The idea of upward mobility in Hillbilly Elegy is often wrapped up in discussions of Armco, a steel manufacturing company in Middletown, Ohio. After World War I, many working-class whites in the United States’ Appalachian region found that there weren’t enough jobs in the coal mines to support their families. During this period, industrial manufacturing was doing remarkably well in America, a development that lured mass waves of “hillbillies” out of Appalachia and into the industrialized Midwest. Companies like Armco even actively recruited employees in the hills of Kentucky, promising workers and their dependents economic stability. As such, Armco came to stand for opportunity in the eyes of people like Vance’s grandfather, Papaw, who moved to Middletown with Mamaw to escape Kentucky and start a new life.
At Armco, Papaw received steady wages that far surpassed anything he could have earned back home. This catapulted him and Mamaw to financial stability and allowed them to raise their children without having to fret over economic concerns. But because people like Papaw saw Armco as the first rung of the socioeconomic ladder, they didn’t want their children or grandchildren to work in the factory with them. “Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” Papaw once told J.D. However, because his generation had pursued blue collar work, it couldn’t model for its children what it might look like to pursue an intellectually-oriented career. As such, the younger generation of hillbillies in the industrial Midwest found itself trapped between two poles: they’d been told that working at Armco was beneath them, but they weren’t given the necessary tools to continue their parents’ trajectory of upward mobility. To make matters worse, the majority of industrial manufacturing eventually went overseas, and although Armco didn’t close its doors, it certainly stopped thriving.
A Middletonian high school teacher recently told Vance that many academically unsuccessful students with few job prospects assume that they will be able to get a job at Armco because they have relatives who work there. “It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at [Armco],” she told him. As such, Armco represents the disappointing cycle (or failure) of upward mobility that so many hillbilly families have experienced—at one point it symbolized opportunity and financial stability, but now it symbolizes hopelessness and complacency because of the younger generation’s unfounded expectation that it will grant them the same kind of chances it granted the older generation.
Armco Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy
Even at Roosevelt Elementary—where, thanks to Middletown geography, most people’s parents lacked a college education—no one wanted to have a blue-collar career and its promise of a respectable middle-class life. We never considered that we’d be lucky to land a job at Armco; we took Armco for granted.
Many kids seem to feel that way today. A few years ago I spoke with […] a Middletown High School teacher who works with at-risk youth. “A lot of students just don’t understand what’s out there,” she told me, shaking her head. “You have the kids who plan on being baseball players but don’t even play on the high school team because the coach is mean to them. Then you have those who aren’t doing very well in school, and when you try to talk to them about what they’re going to do, they talk about AK. “Oh, I can get a job at AK. My uncle works there.’ It’s like they can’t make the connection between the situation in this town and the lack of jobs at AK.”