Monday, October 03, 2011

A jobless future? (Sunday Reflections for September 25, 2011)

The latest “inside the White House” book is David Susskind’s Confidence Men. It focuses mostly on the making of economic policy by the Obama administration as it struggled to respond to the “Great Recession.” One excerpt that has gotten attention reports President Obama’s belief that rising productivity is the primary cause of the current high unemployment. This stunned some of his advisors.
The prevailing view has been that unemployment rose as the result of a drop in economic demand. A view like Obama’s, however, could lead to the conclusion that growing unemployment is the result of improving efficiency. In other words, more people out-of-work is the unfortunate consequence of a highly productive economy.
There is no question that something is different about this recession. Not only is the basic unemployment rate staying high longer than usual, more people are staying unemployed for long periods and more people than usual are “under employed”—i.e. working part-time rather than full-time or working significantly below their previous pay or skill levels.
On the surface Obama’s belief doesn’t seem to fit with what happened. Unemployment jumped dramatically following the 2008 financial crisis. Obviously this wasn’t the result of a sudden increase in productivity. Yet as a longer-term phenomenon, Obama’s notion has some merit and may partially explain why unemployment is remaining so high.
Before this downturn, a growing number of economists and others have been expressing apprehension about the future of industrial society. Most everyone has cheered the constant stream of technological advancements which have sent efficiency and worker productivity soaring. Nearly every successful business tells stories of how, what it took 100 workers to do a generation ago, it now takes only 25, 10 or 5.
A well-known example is the picture of a typical assembly line before World War II, showing a place bustling with human activity. A similar picture today shows a place bustling with computerized machinery, operated or even just watched over by a handful of people. Computerization has had an even bigger impact in offices of all kinds. Digitizing and manipulating data and information are what computers are all about.
In the case of the assembly line, the obvious question is what happened to the 75 to 95 people who used to work there? Until now it’s just been assumed they found work somewhere else (or their children or grandchildren did). Yet even before this recession there had been a growing awareness that many of the new jobs available were not as good as those they replaced. Statistics now show a majority of households with stagnant or even declining inflation-adjusted income for the past two decades.
The growing concern, then, is that this is becoming the “new normal.” A recent blog post I came across discussed a book written almost twenty years ago, darkly titled The Jobless Future. The book analyzes this now familiar story of automation and job elimination. Its conclusion is that many of the well-paid professional, technical, and production jobs that raised living standards in the 1950s and 60s, and which have been lost, will not be coming back in anything like the numbers needed to maintain those living standards.
The authors do not, however, see this as necessarily leading to economic disaster. Rather, they say we are nearing the time when we need to radically re-think many of our assumptions about life and economic well-being. We are at a point where our society and economy can meet everyone’s basic needs, and even provide a “good” life, but we don’t need everyone working at traditional full-time jobs to do it. As the authors are quoted, “The aim of this work is to suggest political and social solutions that take us in a direction in which it is clear that jobs are no longer the solution, that we must find another way to ensure a just standard of living for all.” The blogger then goes on to say of the writers,
They are as interested in the "satisfying" part of the question as the "standard of living" part. They want to know what sources of meaning, worth, and value are possible for a whole civilization in which work and career are no longer the primary focus? It is an existential question as much as it is an economic one.
And, I would say, it is a spiritual question.
For a long time, people have been aware of the inadequacy of defining our lives by our jobs or occupations, even though we all do it. It is the standard question when meeting someone for the first time: “And what do you do for a living?” Implicit in the question is the assumption that we will then make judgments about a person’s worth and importance based on the answer: conclusions about income, wealth, education, intelligence, character, lifestyle, power and influence, etc.
We are also aware of the crisis many people experience at retirement. A moment people look forward to can nonetheless send them into confusion and depression, as they lose what had been their primary source of identity: their job. This experience, of course, is made even worse when a job is lost through unemployment, compounded by the resulting financial insecurity.
The immediate question is how to support people during this time of economic upheaval and transition. Sadly there has been far too much blaming the victim, with the unemployed being dismissed as lazy, stupid, dumb, or just “unlucky.” If high un- and under-employment is now inevitable, then this needs to be recognized and social policies adjusted for it. Otherwise we face the prospect of increasing social unrest that is the inevitable consequence of having 20 percent or more or our people having little or nothing to do.
In the longer-term, we are faced with the even more challenging question of what do we want human life to be? We are being faced again with the ancient questions of what makes us happy as individuals, and what makes for a good society. Thus far much of our increasing “free-time” has been filled with fairly passive and escapist entertainment. That’s not working so well now and it certainly isn’t going to be adequate in the future.
The question can make us anxious yet it can also be incredibly liberating: Who and what do you really want to be? In the future, with new freedom we probably can’t even imagine yet, our life will literally depend on how we answer that question.

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