As I See It: Of Better Jobs and Billy Joel
September 27, 2010 Victor Rozek
File this under useless proclamations: The National Bureau of Economic Research announced that the recession officially ended in June 2009. Pardon us if no one noticed. With over 15 million unemployed and one in seven Americans living in poverty, a lot of folks were too busy surviving to join the celebration. Granted, poverty is relative. In this case it means that a family of four is subsisting on less than $22,000 a year. Good luck with that.
Forty-four million people now live that way, with another 3.3 million about to join them when their unemployment benefits run out.
As for the employed, their buying power is eroding faster than voter confidence. Bob Herbert of the New York Times writes that “A male worker earning the median wage in 2007 earned less than the median wage, adjusted for inflation, of a male worker 30 years earlier.” In other words, your Daddy made more money than you at the same age.
But not everyone is falling behind. If you’re wondering why you haven’t had a raise since dinosaurs walked the earth, here’s one reason courtesy of Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary, as reported by Herbert. In 1970 the top 1 percent of earners received a 9 percent share of the national income. During the 1980s that share rose to 14 percent. By the late 1990s, it was 19 percent. In 2005, it bumped up to 21 percent. “By 2007, the last year for which complete data are available, the richest 1 percent were taking more than 23 percent of all income.” Another way to look at it is that nearly 25 cents of every dollar goes to a tiny oligarchy, while the rest of us scramble for our share of the remaining 75 cents.
Can the revolution be far behind?
Deficits soar, services shrink, and everyone is tax-a-phobic. The poor can’t pay, the rich don’t have to, so that leaves the middle class. But the middle class, milked for four decades by the rich, burdened with runaway debt, pricey education, and unaffordable healthcare, is rapidly becoming a dry cow. Like an animal that wanders into quicksand, the more it struggles to improve its situation, the worse it gets.
Everyone agrees that the solution requires a working and solvent middle class, which in turn necessitates the creation of millions of livable-wage jobs. Yet job creation remains hobbled. The reason most offered to explain the drought amounts to a circular argument: Employment is stagnant because people aren’t spending; and people aren’t spending because employment is stagnant. Since that insight gets us nowhere, let’s posit an alternate theory. Given that belief drives behavior, perhaps societal attitudes toward work have finally reached their ultimate logical expression.
Work (as opposed to jobs) has always been a two-edged sword. Everybody needs a job, but many are less enthusiastic about having to work. It’s a necessary evil that eats up an enormous amount of time and life energy. Jobs may pay the bills; but work, repetitive and unending, is like running in place while watching yourself age.
We betray our relationship to work by the language we use to describe it. Phrases such as “I have to go to work,” and “I’m working my ass off,” and “Thank God It’s Friday,” are telling. Their tone is “victimy” and adversarial. The implication is that we would much rather be doing something else, are prevented from doing so by the need to work, and are happier when we can finally take a break from our labors.
All of which is consistent with what we’ve been taught.
In Western religious traditions, children are taught that work is a punishment for disobedience. Nobody worked in Eden until Eve munched that red delicious. In that instant, we all became part of the labor pool, doomed to toil for our daily bread and vacation condo. The notion that work, by its nature, must be hard and punitive has produced predictable results: both employers and employees, driven by different motivations, are constantly seeking to reduce or eliminate it. We even have a high-sounding name for work reduction: innovation.
Employers find work undesirable because the people that produce it must be paid. The more they earn, the less profit is available to the employer. Employees disdain work because it intrudes on their leisure, and many would rather be doing something else with their time. Thus, employee and employer are united in their ambivalence. Work prevents employees from having the life they want, and employers from having the profit they covet. In an ideal world, employers would have output without employees, and employees would have income without employment. We have names for those two extremes of joblessness as well: automation and welfare.
From an employer’s perspective, when work is a cost item, people are a liability. They become less important than the goods they produce. Automation, downward pressure on salaries, and outsourcing are three of the manifestations of that belief. As are the widespread elimination of pensions, healthcare, and training. Why pump money into a liability?
When jobs are scarce, employers are in a position to demand more work for less money. And one way to make jobs scarce is to eliminate them. The strategy worked brilliantly for the Fortune 500. In 2009, they eliminated 821,000 jobs (the highest single-year total in their history) and increased profits by a whopping 335 percent, to $391 billion. That’s a drum they won’t stop beating.
Meanwhile, employees willingly take the blows, in part because of another largely unexamined belief about the purpose of work: that consumption is more important than fulfillment.
Even though most employees would gladly reduce their work load, (or do something that perhaps pays less but is more personally satisfying) they would hardly consider doing so because work facilitates the consumption and buying-power that, in the Western mind, is linked to well being. The unquestioned belief is that higher levels of consumption produce greater levels of happiness. Thus, there is a constant pressure to earn more, buy more, and achieve a lifestyle that is always just beyond the earner’s means because no matter how much you have, there is always more to be had. But as repeated surveys show, happiness through consumption is like the rabbit at the greyhound races, always just out of reach. Once basic survival needs are met, the stuff of human happiness–love, connection, family, beauty, peace, joy–lie outside of the economic system.
What if we could change prevailing attitudes toward work? What if it was revered as the ultimate vehicle for self expression? What if labor’s function was not to produce artificial need and increase consumption, but to provide individuals with the highest degree of personal satisfaction? Its essential values would be creativity, an appropriate investment of life energy, and fulfillment. Salary would no longer be a reward for punishing yourself, but a true expression of the value you offer. Under such conditions, work would provide the maximum well-being with the minimum need for consumption. And producing a high level of satisfaction without chasing the consumption rabbit would permit people to live with considerably less stress.
If the anxiety that accompanies economic uncertainty has a silver lining, it is this: it compels the consideration of alternate choices. Billy Joel understood what’s at stake and articulated it in one of my favorite lines from popular music. “You know that when the truth is told, you can get what you want or you can just get old.”
A musical reminder that the clock is ticking.