by Ken Root
A job is a sacred thing to me. I grew up in a poor but proud rural household with parents who believed your character and honor were wrapped up in the job you did for yourself or others. Be it farm work or full time employment, the goal was to work honorably. A job was a moral and financial contract between both parties. There are fewer people who operate under this premise today in a world that is far more complex than my youth. It seems everyone, from politicians to the least of our society, wants to exploit the social system with the word “jobs” being a rallying cry for the masses but not a serious commitment from government or employee.
Last week’s Labor Department jobs report was viewed as anemic by analysts. It showed few jobs created and total unemployment at 4.7 percent. The experts indicated we were close to full employment at that level. I don’t think there is another business index that is “cooked” any more than jobs numbers. According to the measurement, if I have given up looking for a job, then I am not counted as unemployed. What else am I? How can full employment still mean forty-seven out of one thousand people be out of work?
So it must be that there are a sizable number of people who really don’t want a job but they have to play along with the system to get unemployment or to position themselves as potentially employable. A cynical man once told me to go into a convenience store and ask the clerk to give directions to some place nearby. If the clerk had no clue, he observed, then we were at full employment. I have to agree that such laymen’s analysis is not far off as the number of unskilled and uncaring people may be around ten percent of our workforce. Individually, I have compassion for these individuals but not to worry, government has them in their sights and they will be given financial assistance in return for their votes.
It is clearly a goal of this society to get a safety net under everyone. Not just for the protection of the down and out but for the political power such a block of potential voters can bring. Today, a person may choose not to take a job because the deal from the government is better. Industries where the work is hot, heavy and dirty are having a hard time finding entry level employees because the benefits from government, with no work required, are greater than the salary they would make. In desperation, industry brings in immigrant labor that may, or may not, be legal. If that source is not available, they begin replacing people with robots. If capital is available, most factories will accomplish this in just a few more years. They will do what they can to insulate themselves from a shrinking work force and competition from government.
The need of business today is for people with skills and a good work ethic. Most specialization is learned on the job but an educational background, and the ability to show up and do a job every day, are critical to productivity. Government programs to provide assistance to the unemployed or underemployed, in the form of job training, can be successful but political and social trends are degrading our work ethic as we no longer condemn sloth and laziness but reward it.
I contend this country was founded on the principle of “Freedom to Fail”. The initial framework of government encouraged free enterprise with benefit from profits generated through ingenuity and hard work. The prospect of failure encouraged citizens to work hard to succeed. There are countless examples of business success built on this concept. Today, however, parent’s and government give far more latitude to our younger generation in how long they can be dependent on us rather than risk themselves in the workplace. An example is staying on parent’s health insurance until age twenty-six. Neither political party is going to repeal that feature of the program. Those who don’t have a full time job are classed as “casual” employees meaning that they work at a job part of the time but have no stake in any business activity on a long term basis.
I can rant about how hard we worked and how lazy the current generation is turning out but it is not totally true. I see a sizable number of young people who are as work brittle as my generation but I also see a portion who have no interest in anything more than just getting by. The challenge of the future is for government and society to not damage workers by rewarding the non-workers. In simple fact, taxes have to go up if more people are on government assistance. As that happens the working class is penalized and the welfare class is rewarded. Eventually, the workers look up and realize they would be better off to stop working. What happens after that?
I’m very concerned about the mindset of politicians who appeal to the unemployed by promising them a livelihood that approximates that of those who have full time jobs. The potential for this group to vote as a block is huge. In the coming election, there are forty-seven million people who were on government assistance for part of the period from 2009-2016. What will be their tendency: vote for a party that assures similar assistance in another recession or one who scorns their plight?
Once elected, a politician has to gain the money to satisfy his or her constituency. That revenue has to come from those who work. As the number of real workers declines, the tax base will come from a smaller group and the spiral into oblivion begins. This economic scenario happened in Greece and other European countries in the 1990’s and is now playing out very badly for citizens who have to endure the austerity of recovering from a manmade problem. The politicians, who made unrealistic promises remained popular throughout their careers, now vanish with no accountability.
We say we are educating our children beyond our level of learning but a little less philosophy and a little more sweat might be appropriate. Teaching kids the value of work will bring them far greater rewards.