THE AMERICAN WORK ETHIC VS. THE PERSISTENT STATE OF UNEMPLOYMENT

Lining up for benefits.

Americans are by nature hard working people, courageous immigrants working tirelessly toward universal dreams, no matter how daunting or distant. By definition these were, and remain to this day, bold, enterprising individuals with an instinct for opportunity; people bent toward deferred gratification, willing to endure long hours as well as unspeakable injustice to transcend the bonds of birth and class. Hardworking is the quintessential American virtue, as we are defined by our occupations, because what one does often has great bearing on how one does.

This working tradition dates back to our American ancestors, indigenous and otherwise, that lived off the land, harnessing the resources of our seemingly boundless borders. But the farsighted Framers perhaps saw limits to unfettered industry and acquisition, ultimately preferring life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, to earlier drafts that included more tangible inducements like life, liberty and property. Nevertheless, the promise of advancement compelled millions to brave oceans and perilous borders in order to apply their capabilities in the inimitable American market.

The worker skills and businesses that evolved were influenced by the tumultuous events of the time – the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars and the intervening Depression. Factories grew in number and size to meet the demand for automobiles, airplanes, weapons, pre-fab and modular homes. Workers were in demand. Labor organized, unions were formed.

But over the last 20 years it has become increasingly clear that labor is no longer in demand. Small farmers have practically disappeared, plowed over by ambitious Super Farms. Owing to advances in robotics, many factory jobs have been assumed by mechanized monsters reminiscent of the Transformers. Computers, software and automated systems have drastically reduced the number of staff required for office administration. The Internet facilitates high-speed communication and information gathering. Who needs a librarian? Or a library, for that matter.  For example, retailers have been devastated by sites like Amazon and iTunes. Those songs and movies not purchased online are siphoned from cyberspace, creating a piracy contagion that leveled the recording industry.  The manufacturers of C.D’s, DVD’s and printed literature closed up shop. Sophisticated telecom systems enable businesses to subcontract cheaper labor from anywhere in the world. America is no longer the leading producer of goods and services; she is, however, the preeminent consumer. Now, with untold millions under or unemployed, many have come to the conclusion that times have changed, perhaps irrevocably, and that sustained, gainful employment may be a thing of the past.

Many people remain hopeful that another boon industry will emerge, another Motor City or Steel City, or Silicon Valley that will magically provide wages and benefits for millions. But should some hypothetical brainchild unleash industry in America, it will likely be subject to streamlining, downsizing, outsourcing and attrition. This begs the question.