Yesterday afternoon, I walked past a McDonald’s. I swear I didn’t go in – I was sober. I did notice though electronic counters where you could order your fast food without the inconvenience of actually talking to any living person. There’s the metaphor for the modern economy – a McDonald’s store that doesn’t even have to employ casual retail staff on youth rates. Seriously though, it’s been a big week full of news from the impending announcement of the carbon tax to News Corp(se) struggling in a sea of outrage. However, bubbling underneath the surface, and occasionally breaking into visibility, has been a series of news articles about jobs (or the lack of them) across the US, the UK and Australia.
Over in the States, President Obama has blamed anemic jobs growth on ‘political wrangling’. Apparently everything would be okay if a few Democrats and Republicans could just agree on raising the debt ceiling. Then the magical gods of the private sector would have the confidence to employ everybody again. So how many jobs were added in June anyway? 18,000. Only 18,000 across the whole of the US. That’s some serious private sector impotence. America has the most ‘flexible’ of labour laws on the planet and an unemployment rate of 9.2%. We need to make IR fanatics like the HR Nicholls Society chew on that for awhile.
Meanwhile, over in the UK plucky Guardian columnist John Harris wrote a withering piece on the governments’ employment policies. Who’d have thought it? Evidence on the ground in South Wales (and the rest of the periphery of Great Britain – read everywhere except a few rich London suburbs) is that making deep cuts into the public sector and demonising the unemployed just doesn’t work. Maybe if we give it one more try in New South Wales? Maybe then everything will be okay. We’d probably be better off taking a whole bunch of public money down to the casino and placing it on Red – then there would at least be a statistical chance of reaping a benefit for everybody.
We keep getting told though that everything is alright in Australia compared with the rest of the world. I thought it might have been because all of the awesome Australian cricketers retired and became awesome economists ensuring that we were alright. The Brits can have the Ashes because we all have enough money to buy gas to keep our heaters running. Well that theory didn’t stand up to much empirical testing. I found that (a) we are really now just crap at cricket, and (b) there is some trouble brewing below the surface (economically speaking).
Graduate Careers Australia released a survey this week that found uni graduates are finding it more difficult to get a job than anytime since 1994. Imagine a new Australian version of Reality Bites except because of the automatic retail points Winona Ryder can’t even get a job at the fast food restaurant anymore. Nearly 25% of graduates are still looking for full-time employment four months after finishing. Maybe this is because of all the unpaid internships floating around? (Btw a good friend of mine pointed me in the direction of this innovative campaign).
Here’s the rub – I suspect that it’s part of long-term trend. Capitalism, at least in the developed world, has lost it’s mojo. Guy Standing (The Precariat, 2011) has taken a look at the long-term trend data for employment generation in the US. What’s interesting is that in the 40s employment increased by nearly 40% falling to 28% in the 70s, then down again to 20% in the 80s and 90s. From 2000 onwards though, employment fell (that’s right it fell) by 0.8% (see pages 46 and 47).
You know how sometimes you read a line or two in the newspaper and you get a brief glimpse behind the curtain – well here’s a few lines about US employment data from “market analyst” Louise Cooper that speaks volumes –
[Regarding] monetary policy – the federal funds target rate is already at 0.25% – [there is] no room to cut there and QE2 [the second round of quantitative easing] finished last week. [With] $14tn debt and the deadline for the budget deal on 2 August, fiscal policy is tightening. Most economists are expecting a rebound to the US economy in the second half of the year [and] this number will cause them to return to their models.”
But what? Those two words say it all. We’ve given tax credits for the rich, corporate subsidies, payroll subsidies. Hell, a generation of workers have learned to be so flexible that we put the Karma Sutra to shame. But we’re not any better off. So what now? Listen up people, the guys who run the world have no fucking idea what’s going on.
We werevtold if we just shut up and let managers run everything it would be ok. After all, who manages better than mangers? Well that social settlement has quickly broken down. When I was doing some Union work in the US last year I was struck by how little loyalty and hope workers had. When your choice is between an apartment measured in square centremetres, a trailer park or bankruptcy due to a medical condition there isn’t that much to hope for. There was only anger and fear. Compliance came only from fear not respect.
Increasing numbers of workers can no longer rely on private capital for any sort of support. It’s a system failure which requires a systemic solution. There is a gap opening up, more like a wound. We can’t ignore it. If it goes untreated it could kill the broader left movement. If we treat it we can build the power necessary to change the world. If we can work out realistic ways to fulfill capital’s end of the social compact why would we ever need to kowtow to capital again? This is where the shared narrative of struggle must begin.
Meanwhile, the release of the carbon tax package today is a reminder that there is much work we need to do. Work we need to do for our very survival, and yet there are so few jobs on offer. At least this all gives me something to think about the next time I’m waiting for a check out in my local supermarket because I stubbornly refuse to use one of the automatic ones.