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.
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?
Racial and economic segregation impairs economic growth according to a new study by the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. The formula is pretty straight forward. If the region doesn’t have a ready and accessible workforce, then business can’t expand. And if business can’t expand, then the region’s growth is stunted.
Our stunted regional growth is graphically brought home by another study recently published, this one by the Milwaukee Public Policy Forum. The report, Cultivating Innovation, rates the region’s “business dynamism” against peer cities nation-wide. A graphic summary of the report is seen in the picture at the head of this post. It shows our region behind in every business dynamic measured. What is interesting is that this report states that the regional “talent pool is strengthening….and the educational level is rising” when looking at workers in the knowledge and skilled workforce sectors. It is unfortunate that the Public Policy Forum report doesn’t break down the “talent pool” by demographics or by location (city or county).
According to the Brookings study, female, black, and Hispanic workers are underrepresented in the tradable industries (the part of the economy affected by international competition) and in the STEM workforce sectors. Both provide better wages and opportunities for advancement. I suspect that what the Brookings report found at the national level is mirrored, if not accentuated at the Milwaukee regional level where there are high levels of racial and economic segregation.
Another area where the region lags is in minority owned business relative to the minority population. Only Cleveland has a worse record than Milwaukee in this category.
What seems clear is that our acute racial and economic segregation in the four-county area surrounding Milwaukee is stifling the economic growth of the entire region.
Said another way:
The data on how segregation impairs economic growth is apparent. But knowing the data won’t change the policy dynamics that maintain the racial and economic segregation in the region. Only a change of heart within each of us will do that. Only a change of heart within the key decision makers will allow us to affect the change needed to ignite our regional economic growth.
It is a bit ironic that we can develop all of the economic development plans we want, but we won’t be able to maximize our regional potential until we heal the wounds in our own hearts. It appears that the best economic development strategy for the region is for each of us to peer into our own souls and search out our capacity to share and to love.
Our best economic growth strategy may be one where we reach out our hand to those around us and help all to share in the bounty.
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.