27 November, 2009

Unemployment and "the end of work"

by Jorge Reyes

While reading a local paper not long ago, I was struck by a staggering report: in October 2009 Miami-Dade's unemployment rate neared 12%. These numbers, of course, may be higher since it doesn't take into account people who no longer qualify for unemployment benefits, have stopped looking for work, or simply are working in seasonal jobs.

As reported, Miami-Dade County’s unemployment rate in October increased by 0.4 percent compared to September (11.4) and an increase of 5.2 percent compared to October 2008. For the State of Florida, the unemployment rate was 11.2 percent while for the United States it was 9.5 percent.

While some experts boast of economic recovery, others simply are warning that the worse is yet to come. Somewhere in the middle are those who think that this work malaise is representative of something bigger happening in our workforce and culture.

The End of Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era by American economist Jeremy Rifkin, and published in 1995 by Putnam Publishing Group.

Written in 1995 (way before the current worldwide financial crisis), Rifkin contended that worldwide unemployment would increase as the information technology eliminated tens of millions of jobs in the manufacturing, agricultural and service sectors. According to Rifkin, automation had devastating effects on blue-collar, retail and wholesale employees.
Coincidentally, the same could not be said of corporate managers who continued to reap the benefits of the high-end global economy.

Rifkin, of course, doesn't prophesy such doomsday scenario without coming up with possible solutions. He suggests that new jobs would be created by the growth of what he calls a "third sector", or voluntary and community-based service organizations that would create new jobs with government support. These service organizations would overhaul how the government tries to do business with the workforce by implementing a massive restructuring of socially-beneficial programs, such as rebuilding decaying, crime-infested neighborhoods, among others. Rifkin would finance this "third-sector" by cutting down on the military budget, creating a "value added tax" and by redirecting federal and state funds to provide a "social wage" instead of welfare payments to third-sector workers.

Rifkin suggests that we move beyond the delusion of retraining for nonexistent jobs. He urges us to begin to ponder the unthinkable-to prepare ourselves and our institutions for a world that is phasing out mass employment in the production and marketing of goods and services.

Redefining the role of the individual in a near worker-less society is likely to be the single most pressing issue in the decades to come.

Fresh alternatives to formal work will need to be devised. New approaches to providing income and purchasing power will have to be implemented. Greater reliance will need to be placed on the emerging "third sector" to aid in the restoration of communities and the building of a sustainable culture.

Which brings me back to my opening statement. The current unemployment rate and the shift in workforce trends were caused by many reasons, main one being the mortgage crisis of 2007 among others. Job growth in any sector is always a good thing, but missing among all these quantifiable statistics is the fact that there is a permanent, underlying issue which is often not addressed by government figures-- that these low paying, seasonal or short-term jobs do not contribute to the growth and reemergence of an economically viable middle class, but is adding to its continual corrosion.

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