September 1, 2014

"Our badly damaged labor market is not just an economic crisis, but a moral one"

Michael Strain has written a terrific essay on A Day to Celebrate Work — and think about how we can help the millions who can’t find it.

The statistics are so slow to improve that I fear we are desensitized to them. Over 11 million workers are unemployed — 7.4 percent of the labor force is looking for work but can’t find it. An unemployment rate of 7.4 percent is awful. Over 8 million workers are working part-time for economic reasons, given only limited hours because of slack business conditions or because they could only find a part-time jobOver 4 million workers have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer. The unemployment rate for high-school dropouts is 11 percent. The unemployment rate for black teenagers is over 40 percent. The share of the population aged 25 to 54 with jobs — one of the best indicators of the overall health of the labor market — took a big hit during the Great Recession, and hasn’t even come close to recovering. At the recent pace of employment growth, it will take many years to restore the labor market to full employment.

Labor Day is set aside to celebrate American workers. It seems a touch unpalatable to celebrate American workers when so many of them can’t find jobs.

Work does set us free — it emancipates us from our passions by occupying our time. It frees us from among the worst torments of modern (and comfortable) life: boredom. Work frees us by giving us the opportunity to do what we ought.

Work educates the passions by directing them to productive ends. Work gives us a sense of identity; much of who we are — for Americans, probably too much — is defined by what we do. Work gives us a sense of purpose. Work gives us the ability to meet among the most primal needs: providing for our children and caring for those whom we love.

Work allows us to be creative, to express ourselves. In the parlance of our MBA culture, work allows us to contribute to the team. In extolling the virtue of the price system over central planning, the great economist F. A. Hayek, in one of the greatest essays ever written in economics, celebrates “the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place.” Hayek writes: “It is with respect to this that practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active cooperation.”
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It is no stretch at all to say that work, properly understood, is deeply spiritual. Blessed John Paul II wrote in Laborem Exercens that man is “called to work.” John Paul the Great points out that “in the very first pages” of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, in being told to “subdue” the earth, man is told to work. “Man is the image of God,” writes John Paul, “partly through the mandate received from his Creator to subdue, to dominate, the earth. In carrying out this mandate, man, every human being, reflects the very action of the Creator of the universe.”

If to know God we have to be like Him, then we have to build, to create — to work. Indeed, the Church teaches that in working, even in our ordinary, daily tasks, we are “unfolding the Creator’s work.”

Those who can’t find a job are deprived of all this. In this sense, our badly damaged labor market is not just an economic crisis, but a moral one. How can a young person build a life, find a spouse, and make a home without a job? The probability of suicide goes up when a worker is unemployed. Divorce rates are higher when the unemployment rate increases. The children of unemployed workers tend to have relatively worse labor-market outcomes. Unemployment is associated with a range of psychological problems. The loss of a job often means a loss of self, of identity, of purpose, of the ability to provide for yourself and your family, to contribute to society.
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this Labor Day, let us leaven our celebrating with solidarity. Let’s think of the unemployed.
Posted by Jill Fallon at September 1, 2014 4:41 PM | Permalink