Perhaps the ugly demeanor of our time is an outcome of these imperceptible changes in our economy. People are feeling the results of this shift but don’t have any way to understand or to articulate accurately what is driving the change.
We’ve seen the future of employment and it is frightening. If we don’t alter our concept of work and of providing for the common good, then we may be facing a bleak world where an increasing number of American families are just scrapping by. Welcome to the contingent economy.
Nearly all the jobs created between 2005 and 2015 were contingent jobs, according to Brandon Busteed, Executive Director, Education and Workforce Development at Gallup. The data cited by Busteed is sobering:
Given this data, it is easy to see how millions of workers might be left behind to make do on part-time or temporary work that barely pays the bills. In this “contingent economy”, workers will be earning less because minimum wage or overtime pay won’t be guaranteed and benefits such as health care or retirement savings will become uncoupled from work with the employee left to fend for themselves.
Just pause and think about this for a moment. Hundreds of thousands of “traditional jobs” with wages and benefits have been lost in the decade cited above while nearly all new jobs created during that time were alternate jobs providing no security. We begin to see a slow and nearly invisible transformation of work and an equally invisible decline in family income and security. This is especially troublesome for the 275,000 workers in the city of Milwaukee where the median wage is only $37,500 which is less than half that of a worker in Waukesha county. The city of Milwaukee is already home to 72% of the region’s poor and anything that reduces wages and income will only exacerbate an already difficult situation.
The future of work becomes even more disconcerting when data from a Brookings report on the “New Economics of Jobs” is taken into account. This report shows that college graduates made up 37% of the 134 million people in the labor force but they garnered a full 71% of all new jobs gained between 2008 and 2017. And when looked at from the other side, we are forced to ask about the fate of those workers without a college degree. They make up two-thirds of the workforce but are shut out of nearly three-quarters of new jobs. Does this portend a future where a worker will need a college degree to win a job, but the job attained will be one that is temporary and without any benefits?
The social contract on work has been broken. It used to be that if you worked hard, you would be rewarded with good pay and benefits, and with a job that lasted – sometimes - for a lifetime. Now, that may no longer be the case.
Perhaps the ugly demeanor of our time is an outcome of these imperceptible changes in our economy. People are feeling the results of this shift but don’t have any way to understand or to articulate accurately what is driving the change. It is no wonder there is an undercurrent of rage and mistrust running through our country.
But now that we are beginning to understand these new workforce and economic realities, it is time to stop and evaluate the value and policy implications.
When nearly all new jobs are contingent jobs and workers are left on their own to secure minimum benefits, it is time to create a new social contract for employment; one that provides health care, child care, retirement and a wage floor as a prerequisite of a caring and civilized society.
All of the benefits that we recognize in the world of work today were hard fought victories in the past by workers united for the common good. A united workforce changed the workplace dynamics before and can do so again. All we need do is organize. And if we don’t, we will have already seen our future.
We may never achieve the dream of an America where every person is treated equally but we’ve seen the America where that dream has faded and that’s not a place where I want to live
I didn’t know how much I loved America until now, as I watch it being pillaged by powerful predators. I weep for the America that today is being dragged bare and in chains through the streets by brigands who defile her, who want only to use her for their own selfish gain.
I know that the America I long for – my America – is only a dream. But that’s what America is: a country born on an ideal written in the Declaration of Independence - “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…”
This unifying dream helped to build a country and bound a diverse people together. It was the power of this dream that provided a rallying point for those souls who have been treated as less than equal. The Civil Rights movement, the Gay Rights movement, the Women’s movement all were spawn from the same seed of the dream of a community built upon equality.
This dream that is America has been fading for quite some time. For some – primarily people of color – the American ideal never was real. But for many, the American dream has been visibly slipping away within our lifetime. Communities are overwhelmed with drug addiction. Small towns are struggling for economic survival, and with them the survival of an entire way of life. Middle class and low-income wages have stagnated for a generation, while inequality in America has grown to levels unseen since the 1920s. Older adults are working long after they hoped to retire because they relied on their home values and lost pensions for security.
Into this death-watch of the American dream stepped the populist pretenders. They are politicians who promise to “make America great again” - not by helping those in need or inspiring a renewed sense of community - but by vowing to vanquish our “enemies”. We are told that our struggles have little to do with growing inequality and the real culprits are those immigrants who are taking our jobs and who must be banned from our shores. Our social and economic systems have become unstable – not because of de-regulation and lax oversite of multi-national corporations they say - but because people are abusing the system, taking what they didn’t earn and freeloading on “your tax dollar.” And the answer has been to force the unemployed and those receiving food stamps to submit to drug tests in order to qualify for benefits.
Our fear and our growing social and economic insecurity is used against us. We are pitted, one struggling family against another struggling family. We are encouraged to view the “other” with suspicion, scorn and sometimes even violence.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Antoine de Saint-Exupery summed up our task beautifully when he wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
And so, our job is this: remind all our family, friends, and neighbors of the dream of America as a place where everyone is equal; a place where we measure our success by how well the most vulnerable are treated. It is this dream of America that built our communities and our country. It is this America that attracted our parents and grandparents to its shores. We can’t “make America great again” through division, hate, and lies. We make America great again by appealing to our better angels. We make America great again by sharing our country’s prosperity, by getting back to the idea that we lift as we climb. As we advance up the social and economic ladder, we turn around and help those who are struggling to acquire a better stage in life.
We may never achieve the dream of an America where every person is treated equally but we’ve seen the America where that dream has faded and that’s not a place where I want to live.
America may be a dream, but it is a dream I’m willing to fight for.
Some days I look around and I don’t recognize who we have become as a nation. I don’t understand how some decisions are made and shake my head at the values these decisions reflect.
The phrase, “My way is cloudy, Lord, send them angels down” is taken from an old African American Spiritual and was one of the opening songs of the Black Nativity play which ran recently here in Milwaukee. It is also how many feel about America today. The issues and assaults to our values and way of life seem, at times, overwhelming. Some days I look around and I don’t recognize who we have become as a nation. I don’t understand how some decisions are made and shake my head at the values these decisions reflect.
This is my list. I encourage each of you to add your own intention. But I caution you, don’t expect any miracles. Don’t expect God to intercede and bring peace on earth. As a Quaker, I don’t believe in prayers that ask God to intervene. I’m more in line with Rabbi Jack Riemer when he wrote, We Cannot Pray to You” in which he said:
“We pray…for strength, determination, and willpower, to do instead of just to pray, to become instead of merely to wish.”
Pray for strength – as you work for social justice.
Pray for wisdom – as you choose your elected officials.
Pray for guidance – as you decide whether to run for office.
Pray for determination – as you hold your elected officials accountable.
You see, I believe that we have all that we need to succeed on any of these concerns. The way may be cloudy, but this we know: we are the answers to our own prayers. We are the angels God has sent. And, it looks we have our work cut out for us.
The unfortunate irony is that those in power don’t reflect the values of the rest of us
Recently I saw a poster of the Seven Social Sins – a list erroneously attributed to Mahatma Gandhi. As I pondered this list, I was struck with two thoughts: One, that the root of these sins seems to be greed and a sense of entitlement. The second thought was about what a paradox this presents. While these sins seem pervasive in our culture, they don’t reflect the values of anyone I know. They don’t reflect the values we espouse as Americans. They don’t reflect the values taught by any of our religious traditions. And yet, the evidence of these sins repeatedly committed across the country is inescapable.
Politics without Principles – Consider the prospect of a president who has lied over 1,600 times in less than one year in office; something that would have been inconceivable just a few short years ago. In fact, within a recent 35-day period the president made an average of nine false claims per day.
An obvious example is the Republican tax bill that showers billions of dollars upon the already rich and further burdens the poor and the middle class. They finance this in part by adding $1 Trillion to the federal deficit – a debt our children and grandchildren will have to pay. It doesn’t seem to matter that this effort is wildly unpopular. Given the unpopularity of the bill and the uneven consequences of the results, why would the Republicans work so hard at this? The reason can be summed up in one word: re-election. They are focused on passing this ugly and unpopular bill in order to appease their political donors.
Wealth without Work – Consider the evolution of hedge fund managers who have become unthinkably wealthy by doing nothing more than moving money around. Think also about the growth of gambling and gambling venues in America and how people become overwhelmed with the allure of getting rich quickly through the turn of a card or the throw of the dice.
Pleasure without Conscience – The news is awash with cascading numbers of sexual misconduct scandals, with new ones surfacing almost daily. What does it say that one in five women will be raped in their lifetime in the USA and one in four girls will be abused before turning age 18?
Knowledge without Character – If you have a smartphone, you carry with you the ability to tap into the knowledge of the world. And yet, having access to that knowledge doesn’t necessarily make us a better people. In fact, while we live in an age of information we have become a society that is balkanized. We have become a country comprised of myopically-informed tribes in a world rich in information.
Commerce without Morality – Companies that abuse the environment in order to reap financial gain exemplify the idea of commerce without morality. Take the case of fracking for oil in Texas, which has resulted in a 500% increase in the number of category 3 earthquakes in that region. Would mining companies continue to use fracking to extract resources if they had to pay for the cost of damages due to the earthquakes resulting from their operations? There is often a cost of pollution that is never born by the company making money but is transferred to the taxpayers. This is known as socialized risk and corporatized profits.
Science without Humanity – Where is the thought of humanity when creating an automatic firearm with the ability to shoot hundreds of rounds per minute? What about drone warfare that offers us the capability to kill at a distance as if playing a video game? We are now launching about one drone strike per day and have relaxed the requirements to minimize civilian casualties.
Worship without Sacrifice – Do our actions reflect our religious beliefs? The percentage of those in Congress who profess to be Christian is greater than in the overall population. And yet, the policies those “Christian” politicians espouse would make Jesus weep.
How can we “respect life” of the unborn yet support policies that cut health care which allows that child to grow strong, cut food stamps which allows that child to be nourished, cut affordable housing which allows that child to live in a descent and safe environment? And even more to the point, how do these cuts reflect religious and gospel norms? How do we in one breath increase the country’s deficit in order to reduce taxes for the wealthy and then turn around and talk about cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid because the deficit is too large? Where – in any religious tenet does it espouse the virtue of cutting necessities for the needy to provide additional money to the wealthy?
The people in positions of power seem committed to these social sins. It appears that there is no line they are unwilling to cross in their quest for more money and more power. The unfortunate irony is that those in power don’t reflect the values of the rest of us. And if that is true, how did they get there? Or perhaps a better question – why do we allow them to stay?
Michael Soika has been a community activist for more than 30 years working on issues of social and economic justice. His work for justice is anchored by his spiritual formation first as a Catholic and now as a Quaker.