The Real Reason Why the Job Market is So Bad
Why is the job market so bad? I know the standard explanation. Financial regulations were lax. Bankers gambled with our national assets. I don’t buy it. Oh sure, the regs could have been better. But saying the economy collapsed because of Wall Street is like saying the ten foot stack of plates you balanced on the very edge of the kitchen shelf came crashing down because your children came galloping through the kitchen. Sure, maybe the vibrations from the kid’s feet shook the crockery loose. But why the hell were you balancing your plates like that anyway?
Of COURSE wall street traders finagled and schemed. That’s what wall street traders DO. The point is, the economy shouldn’t come crashing down for any number of finaglers and schemers. If it’s really that fragile, there’s some type of structural problem. Personally, I see three reasons for America’s chronic unemployment problems. 1) people are working too hard, 2) our technology is too efficient, and 3) people are too independent. “WHAT?” you say. “Why are these problems?” Allow me to explain:
1. People are working too hard. To do the work, we can either have a few people working very hard, or lots of people working a little bit. Some companies avoided layoffs by shortening their work week to four days; they were able to employ more people because their employees consented to working less.
The trouble is, our American culture views idleness as a sin, a mentality dating back to the Puritans. For people struggling to carve out a life on the frontier, worshiping hard work made a lot of sense. For us, it doesn’t make any sense at all. We need to stop being such workaholics.
With shorter work weeks, companies would need to hire more people. However, our support structures all revolve around full-time workers, making it difficult for part-time workers to get retirement and health benefits. We need to find a way to ensure benefits for part-timers without putting undue burden on employers. But with the right governmental support, I think companies could benefit from the policy, drawing on a more diverse pool of talent.
We need to start valuing leisure. We also need to value unpaid work— the kind of work people do in their home or their community. When women joined the workforce, we didn’t have a corresponding number of men become homemakers. A shortage of homemakers and an excess of job seekers, is a recipe for latchkey kids, failing communities, and unemployment.
2. Technology is too efficient. Another “problem” that doesn’t sound like a problem, right? Everyone thinks “efficient’ is better. However, when you automate something, you usually sacrifice quality. For example, those companies who replaced the people who answer their phones with robots. Sure, they’re saving money on salaries, but they’re losing sales and customers every time a massively irritated person ends up wandering around through their menu of useless options.
There are two types of technology. One kind destroys jobs by replacing or eliminating human beings. If you have a labor shortage, this type of technology can be a good thing, and it certainly reduces production costs. Making more out of less is also useful for sustaining high levels of human population. However, if technology is changing faster than society, you get massive social problems. This type of disruption dates back to the Industrial Revolution when the original Luddites attacked the steam-powered looms which were stealing their jobs.
The second type of technology creates jobs, by giving us new kinds of work to do. Examples are the space race and the rise of the internet, both opening up positions that didn’t exist before. Ideally, these two types of technology would work in harmony, advances in the first freeing up people to work in the second. But in practice, people are often unwilling to commit money to projects which don’t directly meet their needs. And keeping us all fed, clothed, entertained, and sheltered is just too damn easy.
So what’s the solution? I think there should be more scrutiny of the trade-off between efficiency and quality. Take agriculture for example. Your standard American agriculture is destructive to ecosystems and has a dubious effect on human health; mad cow disease and probably swine flu arise from unethical factory farming practices. People criticize organic agriculture for being more labor-intensive. However, given the jobs crisis, labor-intensive is just what we need. You may not know this, but standard agriculture is massively subsidized while organic agriculture receives practically no government money. Shouldn’t we be doing just the reverse
We should be investing our money in things which are created primarily out of human effort and ingenuity. Instead, consumers and governments favor industries that use minimal human labor and massive amounts of raw materials (particularly oil.) We call it efficiency, but is it really? We’re using up nonrenewable resources while ignoring our biggest renewable resource— people.
3. People are too independent. In American culture, we’re supposed to stand alone, be self-sufficient, even from our families. We hate asking for favors. It’s so different in other places. When I went to Senegal everyone lived in big, extended, families, and any kid who moved out before they were thirty was considered to be a black sheep who “didn’t love his parents.” In the developed world, too, America is strange. European exchange students at my college were always surprised at how reluctant Americans were to work together and ask for help.
What effect does all this independence have on the economy? If people don’t feel comfortable asking their friends & family for significant favors or financial support, they don’t have a safety net. Our governmental safety net is also pretty weak compared to countries like Canada, who have universal healthcare. When people don’t have a safety net, they don’t feel as comfortable innovating and taking risks. If you’re going to quit your job and start your own business, you need to know someone will pick you up if you fall
As you know, new businesses, small businesses, are the engines of job creation and economic recovery. But it’s difficult to pursue your small-business dreams without risking everything. Although young single people may have the courage to gamble this way, for parents it is out of the question. The village is not raising the child, and Grandma and Grandpa are probably in another state. Where social support networks are weak, we prioritize job security over innovation.
As far as I’m concerned, they can mutter all they like about financial regulations. Those were the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our actual problems are far more deeply rooted, far more difficult to solve. We have to question our cultural values and assumptions. Recognize that being hard-working, efficient, and independent is not the only way to go. Sometimes we need to share the work, do things the slow way, and rely on one another’s help. If we can make this kind of change, we will have fixed more than just the economy.