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Random Thoughts About Whatever Comes to Mind

The Permanent Impermanence of The Evolving Job Market

Let's face it — whenever predictions are made, the future has a way of tearing them to shreds to the sound of loud laughter in the background. At the same time, my guess is that increasingly most people will find themselves in a job market shaped like a barbell with unequal ends. At one extreme, there'll be those who own, control, manage, develop, or otherwise use technology to enhance processes or deliver information - that'll be the smaller end of the barbell, and that's where the best-paying jobs with the best benefits will be. At the other extreme, the much larger end of the barbell, there'll be the people who perform work that is both much lower paid and with generally fewer benefits. This will be work that requires greater physical effort, the willingness to perform what many would consider unpleasant duties, or a high tolerance for boring, repetitive tasks. In the middle are those who will make and/or sell products or support services to the other two groups. Their income (and benefits) will be all over the place, depending on the demand for what they can do. And none of the people in this barbell-shaped job market, no matter what position they occupy, will be exempt from change. Current trends suggest that there'll be unpleasant shocks during their working lives for most people. There will be probably one group of people who will benefit disproportionately from new technologies - entrepreneurs capable of taking advantage of faster, easier communications. Also, it will be increasingly simpler for creative types - artists, performers, writers, photographers, etc. - to find an audience than at any time in the past because the Internet is a content hog. The trick is to figure out how to monetize output, whether of what is posted online or what that posting might lead consumers to purchase.

As for the traditional 'middle-class job market' - the well-paid office or industrial job for which you prepare yourself at the outset of your career and are able to keep simply by virtue of showing up and conscientiously performing the same sorts of tasks in the same circumstances until retirement - that job market is in its death throes. In fact, in many industries, if you view job security as a component of it, it has essentially already disappeared.

This change in the job market has greater significance for the U.S. than for most other industrialized nations.

Our society is one in which, traditionally, work has not only a monetary significance but also serves as a marker of status. You were a lifer at AT&T or the First National Bank or the best construction company in town. You were an accountant or a plumber or a writer. You worked in an office or you traveled or you worked at home. You found meaning in both the kind of work you did and where you did it, as well as the prestige of the employer for which you did it, and that meaning relied to a large extent on the sense of permanence attached to your occupational situation, permanence that confirmed success in your chosen occupational path.

In the job market that is evolving, permanence is elusive. You may be a freelancer or temp who works at home one week, at an office or construction site the next, and from your car the next. One week you may be using one set of skills, the next another entirely. This ongoing transformation brings up several issues that need to be acknowledged and addressed if we are to avoid long-term fraying of the U.S. social fabric that in the past has enabled us to work together to solve problems, to wit:

1. How can Americans find meaning outside of work in a society that has long identified and categorized people by the jobs they hold?

2. What can city planning and urban design do to make cities more livable for the large class of relatively impoverished and unemployed (perhaps unemployable) citizens who no longer have jobs to go to?

3. How can we design education so that it develops both (a) critical thinking skills and the flexibility needed for long-term job-market survival and (b) specific job skills that will enable young people to enter the work force as soon as they've finished school?

4. How can we best use the Internet to offer comparable coursework for students without the need (or resources) to pursue traditional higher education?

5. How can we best use government to ease the transition from the traditional world of work to one in which work may be sporadic and unpredictable? Of core importance here is how to compensate for the income and benefits lost when a job disappears while still motivating workers to remain ready to take work when it appears. (Hint: the past has proven that a successful approach won't be based on 'trickle down' economic theory, probably the biggest con job ever done on the American people.)

6. How can we make U.S. health-care and the delivery systems that support it both more effective and more cost-efficient and how can we deliver at least basic services to the entire community, whether insured or not?

7. How long will it take us to realize that wealth is mostly accumulated on the back of historic government priorities as to spending and taxing and that it is perfectly justifiable for those who've enjoyed those benefits to be taxed today to help finance solutions for the crisis of inequality we now face, a crisis rooted in the transformation of the job market (often by the same manifestations of that transformation that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few)?

It's a complex problem and one that needs to be addressed thoughtfully and not used as a political football by those in office who think that grandstanding is a solution. As a truly great showman P.T. Barnum once said, "You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." Time and patience grow short among those who are already victims of the changing job market.