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Victims of economic restructuring are people too

The other day al3x on Twitter linked to a Seth Godin blog post about structural unemployment. Godin talks about the effects of the changing economy in blunt terms:

The networked revolution is creating huge profits, significant opportunities and a lot of change. What it’s not doing is providing millions of brain-dead, corner office, follow-the-manual middle class jobs. And it’s not going to.

And here’s his prescription:

The sad irony is that everything we do to prop up the last economy (more obedience, more compliance, cheaper yet average) gets in the way of profiting from this one.

What’s clear to me from his post is that he doesn’t have much sympathy for the people whose jobs are being restructured out of existence. He displays a level of callousness that I find to be common among people who work in the technology industry, one often displayed by people who, as Ann Richards said of George Bush, Sr. were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

People need work, regardless of whether their specific skills are as marketable as they once were. The fact that some of us are in professions that continue to be viable or even lucrative and others are in professions that are no longer in demand is attributable mostly to luck. I often tell people that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. I’m a white man, born in America, whose family placed a high value on education. Lucky. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with computers and the first thing I wanted was a modem so I could get online. Lucky. Did I know when I was a kid that being a computer geek would eventually lead to gainful and happy employment? No. But it has, and I’m very fortunate for that.

The other career I considered was newspaper journalism. Had I taken that path, I’d probably already have been laid off with no prospects for a new job in the same field. Or, even if my job was fine, I’d still be in an industry shedding workers at an alarming rate. It wasn’t strategic thinking that led me to choose software development, it was the realization that I didn’t really like interviewing people.

At this point, if the economy changed and the need for software developers evaporated, I would have no prospect of finding any other job near my current level of compensation. I’ve spent my entire career getting better at building applications to the neglect of nearly every other skill I could have possibly honed. The labor market encourages people to specialize, but the same specialization that yields large rewards in the right markets can put you out of the job market entirely as the economy changes.

The question we face as a society right now is what to do to help out people who’ve lost their jobs and don’t have the opportunity to find a new job that matches their skills. Maybe we need to make people who are over age 55 and have more than 100 weeks of unemployment eligible for Social Security early. Maybe we need to make it easy to get grants to start new businesses for people who are among the long-term unemployed. Maybe we just need to extend unemployment indefinitely. I’m not sure.

As Seth points out, the structural changes in the economy created an awful lot of wealth. If you believe that this is created entirely through foresight and cleverness on the part of those who have reaped the benefits, then your response to structural unemployment is likely to be, “Suck it up,” or more often, just to ignore the actual people who lose their jobs entirely.

There’s no doubt that individual merit plays a part in individual success, but luck plays a part as well. It makes sense to tax the lucky so that we can help the unlucky stay on their feet as the economy transitions. Few people can accurately predict decades in advance which career choices will serve them well for their entire adult life and which will leave them in a lurch before retirement age. Besides, it’s good for society and for the economy when everyone is making the contribution that they can.

Acknowledging the fact that a good portion of the current level of unemployment is a result of structural factors isn’t the end of a conversation, it’s the beginning. And yet, the conversation about what we need to do to help out the victims of economic restructuring is not one I see occurring in the political discourse right now.

9 Comments

  1. I’d agree with you about Godin in that I found that post kind of callous; but I’ll say that people don’t need work or jobs. People need money, since that’s the way you make the transactions (usually) that will satisfy your personal Maslow hierarchy. Under the current structure, personal time and effort is traded for money; but clearly we’ve got enough stuff to support lots more people than we do work for those people.

  2. good essay.

    Godin takes for granted that the current system of property rights and laws and seemingly has no idea that if you have swathes of the population with no jobs and no prospects the system becomes unstable.

  3. I didn’t find Godin’s post callous. I’m not sure why that is! Perhaps I’m callous? Perhaps because I really liked his book Linchpin and I’m reading his post in that context?

    I see Godin as quite sympathetic to the folks restructured out of existence. I see Linchpin as his attempt to actually help people avoid that fate.

  4. I almost certainly unfairly tarred him based on the content of one blog post.

  5. This is always a difficult call for me. I sympathize, at least in part because I, like you, am the beneficiary of luck. I fell into my current line of work, which is reasonably projectable, on the basis of zero long term thought about its prospects.

    That said, there are legitimate questions to be raised about personal responsibility and choice. My father, who’s been on Wall Street, has had his job function obsoleted no fewer than four times. To date, he has been able to adapt enough to stay enough to not only continue being employed but to provide for our family.

    Certainly some portion of the currently unemployed population is there by no fault of their own. Whether they’re the victim of circumstance (including technology), their own lack of opportunities or both is academic. These people need help.

    There are also, however, individuals who bear a substantially greater share of the responsibility for their current plight. And while their plight – particularly for the localized, regional and national implications – is terribly unfortunate, the world, as my mother used to say, doesn’t owe anyone a living.

    To anyone who would argue, then, that something must be done, the challenge is clear: how do you separate one from the other? And I have never been able to conceive of a means to do that at scale.

  6. I guess the answer is that for the most part, I just don’t care to distinguish. It may not be just, but it’s hardly the greatest injustice in this fundamentally unjust world. Ultimately we live in the richest society the world has ever known, and I think we should be able to furnish everyone with some minimum standard of living. People who want to work will find a way to exceed that regardless. (European countries have a much more generous social safety net than America does and yet you don’t see huge numbers of people refusing to go out and find work.)

    Mostly I’m thankful not only to have a good job, but to be the kind of person who wants to cultivate a real career for themselves. I don’t envy people who just want to live on the dole, and frankly I’d rather just pay them not to work than run into them working for businesses that I actually deal with, incompetently delivering horrible service.

  7. I understand. But I have a hard time not actively setting the economics aside. Whatever the budget for the disenfranchised, we can accept as a given that it is finite.

    In that context, it is also true that supporting the latter class of individual negatively impacts your ability to service the former. Another tragedy.

    I’m playing Devil’s Advocate here to a certain extent, but I do think there are real, hard questions here where the moral imperative must factor in economic realities.

  8. I’m living in a place I can watch “It makes sense to tax the lucky so that we can help the unlucky stay on their feet as the economy transitions” approach.

    It DOES NOT WORK in long term if it is done as obligatory (tax). It always produces group of people dependent on that money as ‘customers’ (those unlucky) and those managing that money (bureaucrats). Both groups are always growing.

  9. You claim luck due to north American birth, Caucasian exterior and parents with ability to give high value education. I think we should focus on expanding your luck to everyone. Everyone should have a stable and supportive environment ( similar to your north American env. ). Everyone should be free from racial prejudices as I suppose you mostly were. Finally we can place a higher value on education as your parents did. All of this is possible in the USA if we will it to be. Here’s to expanding your luck to everyone or at least every child. Children, I think, are born pure and so we are free from dividing them into camps who we think deserve our help and those we think do not.

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