All You Need is…Work!

Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lenno...
Image via Wikipedia

The quintessential piece made famous by John Lennon and the Beatles from their wonderful song, All You Need is Love, was first performed in 1967 to a world completely different from today. Right now, what America needs as much as love, is work.

Lets draw a picture of the overall scheme of things so everyone knows where we sit:

1. America, in 2007 had an unemployment rate of 4.7%. That is the ideal number give or take. It does not take into account a variety of things, particularly minorities whose number could be considerably higher. It is also a number that is considered favorable by the economy. To be safe, double that number and you are more likely to see numbers more closely approaching real unemployment in the nation.

2. Contrast that with now, in 2010, with an average unemployment in the nation hovering at 9.7 to 9.9%. This number also ignores a variety of other elements including the disparity in minority hiring, the under-employment numbers (which talk about people working in jobs that do not help them make their ends meet) and the 99er’s (people who have lost their jobs, and their unemployment benefits because they have been unemployed for 99 weeks, the maximum time allowed for unemployment). And as before, if you double the official number, you are closer to the real numbers for unemployment (around 20%) and if you add the underemployed, you reach almost 28%. This means there are an estimated 11 to 25 million people who are unemployed or underemployed.

3. Hiring is basically flat right now. While there is much ado about the productivity of American businesses, they are boasting profits while they are hiring no new employees. This is not as counter-intuitive as you might think seeing how, by firing employees, they are cutting one of their most expensive line items, employees. The remaining employees of businesses are being super-efficient in order to not lose THEIR jobs. Unfortunately they are doing the work of two or three employees who are no longer with the company, so that level of productivity cannot honestly be expected to last. I would estimate another three months tops before the bottom starts falling out of places that are abusing their workforce in this matter.

US unemployment rate, by county (Dec, 2008)
Image by Cartographer via Flickr

4. I am going to name a few of the forces that put us in this dilemma in no particular order: NAFTA, corporate outsourcing for twenty years, H1-B visas, corporate greed, investment banks, the Federal Reserve, the housing market and its inflationary growth cycles, the tech boom and bust, for that matter, all boom and bust cycles, corporate greed (did I mention that already?), poor education in the educational industrial complex, the prison industrial complex, the legal/judicial-industrial complex, malfeasance on the part of corporations which end up raising their costs, inflation caused by administering to the national debt, wars (all of them, take your pick over the last twenty years) lazy and uninspired Americans, obesity, bad health, overpriced health care and technology in general; did I miss anything? But if I had to pick one, and only one, you might be surprised to know that I would pick technology as the number one force that has displaced more people, permanently from the workforce than any other thing on my very long list. How I arrive at that, well, you will have to wait for a bit…

5. To add another wrinkle in this tapestry, there are two workforces vying for the remaining positions. The first, college graduates, filled with the academic knowledge still in the corner of their mouths fresh from the teat of our hallowed halls of higher education. They have little or no work experience to speak of, but they are willing to work for nothing, mostly because they don’t have anything to maintain. No homes, a rust-bucket that moves if they are unlucky, something overpriced if they are from a family with a little more means. The super-elite, the sons and daughters of the privileged, will of course be taken care of one way or the other, by nepotism, or by trust funds until this tawdry unemployment thing blows over.

Our other workforce is the hoary, veterans of the psychic wars, those sons and daughters of the Baby Boomers who are still in what is today, the primes of their lives, filled with the knowledge of three decades of hard-won experience, time-tested capability and the power of knowing how things work in relationship to whatever their occupation was before they lost their jobs, were laid off, semi-retired, quit, were liquidated or treated as expendable assets. These are the people who built the mega-corporations and industries that cast them aside as detritus when the going got tough. They are viable, intelligent and a damn sight more useful than they are being treated in interviews that tell them they are over the hill and should consider a consultancy as a potential occupation for the next twenty or thirty years.

(done ranting, taking a breath now…) Where were we? These two workforces are vying for the same limited un-natural resource at the moment. Work. But one of them is being overlooked. This cannot be admitted to legally, but the trend is there, especially if you talk to those older workers; and no, I am not talking about the dewy coeds fresh from a college dorm. I am talking about anyone over the age of 45 who is told they are too experienced for a job. I am going to have to tell you that is simply (insert explicative here…)

Technology is to blame for all of our ills. Now that we know who to blame we can simply turn back time to a simpler age and we will all go back to work, happier for the knowledge and experience. Wrong. This genie is out of the bottle and is never going back. So lets see how it happened.

All technology is designed to be labor-saving. The first rock or stick was meant to improve the feeble human physiology and offer an advantage either in combat or in dealing with the environment. Tools made it easier to grind corn or to brain wolves. And each new development improved humanity’s ability to adapt to a new climate. But there was another benefit, unnoticed at first, that men lost work every time a tool improved. In the beginning this was not a serious issue because there was always work to be done, usually far more work than there were people to do that work.

When humanity was nomadic, the work was moving stuff. When the groups grew too large to move, we created agriculture and settled down into groups that farmed and the move to the Agricultural Age was born. This was not a bad deal, we needed lots of people to farm and even with animals, feeding people was still a full time job for many people. Creating towns also created new work, since we were sitting still, we needed homes; we were moving loads, so we needed vehicles. Each development created new opportunities for innovation and new developments and thusly, new jobs. This continued all over the world, different rates, different climates, different technologies suited to a people and a biome.

Then the Industrial Age came. The age of the machine, where the idea for the assembly line and mass production was born. Okay, traumatic to the Agricultural Age, because it stole manpower to fill its factories, but those factories eventually produced technology to allow those people to stay away from those farms and continue to man the factories instead. Farming, was more and more being done by machines, with fewer and fewer people. The Industrial Age also produced its shadow technologies, things that powered the Age, things that complemented the Age and things that propelled the Age forward. And thusly were more jobs created. Innovation and creativity continued to produce new jobs, but there were dark times. Particularly when the Age was first starting up, there were periods where work was unavailable for large numbers of the population, particularly in the US during the Depression.

This did not last as new ideas, new risks, new innovation spurred the economy forward and helped usher in a new age. War did not hurt either, since it spurred a particular set of innovations which did return to the populace in a variety of ways in new ideas, new cultures, new people, new opportunities for everyone involved. The Industrial Age did not come without costs. Looming budget deficits, two world wars, hundreds of millions dead, plagues were spread from continent to continent because of new forms of travel. The Industrial Age was paid for in blood, from those who work the lines, the factories, the roads, the bridges, the dams, the farms and those who lived in the cities, in the crowding, the riots, the filth, and the ever-present, black, thick, sooty smoke that stained everyone all the time. The Industrial Age wore a black boot and tracked its imprint all across the world, then and now.

Welcome to the Information Age. And like every Age before it, it creates new opportunities far too numerous to mention. But one of its specters is a familiar one, Unemployment. Where the Angel of Technology giveth, the Specter of Unemployment also follows. This is not a new development. We have known this for at least ten thousand years. But humans and their governments have very short memories. So we tend to forget that we have seen this before. Scholars of history, who warn us to remember the past, lest we be doomed to repeat it, have given us a warning that we are never able to remember, until we are in the midsts of the dilemma. We are repeating the past, just about the turn of the century, from 1900 to 1930 the economic upheavals were legendary. The world as we knew it did not make sense.

Welcome to the turn of the century; except this is the 21st century not the 20th.

If your world is not making sense, you are not alone. No one knew, per se, how this new century would start but we were certain that we would be living in interesting times. We are at a crossroad. Three paths lie before us and none of them look anything like where we are coming from, so the past is only of the most marginal of help. Perhaps a moment of prayer while we decide; toss some salt over our shoulder to keep misfortune at bay, and now we shall plunge ahead.

A Newer World Order

This is my personal opinion. I make that disclaimer so that no one will later claim I misled them. I am neither a prognosticator, nor a seer, but I do have a sense of things, particularly where they have never been seen before. I am adaptable and fearless, so the ideas I am sharing are for those who know that the world they knew before is GONE, never to return, except as an echo in a foreign country just reaching the industrial age, and are prepared to forge ahead in an uncertain world.

Rules for the Newer World Order:

1. Forget what you know. It will not help you here. It is not that knowledge isn’t valuable. Its more that thinking about the world the way it was cannot help us see the way the world needs to be. There will be plenty of people struggling to hold the world in its current form. Don’t be one of them. Those people lose. Bought a buggy whip lately?

2. Return to the basics. They are more valuable than you think. Reading will never go out of style. As a matter of fact is is now more important than ever, because there is simply so much information, that if you cannot read, it is the same as not being able to swim if you are in the ocean. Nothing will replace the written word and the skill to write, cannot be underestimated. Yes, handwriting may be heading out and typing may be the tool of the day, but the skill to write information-rich, coherent, business capable content is worth its weight in gold. If you cannot write, your future in the NRWO cannot be assured. Be numerically literate. If you are a scientist or engineer, it is likely that your numerical literacy is up to par, if not, shame, shame. But if you are not an engineer or scientist, learn as much math as you can possibly shove in your head. If you have a fear of math or a mental block, go back to school, take remedial maths until you get back to the level that failed you. Then go forward, slower, more cautiously. BUT GET THAT LITERACY! The future will have more numbers than have ever been seen before. Data will be at the heart of all things, because we will have less time, more issues and more lives will be at stake. Data-driven decision-making IS the future. If you are making decisions without data, you are likely wrong. This does not mean that intuition is dead. It’s on life-support. Do the math.

3. Increase your ability to adapt. Flexibility in the future will be your greatest asset. Do something new every week. Go someplace you have never been. Eat something completely foreign to you. Learn to speak a new language (this goes to you lazy, damn Americans, who believe they only have to know one language and that is American.) If you get the joke, bravo. The people I am talking about likely won’t. Learn a martial art, take up gardening, talk to a stranger, be kind to someone (for a lot of you, that will be a new thing, try it out), go to your PTA. Get off your couch and get involved. We are losing daylight, folks. Unless we’re all involved in everything we see and do, there will simply be more problems than we have talented people to work on them. We will need to be highly skilled and able to work at a variety of things at the drop of a hat.

4. Be fearless. Fear will only serve to make you hesitate. In the Newer World Order, he who hesitates is truly lost. We do not have time for fear or self indulgence. To quote Nike: Just Do It. And this is not an excuse to do stupid self-absorbed, narcissistic twittering stupid things. I am talking about being fearless in a just cause, in the creation of new things, in loving your family, in working with the elderly. Be fearless in the exploration of new things. Part of what is missing is our spirit of exploration, we have conquered the Earth and are sitting on our laurels. They are quite flat now, so get up and get involved.

5. Trust someone. In a world gone mad, we are the only resource we have. Find someone to trust to have your back. This is a hard one. There is so much loss. There is so much fear. There is so much pain. More than we can bear, some days. But if we are trying to do it alone, the Newer World Order will destroy you. There is too much data, too much information, too much work, too many issues, too many people, too many ideas, too much of everything for you to try and do it all yourself. Work toward your limit. The human limit of real friends that can be involved with each other and still is 150. Build your community, and get your 150 people who really could care about you and your needs. Your virtual friends don’t count toward that number, so go nuts there, if you like.

6. Be trustworthy. Give your word to someone, or some ideal and keep it. To quote Stan Lee and Jack Kirby: ‘Nuff said.

7. Age is NOT just a number. You cannot buy wisdom, but you can certainly rent it. Find someone older than you, who is looking to contribute to the world. You will find them an asset beyond measure. Ignore the outside, look to the inner person.

8. Age is just a number. In this information-dense world, our youth are plugged directly into it. They are annoyingly precocious and amazingly intelligent. Do not allow their youth to blind you to their incredible potential. Find someone younger than you, and let them teach you Our Brave New World’s technology. I guarantee they will surprise you.

9. Learn to think. This means you will have to turn off your television. This means you will have to ask questions. This means you will have to get off your couch. Thinking is your number one tool if you plan to EAT in the new world. If you are not prepared to think, then stock up on canned cat food. It will be all you can afford to eat before too long. Excuses mean nothing. And for all of you degreed folks, that paper means nothing as well. Unless you plan to use it for a place-mat for your cat food. Thinking, real thinking, critical thinking is something completely different. And no, I can’t tell you how to get it here. Do I have to do everything for you?

Back to the real question: How in the hell do I find work in this Newer World Order?

There is no easy answer to this question. Part of the answer will be for corporations to understand that for them to prosper, they will have to go back to hiring people. Simple as that. The people who are working for you will not spend any money, anywhere until they see new people coming in the door with boxes of stuff, rather than being escorted out with their personal effects. They do not feel safe. So, not feeling safe, means not spending money. Not spending money, means widgets on shelves. Widgets on shelves means no money coming in. No money coming in means employees going out. Repeat. Are you following me?

The second step is that we have to stop being complacent as a nation and start planning for the future. Not the next quarter, but for 5, 10, 20 years ahead. We are not so good at that. We had better get good at it, the stakes are frighteningly high. In my next piece we will discuss what we need to do to change ourselves for the Newer World Order.

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