themcglynn.com

13 May

The Forgotten Men And Women Of America

 

“Sometimes I think I’d be better off in jail,” she says, only half joking. “I’d have three meals a day and structure in my life. I’d be able to go to school. I’d have more opportunities if I were an inmate than I do here trying to be a contributing member of society.”

By: David Dayen Thursday May 13, 2010 6:15 am  

You may not see them out at lunch, in your office, or while you rush to work in the morning. They are the New Unemployed, the long-term jobless, whose numbers have reached historic levels during the Great Recession. They didn’t buy and sell derivative contracts on Wall Street; they didn’t securitize bad mortgages; they didn’t make rotten decisions to over-extend their financial firms. No, they just had the misfortune of living at the wrong time, in the midst of an epic crash. And now they’re being told that their jobs are permanently gone.

For the last two years, the weak economy has provided an opportunity for employers to do what they would have done anyway: dismiss millions of people — like file clerks, ticket agents and autoworkers — who were displaced by technological advances and international trade.

The phasing out of these positions might have been accomplished through less painful means like attrition, buyouts or more incremental layoffs. But because of the recession, winter came early.

They call it “creative destruction,” where new efficiencies squeeze out old jobs. According to the article, 1.7 clerical and administrative jobs have been eliminated since the recession began. Printing machine operators (for newspapers and periodicals) were down 25%. Travel agents were down 40%; I know a couple personally who have been laid off.

I don’t deny that companies looking to cut corners will look to automate what human beings once performed, at a lower cost to the bottom line. What I reject is the conclusion of this article, that not only are these jobs gone forever, but that jobs for these people are similarly a memory.

Millions of workers who have already been unemployed for months, if not years, will most likely remain that way even as the overall job market continues to improve, economists say. The occupations they worked in, and the skills they currently possess, are never coming back in style. And the demand for new types of skills moves a lot more quickly than workers — especially older and less mobile workers — are able to retrain and gain those skills.

There is no easy policy solution for helping the people left behind. The usual unemployment measures — like jobless benefits and food stamps — can serve as temporary palliatives, but they cannot make workers’ skills relevant again.

While creative destruction is a hallmark of a lot of downturns, we’ve seen nothing like this. The number of unemployed looking for more than six months is up to 45.9% – the highest in at least 60 years. This idea that we can throw millions of workers overboard before their retirements, because of automation, assumes that technological advances that displace workers are some kind of new thing. In an age where corporations profits have not flowed to workers, where wages have been stagnant for over a decade, I refuse to accept that an entire segment of working poor can never again hold a job.

For example, the government could engage in direct hiring for any number of positions that would bring social benefits, things that computers cannot do – day care, infrastructure repair, landscaping and maintenance, and all the increased administrative (yes, administrative) work that would accompany this new hiring, be it scheduling or accounting or architecture or matching employees and employers.

The President speaks in Buffalo, New York, today, and he will implore Congress to pass more job creation measures (remember them) and attack Republicans for failing to help rebuild the country. And I’m glad he’s still willing to even say the word “jobs.” Because people like Cynthia Norton, the former administrative assistant from Jacksonville profiled in the article, can’t afford to wait. We cannot have millions of Americans living in this kind of despair.

“Sometimes I think I’d be better off in jail,” she says, only half joking. “I’d have three meals a day and structure in my life. I’d be able to go to school. I’d have more opportunities if I were an inmate than I do here trying to be a contributing member of society.”

You’d think a wealthy nation with so many people holding that kind of mindset would do something about it.

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