As election time rolls around, we hear the familiar refrain of ‘Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.’ The Poet’s Eye sees the anxiety in almost every occupation about job security. With real unemployment running close to 20% in our country by some estimates and the dramatic shift in the nature of our workforce, there are good reasons for concern. The information economy is eliminating jobs in the old industrial economy the same way that the industrial economy removed jobs from the agricultural economy which preceded it. Entire occupations go extinct daily and new ones are born. We may need to change our whole way of looking at jobs.
Being born dead in the middle of the Baby Boom, my idea of a job was straight out of Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best. It was a place where your father went for eight hours a day and did something that was presumably useful and productive and for this he periodically received a paycheck which was sufficient to comfortably provide for his family. Millions of clerks and secretaries pushed papers around and millions more worked in shops and on assembly lines making things that people used. These jobs are now being done by computers or robots or Chinamen. We are told that we are moving from a manufacturing to a service economy. I presume that this means that we are either serving or being served. The people who were formerly producing wealth are now merely shuffling it between themselves. A dollar’s worth of services is not worth the same as a dollar’s worth of goods, I don’t care whose economy we are talking about. Massage therapists and dog groomers are nice and I can even imagine that someone could find career satisfaction in fast food or big box retail, but somewhere along the line someone has to grow some wheat or raise some cattle or mine some gold or pump some oil or build some houses and produce the real material wealth that feeds a service economy.
We have huge machines for mining and agriculture that will do the work of a thousand slaves and a million scribes and accountants can fit into one of our super computers. We can stamp smart phone mother boards out like sticks of juicy fruit in an automated factory which is operated entirely by a fourteen year old South Korean girl. The wealth of the earth can be harvested by fewer people and feed more mouths. This is hard on the job market but it also means that we can support many more of the organisms which are called consumers. Consumers are the ones who need jobs. They need jobs so they can buy things from people who make or mine or grow them.
What most people call a job could be described as a feudal relationship where an employer, like the medieval lord, gives his serf or employee security and a small share of the bounty in exchange for his allegiance and toil. Serfs were once bound to the land and now they are bound to their jobs. We are bound to our jobs by more than economic chains. From our jobs we also derive our healthcare, our social insurance as well as our status and our identities. Having no job is almost a criminal offense in our world. It makes you a social nobody. But as more people are learning, being unemployed doesn’t mean that you don’t work. Many people who have jobs do precious little work, it just means that you aren’t getting a paycheck.
We wear our jobs like uniforms. When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we see the job; we see a programmer or a manager or a driver, a teacher etc. People introduce us by our occupations. This is Norman, he’s a dentist or have you met Jane from the legal department? But this is nothing new. Many of us got our surnames from the obsolete occupations of our ancestors, the smiths and millers and coopers. Doctors feel superior to mechanics, and managers to workers. We all hate bosses and we all have bosses but we love our jobs because they allow us to describe ourselves to the world, they define us.
Everybody wants to be of use in this life, to do their little parts, to contribute, be the solution and not the problem, pull their own weight etc. And everyone wants their contributions to be appreciated and acknowledged and rewarded. It’s the job of society to make sure that these desires are accommodated fairly to the benefit of all. Jobs have been a traditional way to do this but we are growing our way out of this tradition. We’ve been so clever that we can support many unnecessary people. We find ourselves in a position where there are many more people than there are productive jobs so we are faced with the necessity of finding unnecessary jobs for unnecessary people. I know that sounds cold and Malthusian. All god’s chilluns are necessary. The object is to get them a paycheck so they won’t be obliged to take up unsavory occupations, becoming thieves or terrorists or poets.
It doesn’t take an economist or Ben Stein to observe that the size of one’s paycheck has no particular correspondence to the amount of work performed. In fact, the ‘best’ jobs are considered to be the ones where you do the least work and receive the most pay. There is no equity or fairness or even logic to how we apportion pay and everybody knows it. The solution is to make jobs mandatory. From birth everyone will be required to have a job and if you can’t afford a job, one will be provided for you. Everyone will get a paycheck, every man, woman and child. Oh, rue the welfare state! you exclaim. It would bankrupt us! I say we Can afford it and it would solve a raft of expensive social problems that will otherwise eventually ruin our society as well as our economy.
The Poet’s Eye would love to see the day when a job, like citizenship, is a birthright. From the first breath we draw we are on the payroll. Our job is to be the best American we can be and the best human being that we can be. If we cure cancer or write a symphony or invent a perpetual motion machine, or if we simply raise children, tend gardens, teach pig-Latin or devise crossword puzzles, the check’s in the mail. The envelope says, Good Job.
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.– America by Ginsberg
I ain’t gonna work on Maggies farm nomore–Dylan