Tuesday, June 18, 2013

When Working is a Job

I'm not an economist.

But sometimes I play one on the Internet.

Wow - can you believe a whole generation of Internet users probably doesn't understand that attempt at humor?  People my generation and older will remember the commercials that were popular about 20 years ago when an actor who portrayed a doctor on some TV show would be hired by a company to sell their product.  And the actor would introduce himself - they were always men (only men could be doctors back then) - and say, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on television, and I recommend..."

It was a way to get around the issues of medical ethics and advertising legalese so a famous face could endorse a product.  As if people in televisionland needed to be told that, in reality, that actor really is no medical doctor.  Which kinda ruined the whole credibility issue for the product, if a real doctor wouldn't endorse the product, and a fake one needed to be brought in.  But advertisers were hoping their audience wasn't that analytical.  They needed the famous face - most real doctors look nothing like TV doctors.

So work with me here, because even though I'm not a specialist in the field I'm about to discuss, I like to think that there is some value in me discussing it anyway.  And the field is economics, and in particular, the stubbornly high unemployment rate.

I'm not going to get into numbers, because whether they're up or down a fraction of a percentage point is, well, beside the point.  We all know that a lot of jobs were wiped out during our Great Recession, and that technology has been taking jobs away from human beings for years now.  College students are graduating and finding an exceptionally tight job market, and even those who get jobs are simply joining a national workforce whose wages have been relatively stagnant relative to the cost of living for decades.

Then there are the untold numbers of people who have jobs but are "under-employed," meaning they have skills and training that exceed the job they've been able to find.  This reality contributes to large numbers of workers who profess extreme dissatisfaction with their job, their supervisors, their co-workers, and their chances for advancement.

It all paints a pretty dour picture of the great American workforce, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of human resource managers, manufacturing executives, and technology entrepreneurs are complaining that they have jobs going unfilled because they can't find qualified workers to hire.  Despite having one of the best-educated workforces in our country's history, some say the labor pool is ill-equipped to do the work that's needed in our modern economy.  If colleges would teach people real-world skills, if college students would drop their air of entitlement during job interviews, if middle-aged job seekers would give up on their expectations for being paid for their experience, then our modern workplaces would have the people they need to start humming again.

Of course, the push-back from job seekers has been vociferous:  companies are obviously not interested in training people anymore.  Companies don't want their employees to have "careers" with them; they simply want an automaton who can perform a certain function for a certain period of time, and that's it.  Careers - and human beings in general - are expensive and time-consuming from a company's perspective.  When you're competing with people half a world away who are willing to work for a fraction of what Americans want, your staffing must be nimble and thrifty, not ossified and tenured.

To a certain extent, our brave new world of globalization is both a blessing and a curse.  Even though they risk a brief spate of negative publicity, American companies can ditch legacy employees and their related costs through blunt layoffs for fewer, cheaper workers in parts of the world that haven't yet come to expect full heathcare coverage and PTO.  Hopefully, by the time these foreign workers figure out what their American forbears were earning and receiving in benefits, the technology will exist for companies to then fire them, too.

In the void that is being created between all of the layoffs, jobs employers can't fill because they don't want to train anybody, and offshoring, some business experts scoff at those of us complaining about the situation by saying that we shouldn't just wallow in self-pity.  We should go out there and create our own companies!  Whatever happened to that great entrepreneurial zeal that made America great, they wonder?  Don't blame somebody else for your sad economic lot in life!  Be the change you want to see in your job situation!

Which, of course, would make perfect sense... if we lived in a perfect world.  Trouble is, not everybody can come up with a legal money-making idea that nobody else has ever thought of.  Nor can everybody come up with the financing to get their idea off the ground, even if they could come up with one.  And then, if everybody was running around, dreaming up their own enterprises, who would actually create the product whose idea you've dreamed up?

It's fallacious to suggest that today's employment problems can be predominantly solved by entrepreneurialism.  But that's not to say that creative minds shouldn't be suppressed, particularly during economic downturns.  Indeed, the technology incubators that are thriving in Silicon Valley, Washington state, New York City's Flatiron District, and metropolitan Boston stand as testament to the power of ideas and imagination, even if it is mostly digital, and likely to reinforce technology's two-faced stranglehold on our planet.  One of the faces is efficiency, while the other one is alienation.

Then, I look around my circle of friends and acquaintances whom I've known for the past thirty years or so, and while some of them have become quite prosperous and influential, it seems that many more of us are losing ground in terms of our standard of living.  Are we more prosperous and influential than our parents were at this same stage in their lives?  Some of us are, but many more of us either are right at their level, or below it.  Many of us have more education than our parents had, and more opportunities in terms of career options and social networking.  Many of us seem to work longer hours, and endure longer commutes.  Those of us who are married have a spouse who also works outside the home, but all that does is get us more expensive homes.  It doesn't seem to be achieving for us the type of holistic economic superiority we were told our generation would have over our parents' generation.

Compared to our grandparents, we can see what appear to be obvious proofs of our parents' advanced prosperity.  But those proofs also appear to dwindle in the present day, if we can find the time to step back and look at our family's timeline.  We're all still probably better-off than our grandparents, but considering the trajectory of expectations that our country set for us, it's small comfort when we consider what the future holds.

Experts are telling us that millions of jobs have been wiped out forever due to technological advancements, globalization, and the sheer practicality employers have discovered in their ability to force fewer workers to do more work.  Although our new breed of high-tech innovators are coming up with some remarkable things, they're not generating the demand for employment that can make up for what's been lost.  And although there's more wealth in the West today than there's ever been, it's also indisputably concentrated within a disproportionately small segment of society.

Most of these issues are only considered problems by the people who are negatively impacted by them.  And some of these issues are likely more problematic in terms of achieving a broad economic vitality for Americans than others.  After all, it's not like we should expect companies to simply give up profits or intentionally refuse to be competitive just so more people can have jobs.  If a company isn't profitable or competitive, they go out of business, and that doesn't usually help anybody.

So, is communistic socialism the answer, when we artificially collapse economic stratification so that doctors and blog writers receive similar wages?  Of course not - "a worker is worthy of his hire," which, among other things, means different occupations are more valuable than others.  That's just a fact of life.

What we might want to re-consider, however, is how we measure those values.  It's a long-running debate, for example, as to whether school teachers are worth less to our society than TV actors.  I've brought up before the discrepancy airlines seem to make between pay for their executives in corporate suites and their pilots who actually keep planes in the air.  When pay structures are out of balance with metrics of intrinsic values a society should hold, it may take a couple of generations for the resulting discrepancies to become exaggerated, but might that be what we're beginning to witness these days?  After all, inequities always are more painful than equity.

Which brings us to fairness.

That's a solution we like to ignore because it requires an awful lot of work.  And unfortunately, it's the people who are out of work who usually are the least capable of building fairness back into our economy.  It's part of the proof that inequity is a raw, festering, perpetual, ugly, and powerful part of life.

Does that dismal fact mean that there's no point in trying to change anything?  Of course not.  And when it comes to economics, it doesn't even mean that the people who try and advocate for fairness will get financially rewarded for doing so.

None of this is likely new to you.  And while professional economists might quibble with some esoteric implications of my observations, I doubt many of them would claim I've said anything that is incorrect.

So, what's the point of all this? 

The point is this:  God created work as part of the ramifications of the sin Adam and Eve committed in the Garden of Eden.  Work itself can be rewarding, and it can put food on the table, but it is not intended to be perfect as long as sin is in the world.  This means that the more we idolize it, and make it our purpose, the more we pervert it, and the less we focus on the One Who made it to begin with.  Our employer may benefit the more we concentrate on and fret over our job, but we likely won't.  And God likely won't be honored with that part of our lives.

Work is imperfect, and while that doesn't relieve us of our God-given mandate to work for peace and righteousness in every area of our lives, including the workplace, let's try not to let it consume us.  This applies to those of us with jobs we love, or jobs we hate, or jobs for which we're overqualified, or even without jobs.  Jobs that pay a wage, anyway.

We believers in Christ are all to be about the work of God's Kingdom.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Even at work!

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