Jobs vs. work

And so the “Jobs Election” is behind us.

This year, every candidate was the jobs candidate.  The President pledged to finish the work of restoring a full-employment economy.  Mr. Romney touted his private-sector background as creator of jobs.  Conservative super-PACS spent vast sums attempting to re-label rich people as “job creators”.  Pundits pontificated over every tenth-of-a-point shift in the unemployment rate.

Everyone seemed obsessed with creating more jobs – as though a job was – like food, clothing, and shelter – a basic necessity.  Or – like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a natural right.  

Now, please don’t get me wrong.  The way our system is presently organized, a job can be a fine thing to have.  For many, jobs still provide the security of a steady paycheck, health insurance and a pension.  Once upon a time, most American families relied on one – sometimes two – employed adults to provide such things.

But, for most Americans, that’s no longer the case.  Confronted by global competition, employers have trimmed or eliminated the benefit packages which once made jobs so rewarding.  Job security is becoming a thing of the past.  Full-time employment is becoming harder to find.  Today, many American families rely on income from two or more breadwinners – each working two or more jobs which pay too little and offer few, if any, benefits.  

Our whole society once rested upon a prosperous middle-class which enjoyed long-term, full-time employment, extensive medical coverage and good pensions.  Thirty or forty years of steady work – perhaps supplemented by the second spouse working part-time – were sufficient to provide for an entire family’s immediate needs and the parents’ long-term needs.  Moderate thrift – often supplemented by employee benefits – sufficed to send a bright child or two to college.

This, of course, is no longer true.  Economists have told us for years that – while America has continued to grow richer – the average middle-class family has not.  Forced to compete globally, the large corporations that once provided so many with lifetime employment and benefits have been cutting back on everything  – except the salaries and bonuses paid to their top executives.    

Allowing for inflation, workers’ wages and middle-managers’ salaries have – except briefly, during the Clinton years – remained essentially stagnant.   But hours have gotten longer for some, while others have been reduced to part-time.  Health-care costs have risen steadily, even as health benefits were pared.  Life-spans have grown longer, even as pensions have been frozen, cut back or eliminated.

Meanwhile, for the middle class, housing costs have sky-rocketed.  Because of the way we organize our public education system, it’s often necessary to move to a pricier neighborhood in order to get your kids into the best schools.   Decade after decade, middle-class Americans have moved farther and farther from the centers of work – to buy ever-larger houses for ever-smaller families.

Under all these pressures, the two-income family has become the norm, at an increasing financial cost in terms of day-care – and other costs in terms of marital stability, child-rearing and healthy nutrition.

Looking back over the half-century since I was a kid, it seems to me that jobs are not what they used to be.  Most no longer provide the security they once provided.  Nor do they enable families to function properly, since – in many cases – there is no adult in the home during vital parts of the day.

And surely – since most jobs in this country no longer involve making or growing anything – many Americans feel less job satisfaction than their parents and grandparents did.

All of which leads me to ask this question:  Does America really need more jobs?  Or would we be better off with fewer?

Let’s keep in mind that there’s a huge difference between jobs and work.  When this country was founded, very few people had jobs – in the sense of being employed by someone else.  Most people had family farms or small shops.  The large seaports employed a certain number of people – longshoremen, sailors, whalers, tavern wenches, etc.  But most Americans lived in small towns or on farms, and nearly all of them – excluding the slaves – worked for themselves.

For such people, independence wasn’t just a political condition.  It was a personal status.

Here’s my point:  Societies exist by virtue of laws and customs, all of them man-made.  It  is no more natural that most modern Americans are employees than it was for a quarter of the population of early 19th century America to be enslaved.

When old ways of organizing society begin to fail, free people are empowered to make new arrangements.  

Since jobs no longer provide the advantages they once did, and since unemployment creates so much economic damage, perhaps we should consider evolving toward a society in which more people are self-employed, and fewer must depend upon large institutions for their very livelihoods.

Comments

With the Affordable Care Act

With the Affordable Care Act this may become more feasible. I was self-employed for eight years in the 90's. Health insurance was both expensive and bad -- the insurance companies had a variety of ways to get rid of you if you became a liability, and then you could never get individual insurance again. If my wife's cancer had come during this period of our lives we'd be destitute today.

Today there are many tasks an individual can take on that would have required a company in the past. But until we can get reliable health insurance it's a very dangerous way to support a family.

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