Saturday, October 15, 2011

Jobs #3


The autumn deepens.  The official unemployment levels refuse to budge, while effective unemployment -- people who have given up looking for work, recent college graduates who have simply moved in with the folks and are holed up until better times -- these totals are estimated to approach 25%.  Our economy is stagnant, especially manufacturing.

The blame is commonly attributed to outsourcing, to automation, to the computerization of one white-collar profession after the next.  And this explains a lot -- we are undergoing some kind of technological shift comparable with what went on during the mid nineteen-twenties, when nationwide electrification and the spread of mass-production techniques made millions of laborers, fresh off the farm, unnecessary.  The Great Depression resulted, an agonizing slump it took World War II to remedy.

Now, under constant pressure to crank up "productivity," the great corporations which dominate our industry have moved very quickly to exploit the automation, global computerization and robotic methodologies currently available to create prosperity -- for the corporations -- without paychecks for the workers.  In industries like autos foreign manufacturers have established plants here with the understanding that there will be two-tier wage levels, with a handful of unionized workers and the rest compensated at little better than minimum-wage levels.  When a foreign firm took over a manufacturing facility in North Carolina to avail itself of the trained workers in the area, advanced automation made it possible to operate the company with 500 employees at a site that had previously employed thousands.

Moonstruck with numbers, we seem to be so preoccupied with how many workers are back on some kind of statistical roll that we are ignoring whether a middle-class wage will result as well as what kind of performance the rest of us can expect from our swelling but underpaid working population.  One device that has become increasingly popular is the exploitation of "interns," recent students in the colleges and graduate schools who cannot get any kind of paying job and find themselves conned into sucking up their own living expenses while contributing their skills to a variety of enterprises, from law firms to newspapers, which are pleased enough to get the help for nothing.  Time Magazine estimates that there are now millions of willing if naive youngsters in this expanding Intern Nation.

The problem with paying people little or nothing is that you are likely to get what you are paying  for.  As most of us can testify, attempting to get your computer back on line struggling with an incoherent menu or spelling out each word to some hapless clerk in Bangladesh whose English is shaky can gut an afternoon.  Recently, when a book of mine came out and the publicity chores fell to an intern, I found that she was unable, over months, to make an effective connection with a single one of the several dozen radio or TV or book festival producers with whom I had recently worked successfully and whose names and contact information I had supplied.  With time running out, within a few days I called them all and got onto every show.

What has been happening -- to the internet subscriber and to me -- is that the company or the publisher has in effect been saving money by taking on zombie employees, backloading the responsibility for normal commercial functions onto the customer or -- in my case -- the writer.  Publishers are forever wailing that books don't sell.  One central reason they don't sell is that the talented, well-connected editors and publicity people who knew and were trusted by media producers are mostly out, replaced by unpaid Valley Girls with better things to do.  The reader has been abandoned.

You can replace somebody with somebody else or -- in some cases -- something else.  But you cannot replace somebody with nobody.  What we are headed into is an economy slipping beneath the waves from chronic unemployment and a lot of understaffed corporations that won't be able to compete in the long run.
Ten years from now, there may not be any Wall Street to Occupy.




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