Book Reviews

Demma’s Notes: Limbo. A book about working class kids who migrate to the middle class.

Limbo, by Alfred Limbrano, is an eye-opening book about what it’s like to be raised in a working class family, be the first in your family to go to college, and then migrate to a middle class world. The book was recommended to me since I fit this description. Limbo has really helped my thinking around communication as an executive.

First some definitions. Limbrano describes working class or blue collar people as those who work with their hands for a living, who may have finished high school but did not go to college. The author describes middle class or white collar people as those who went to college, work with their minds for a living, and have the financial means to afford things like international travel and private educations for their children. “Straddler” is the term Limbrano uses to describe children born to working class families who migrate to the middle class. The term Limbo is used to describe the state straddlers find themselves in after making the journey: not quite fitting in 100% in either world.

Limbrano (and I) don’t make any value judgments or character judgments on any of these terms, classes, or the specific people mentioned in the book. Also, the class distinctions are not about money per se, as a successful trades-person can make much more money than a corporate middle manager. Instead, Limbrano’s categorical distinctions group people more by shared values, communication styles, and the set of challenges they face as they progress through life. If anything, Limbrano (and I) glorifies working class values while talking with disdain about upper class upbringings. Lastly, Limbrano occasionally discusses how other diversity classifications can change the straddler experience, but for the most part he focuses on what most straddlers have in common.

The book follows Limbrano’s (himself a straddler whose father was an Italian-American bricklayer) and other straddlers’ journey through life in 4 main stages: childhood, college, the workplace, and beyond (there’s a bit more, but these are the 4 that I focused on most). Below are my highlights and favorite quotes from each section to give you a flavor of the content covered. If you’re a straddler yourself or if you’re interested in learning more about the nature of class migration and the challenges straddlers face, I can’t recommend this book enough!

Upbringing

  • [On working class values and childhood]: “A well-developed work ethic, the kind that gets you up early and keeps you locked in until the job is done, regardless of how odious or personally distasteful the task. A respect for your parents that is nothing short of religious, something I was amazed to find was not shared among the kids with whom I went to college and graduate school. The need for close contact with extended family—aunts, uncles, and grandparents—each of whom had the authority to whack you in the back of the head should your behavior call for it. An open and honest manner devoid of hidden agenda and messy subtext. You say something, you mean it. Other things, too: loyalty; a sense of solidarity with people you live and work with; an understanding and appreciation of what it takes to get somewhere in a hard world where no one gives you a break; a sense of daring; and a physicality that’s honest, basic, and attractive.”
  • “I liked knowing my grandfather’s DNA was coiled down inside me somewhere. He was decent, responsible, and tough. Tough is good, I told myself.” 
  • [On working class parents wanting more for their kids]: “By telling their kids to go to college and rise above them, working-class fathers offer their lives not as role models to emulate—as middle-class parents can—but as mistakes to avoid, say social commentators Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb. 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 a father feel like, to have to instruct his son not to be like the old man?”
  • “In blue-collar homes, there’s rarely such a thing as a civil argument. Working-class people have two speeds: silence and rage. It’s the middle class that debates things, able to conduct an argument without becoming emotional; working-class people yell.”
  • “Working-class kids are not empowered by their parents. Blue-collar households stress order, obedience, and discipline. No one is worrying whether junior is self-actualizing as he sits over there in the corner, just as long as he’s not bothering anybody. Middle- and upper-class people like Tom were encouraged to express themselves early. They were permitted to hang out with the grown-ups and chat, if not as equals, then certainly as little people with something to say.”
  • “Being the first in the family to go to college, I’m responsible for breaking away. If I don’t make it, I’ll have to go into a trade. I have a responsibility for carrying my name into something bigger than what the family was. This is so many years in the making for them. I have to succeed.”

College

  • “Suddenly, college opens up a world of ideas—a life of the mind—abstract and intangible. The core blue-collar values and goals—loyalty to family and friends, making money, marrying, and procreating—are supplanted by stuff you never talked about at home: personal fulfillment, societal obligation, the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, and on and on. One world opens and widens; another shrinks.”
  • “In this country, we speak grandly of this metamorphosis, never stopping to consider that for many class travelers with passports stamped for new territory, the trip is nothing less than a bridge burning.”
  • “One of the most obvious ways in which blue-collar students are separated from their white-collar peers is that they have to earn money while going to school.”

The Workforce

  • “Without tact and subtlety, without the ability to practice politics amongst the cubicles, an executive with a blue-collar background will not rise.”
  • “Which reminds me, because middle-class life can include frequent relocation (“We need you in Omaha yesterday, Don”), that creates still more problems for workers from blue-collar backgrounds, who traditionally live closer to extended family and feel a cultural obligation to remain nearer the clan.”
  • “’In the corporate world, I was obnoxious and independent and it hurt my career,’ he says. ‘Some people were afraid of me. I don’t know why.’ Well, I could guess. He’s got a gruff voice, thick shoulders, and Popeye arms, one of which has ‘Dixie’ tattooed on it.” [lol, I have Popeye arms with “Kelly” tattooed on one]
  • “Dana was amazed that being the best at something isn’t necessarily how you’re judged in the business world. What’s more important is how you fit in and get along.” 
  • “To rise in the world, I thought you had to be an alpha type—competitive, self-disciplined. It surprises a lot of us blue-collar men to see how you have to hide strengths like that in the corporation. In the white-collar realm, so much of your success is how you’re perceived as a team player.”
  • “I shouldn’t wear my feelings on my sleeve. I actually told people what I really thought when they asked for my opinion. My boss once told me, ‘Veronica, if I ask you a question, think twice before you answer, because I’m not your priest.’ I’m very honest and people can’t believe I’ve said the things I have in front of others.”
  • “Along with blatant kissing up, networking and socializing with bosses and colleagues also are dirty words to some Straddlers. It all smacks of phoniness and is antithetical to their blue-collar backgrounds, which emphasize honesty in human relations—“real” relationships.”

Beyond

  • “How, ultimately, is a Straddler to live?   If you learn the language of the new world, can you still speak with the folks from the old country? Do you cross the border and try to pass for white collar, until you totally assimilate? Do you stay true blue and risk alienation and career stagnation among the middle class? Or do you blend town and gown, creating a hybrid who is, at the end of the day, at home in neither world? Ideally, a Straddler becomes bicultural: Understand what made you who you are, then learn to navigate the new setting.”
  • “For Straddlers, life’s ultimate goal is reconciliation: finding peace with the past and present, blue collar and white, old family ways and the new middle-class life. That is a challenge. Different values and different views often seem to get in the way.”
  • “Straddlers come to the table without the same assumptions or the same take on life that middle-class people have. There’s an independence of thought that makes for interesting perspectives. It’s a kind of diversity that human-resources types don’t normally strive to achieve. A mixed-class workplace is more energized and dynamic than a same-class shop; the dialogue is much richer.”
  • “My father was a bricklayer. I am a newspaperman. He got his wish—that I graduate from college and not live the life of the outside man, excluded from life’s better buildings. I got my dream—that I leave the neighborhood and get a chance to write about the world.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.