. Meanwhile, the median net worth of householders under 35 fell 37 percent between 2005 and 2010. Youth unemployment is higher than the national average, but of the recent graduates currently employed, 43 percent of them are at jobs that don’t require a four-year college degree.
Still, none of this means we’re in a classless melting pot; each group’s expectations belie their upbringings. Hannah and her friends, all college grads, are indignant about their dwindling job prospects, while Fiona isn’t surprised that her dreams are deferred. Despite her smarts and work ethic, she’s been shoveling shit to put food on the table for years now, sometimes quite literally. In this Sunday’s season premiere, we find out Fiona has scored a job cleaning up sewage for $18 an hour, the holy grail in her working class neighborhood—but she gets laid off by the end of the episode. And unlike Hannah, Fiona is staring down a monster property tax bill and an endless grocery list. It’s still as hard as ever for the working class. While the “privileged poor” are getting a rude awakening, at least they have a buffer.
For the most part, both shows are stuck in the old model of strict class segregation. In Shameless’s universe, you’re either rich and smug or poor and righteous. Hannah mostly interacts with her own kind, and when her free-spirited friend Jessa suggests to her fellow nannies that they all join a union, it’s played for laughs rather than inspiration. But in the real world, the labor movement may indeed benefit from the class mixing that’s already going on. Last year, when I reported on a group of young, mostly educated, mostly white kids trying to organize the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s in the Twin Cities, I spoke with Macalester College professor Peter Rachleff. He compared the organizers to certain Occupy kids who are “entitled,” “aware of their rights,” and have a safety net in case they get fired. I met a young woman who was galvanized by the realization that her middle-class aspirations may end up being pipe dreams. “What are the real dreams that we can actually accomplish? Fucking building a union,” she told me.
Compare this mentality to that of the working class employees I spoke with at Walmart last month, when reporting for The Nation on the workers who did not join the strikes, many of whom were terrified about retaliation or just happy to be making money at all. These workers are also hanging back from organizing at places like Burger King, Domino’s and Target.
I later discovered that the Jimmy John’s organizers had trouble convincing people like Fiona and the Walmart workers I met—workers with families and health problems and no backup plans—to join a union. But this is slowly changing as major unions like SEIU invest in these fights and workers reach their breaking point. Rachleff predicts that “as these jobs become less transient, people of all socioeconomic classes may be more vested in making it a better experience.” And as the recession’s fever pitch recedes into the past, a larger number of young people will come to terms that they’ll have these jobs for a while. Eventually, both groups may realize they have nothing to lose by working together.