By HERBERT J. GANS
Published: November 24, 2011
AMERICA, like other modern countries, has always had some surplus workers – people ready to work but jobless for extended periods because the “job creators,” private and public, have been unable or unwilling to create sufficient jobs. When the number of surplus workers rose sharply, the country also had ways of reducing it.
However, the current jobless recovery, and the concurrent failure to create enough new jobs, is breeding a new and growing surplus pool. And some in this pool are in danger of becoming superfluous, likely never to work again.
The currently jobless and the so-called discouraged workers, who have given up looking for work, total about 15 percent of the work force, not including the invisible discouraged workers the government cannot even find to count.
In the old days – before Social Security, welfare and Medicaid – poverty-caused illnesses killed off or incapacitated some of the people who could not find jobs. Even earlier, some nations sold their surplus workers as slaves, while the European countries could send them to the colonies.
In addition, wars were once labor-intensive enterprises that absorbed the surplus temporarily, and sufficient numbers of those serving in the infantry and on warships were killed or seriously enough injured so that they could not add to the peacetime labor surplus.
The old ways of reducing surplus labor are, however, disappearing. Decades of medical and public health advances, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, have reduced the number of poverty-related deaths. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have left many more service members injured than killed.
Over the past quarter-century, one very costly way of decreasing the surplus has been the imprisonment of people, mostly dark-skinned men, for actual and invented offences. Felons are not often hired when they leave prison. Many, at least those who do not become recidivists, become surplus and then superfluous labor. As incarceration becomes less affordable for financially strapped states, inmates will reach surplus or superfluous status at a younger age.
Meanwhile, new ways of increasing surplus labor have appeared. One is the continued outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries; the other is the continuing computerization and mechanization of manufacturing and of services not requiring hands-on human contact. Continuing increases in worker productivity add yet more to the surplus. So does the unwillingness of employers to even consider hiring people who have been unemployed for a long time.
When the jobless recovery ends and the economy is restored to good health, today’s surplus will be reduced. New technology and the products and services that accompany it will create new jobs. But unless the economy itself changes, eventually many of these innovations may be turned over to machines or the jobs may be sent to lower-wage economies.
In fact, if modern capitalism continues to eliminate as many jobs as it creates – or more jobs than it creates – future recoveries will not only add to the amount of surplus labor but will turn a growing proportion of workers into superfluous ones.
What could be done to prevent such a future? America will have to finally get serious about preserving and creating jobs – and on a larger, and more lasting, scale than Roosevelt’s New Deal. Private enterprise and government will have to think in terms of industrial policy, and one that emphasizes labor-intensive economic growth and innovation. Reducing class sizes in all public schools to 15 or fewer would require a great many new teachers even as it would raise the quality of education.
In the long run, reducing working time – perhaps to as low as 30 hours a week, with the lost income made up by unemployment compensation – would lead to a modest increase in jobs, through work sharing. New taxes on income and wealth are unavoidable, as are special taxes on the capital-intensive part of the economy. Policies that are now seemingly utopian will have to be tried as well, and today’s polarized and increasingly corporate-run democracy will have to be turned into a truly representative one.
Whatever the costs, they would be a small price to preserve America as a healthy society. A society that has permanently expelled a significant proportion of its members from the work force would soon deteriorate into an unbelievably angry country, with intense and continuing conflict between the have-jobs and have-nones. America could become a very sick society, just when it needed to be stronger than ever to flourish in the global economy.
Herbert J. Gans, an emeritus professor of sociology at Columbia, is the author of “Imagining America in 2033.”
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