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Something to Do

Sep 10, 2016
“I like life. It’s something to do.” —Ronnie Shakes

Finding something to do has become a problem for many of us.

Almost eight million people had nothing to do in August, and that is only counting the unemployed who were looking for work. One point seven million more had given up looking. Another 6.1 million, involuntarily employed part-time, did not have enough to do.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this one: 37.2 percent of Americans who might be working (the so-called labor force) are not. No doubt some are the stay-at-home helpmates of CEOs or the offspring of seven-term senators. Still, that figure has been steadily increasing since its low of around 33 percent 20 years ago. (Source for all the above: Bureau of Labor Statistics (.pdf).)

The situation is certain to become worse, and rapidly, owing to several factors. The Big Two are globalization and mechanization. Globalization will continue to move low- and medium-skilled jobs overseas and, increasingly, highly skilled jobs as well. Mechanization of manufacturing and service sector jobs is about to skyrocket, owing to the increasing speed and capacity of computers and the maturation of robotics.

Additionally, merger mania, with its emphasis on downsizing and layoffs; an aging population that stays on the job longer while still receiving retirement benefits that must be paid for through current F.I.C.A. contributions; and substandard health and education infrastructures that are driving down our standing in relation to both our allies and our antagonists are three more stressors on the labor force in addition to the Big Two.

It is arguable that a machine ought to do any job of which it is capable, freeing up the human for higher-level pursuits. That may be true, but between globalization and mechanization, it is all happening too fast, as the labor force participation rate so graphically reveals. And as for programs to retrain the out-of-work, they are few, underfunded, and of questionable value. You may attempt to train a 50-year-old laid-off coal miner to program in Python, but your success rate is not going to be anything to write home about.

On the other end of the work force, our children are not being trained today for tomorrow’s jobs. A K-12 school system in New Hampshire with which I am familiar has no computer science courses, or any plan to offer them. If there is one area of employment in which we may reasonably expect humans will be involved in 50 years it is in configuring, programming, managing, and repairing these beasts that will have by then relieved us of all sorts of work we do today. Not to prepare our children for that will, one day, be looked on as an unforgivable sin of omission.

What are people going to do? What should we be doing to ensure they have meaningful and remunerative work and, even more importantly, are ready to perform it? Probably a great deal more than we are doing now, or even talking about doing now.

I wrote a piece here entitled Make America Work Again in May. There I noted that over half of working Americans do not make enough to live on. But at least they are working. Increasing numbers of us are not, however, and our polarized and paralyzed political system holds out little hope for effective action at this time.

If any of us are to continue to have something to do, we must do something. And now.

tags: Education

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