20 April 2011

What Dreams May Come

"The future isn't what it used to be." - Yogi Berra

You don't come to blogs for breaking news; you come for the personal reflections.  It is with that understanding that I do not expect you to be shocked to learn that our economy is screwed up, and has been for the better part of the last decade.  There have been fewer jobs, and many of the ones still left don't pay what they once did.  Companies offer few, if any, benefits unless legally required to do so.  We've even created a new term, "99er" to denote those who have been unable to find gainful employment for ninety-nine consecutive weeks, just shy of two full years.  Go online and read about any media coverage of this and you'll inevitably encounter someone who insists that these people have been enjoying a high time on the Free Ride Express, and that if you cut off their unemployment benefits, they'd do what they should have already done: find a job.  It must be nice to have lived an entire life in such a bubble of security that you're that out of touch with the realities facing millions of Americans.

What hasn't gotten enough attention are the people who have resorted to taking jobs far beneath them.  People who used to own their own restaurants have been forced to look at entry level jobs at fast food chain restaurants, flipping burgers.  Middle management supervisors are trying to get jobs loading freight, competing with the people they once oversaw elsewhere.  The Huffington Post recently ran a piece showcasing some of these "downwardly mobile" workers.  Lalana Island, who once held a high-paying job as an executive assistant, has been reduced to temp work as a receptionist answering phones.  White collar workers are now competing with unskilled laborers for menial positions.  Ayn Rand would have you believe that these are lazy people who need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but that's condescending bunk.  Contrary to what many have been led to believe, most Americans aren't afraid of hard work.

He's already declared bankruptcy.  Flipping burgers isn't out of the question.
The big question going forward isn't just how do we find work for all these people (estimated last I saw to be around 30 million people out of work, and I haven't even seen a guess at how many are "under-employed" or working beneath their skill level).  Rather, what impact will all this have on our society's collective psyche?  Individuals have been discouraged and depressed.  It is humiliating to have to apply for a job position you outgrew years ago, and even worse to be rejected for it.  But let's say for the sake of argument that within the next couple of years things turn around and there actually are enough jobs to go around.  Let's say Lalana Island finds another executive assistant position comparable to the one she recently held.

How confident is she going to be about that position?  How many days is she going to report for work, her stomach churning every time her boss asks to see her for a moment, certain that she's about to be let go again?  What of her children, who grew up seeing Mommy put in years of hard work to get ahead, only to be reduced to a position typically held by high school graduates?  If the core philosophy of capitalism is that it rewards hard work and dedication, then how can our current situation be anything less than a failure of that philosophy?  What, Mrs. Island's children might ask, is the point of working hard to get ahead if you can be right back at Square One tomorrow to preserve a CEO's Christmas bonus?  They would be right to ask, and to be suspicious that any efforts they might make to advance themselves will ensure any kind of security.  Don't forget that CEO pay has skyrocketed amidst this widespread misery, further reinforcing the notion that the Have Nots will never become the Haves.

It's not all doom and gloom for the Island family.  They could move to Maine, where Republican legislators and their Governor Paul LeMagne are working to roll back the state's child labor laws.  Under the proposed laws (LD 516 and LD 1346), minors in Maine could:

  • Work more than 20 hours per week during the school year (extra-curricular activities are selfish luxuries and homework is for chumps)
  • Work until 11:00 PM on school nights (being awake in class the next day is such a waste anyway)
  • Work for a "training wage" $2 less than the state minimum wage ($5.25 vs. $7.50) for their first 180 days

Not only are the Mrs. Islands of the country fighting for jobs far beneath their skill level, but soon everyone in Maine will be fighting against minors who can be paid less and worked just as much.  It's like the GOP read Charles Dickens and thought, "You know, they really had it made back then."  You may recall Gov. LePage recently ordered the removal of a mural that commemorated workers from Maine's Department of Labor, arguing that it sent a message that Maine was hostile to rich people.  Strange that he's not concerned that these changes to the state's child labor laws--enacted in 1847--send the message that the state is willing to exploit children.

The Maine Department of Labor Murals by Judy Taylor
Panel 2: "Lost Childhood"
I'm not against teens taking part time jobs and earning some money for themselves.  On the contrary, I think it's a perfectly reasonable and productive use of their seemingly endless free time.  The problems are twofold. Firstly, there's the obvious push that many families will almost certainly have to make to get their teens to take these jobs, because meager as their earnings will be, they're needed in an economic environment in which Mom and Dad aren't able to bring in much more than that.  This is the very essence of exploitation, as many parents will regard their teens's employment as a necessity superseding any other interests.

Which brings us to the other, most obvious reason this is a horrible decision, and that's the impact this will have on the Maine education system.  Teachers have a hard enough time engaging well-rested students; it will soon become an exercise in futility for many teachers to even bother addressing their snoring students.  Furthermore, how can a teacher impress upon those students the importance of an education, when they're already flipping burgers and so are Mom and Dad?  How is anyone supposed to believe that education leads to prosperity if a teen in high school is already in an economic position comparable to his parents...without even finishing high school?

It's called, "The American Dream."  I fear that for at least 30 million Americans--very likely many more than that, once you factor in the under-employed and their dependents who have had to endure the effects of this meltdown--will consider success in America nothing more than a dream; a fanciful notion unlikely to ever be realized.  The effects of this blow to our collective confidence have yet to be properly manifest, and won't be well understood for years to come.

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