Jennifer Senior reviews Amy Goldstein’s ‘Janesville’

Is retraining those dispossessed by economic disruption doomed?

Amy Goldstein was part of a reporting team at the Washington Post that won a Pultizer for 9/11 coverage, and she’s done the hard work of chronicling the downfall of Janesville, Wisconsin after the GM plant was closed in 2008:

Jennifer Senior, In ‘Janesville,’ When the G.M. Plant Closed, Havoc Followed

“Janesville” joins a growing family of books about the evisceration of the working class in the United States. What sets it apart is the sophistication of its storytelling and analysis.


Readers will also finish “Janesville” with an extremely sobering takeaway: There’s scant evidence that job retraining, possibly the sole item on the menu of policy options upon which Democrats and Republicans can agree, is at all effective.

In the case of the many laid-off workers in the Janesville area, the outcomes are decidedly worse for those who have attended the local technical college to learn a new trade. (Goldstein arrives at this conclusion, outlined in detail, by enlisting the help of local labor economists and poring over multiple data sets.) A striking number of dislocated G.M. employees don’t even know how to use a computer when they first show up for classes at Blackhawk Technical College. “Some students dropped out as soon as they found out that their instructors would not accept course papers written out longhand,” Goldstein writes.

I’ve not yet read the book, but I’m unsurprised to discover that job retraining hasn’t worked. Midlife transitions are incredibly difficult, especially when those involved have little experience in anything but bending metal or screwing on lug nuts.

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The larger questions are those that you wouldn’t expect to be answered by the residents of Janesville, though. How can we avoid the continued hollowing out of the US, and the creation of Left Behinds?

Originally published at

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Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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