Where will People Work? — reflections and excerpts, The Atlantic’s How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America by Don Peck.

In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Women and children knew deep in themselves that no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole.
(From The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck)


Where will people work?

This is what keeps me awake at night, in regards to our country and our overall economic health.

Though there is some, but much less, worry for the college-educated among us, with skills that are needed in the new economy, and with the ability to keep learning new skills, and, equally important, to be a true self-starter, nimble, ready to change, the greater worry is for the others — the lesser educated.  These others are definitely having the most difficulty.

I’ve written about this before, especially in this post:  What I’m Not Reading – and why I’m bothered by it (should companies focus, much more, on nurturing jobs?) I hope you will consider reading it.

But this post is about a quite disturbing article.  In the latest The Atlantic, there is a serious attempt to tackle this question:  How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America by Don Peck.

I don’t usually provide the lengthy excerpts that I will provide here – but I felt I needed to give you enough to let the article speak.  In my opinion, this is the challenge in our era!  I hope you read the entire article.  Here are the excerpts:

The Great Recession may be over, but this era of high joblessness is probably just beginning. Before it ends, it will likely change the life course and character of a generation of young adults. It will leave an indelible imprint on many blue-collar men. It could cripple marriage as an institution in many communities. It may already be plunging many inner cities into a despair not seen for decades. Ultimately, it is likely to warp our politics, our culture, and the character of our society for years to come…

There is unemployment, a brief and relatively routine transitional state that results from the rise and fall of companies in any economy, and there is unemployment—chronic, all-consuming. The former is a necessary lubricant in any engine of economic growth. The latter is a pestilence that slowly eats away at people, families, and, if it spreads widely enough, the fabric of society. Indeed, history suggests that it is perhaps society’s most noxious ill…

IN HER CLASSIC SOCIOLOGY of the Depression, The Unemployed Man and His Family, Mirra Komarovsky vividly describes how joblessness strained—and in many cases fundamentally altered—family relationships in the 1930s. During 1935 and 1936, Komarovsky and her research team interviewed the members of 59 white middle-class families in which the husband and father had been out of work for at least a year. Her research revealed deep psychological wounds. “It is awful to be old and discarded at 40,” said one father. “A man is not a man without work.” Another said plainly, “During the depression I lost something. Maybe you call it self-respect, but in losing it I also lost the respect of my children, and I am afraid I am losing my wife.” Noted one woman of her husband, “I still love him, but he doesn’t seem as ‘big’ a man.”

Especially in middle-aged men, long accustomed to the routine of the office or factory, unemployment seems to produce a crippling disorientation. At a series of workshops for the unemployed that I attended around Philadelphia last fall, the participants were overwhelmingly male, and the men in particular described the erosion of their identities, the isolation of being jobless, and the indignities of downward mobility…

IN HIS 1996 BOOK, When Work Disappears, the Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson connected the loss of jobs from inner cities in the 1970s to the many social ills that cropped up after that. “The consequences of high neighborhood joblessness,” he wrote,are more devastating than those of high neighborhood poverty. A neighborhood in which people are poor but employed is different from a neighborhood in which many people are poor and jobless. Many of today’s problems in the inner-city ghetto neighborhoods—crime, family dissolution, welfare, low levels of social organization, and so on—are fundamentally a consequence of the disappearance of work…

“The point I want to emphasize,” Wilson said, “is that we should brace ourselves.”

In The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, the economic historian Benjamin Friedman argues that both inside and outside the U.S., lengthy periods of economic stagnation or decline have almost always left society more mean-spirited and less inclusive, and have usually stopped or reversed the advance of rights and freedoms. A high level of national wealth, Friedman writes, “is no bar to a society’s retreat into rigidity and intolerance once enough of its citizens lose the sense that they are getting ahead.” When material progress falters, Friedman concludes, people become more jealous of their status relative to others. Anti-immigrant sentiment typically increases, as does conflict between races and classes; concern for the poor tends to decline…

We are living through a slow-motion social catastrophe, one that could stain our culture and weaken our nation for many, many years to come. We have a civic—and indeed a moral—responsibility to do everything in our power to stop it now, before it gets even worse.

I think business leaders and managers and thinkers need to put their best thinking caps on, and ask – what can we as individuals, and what can our companies, do to tackle this challenge?

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