Yes, we have no jobs.

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 –

“There was a collective gasp on the trading floor here at BGC when the non-farm payrolls number was released … This number is worrying.

Eighteen thousands jobs created in a country of 400 million people with a 9.2% unemployment rate means that more needs to be done. But what?

[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.

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2 thoughts on “Yes, we have no jobs.

  1. It’s your final comment about automated supermarket check-outs that has my brain ticking now…isn’t this just an example of technology genuinely surpassing the need for a person to physically scan all the items? Sure, I can see the automated check-out technology isn’t perfect, and it might be difficult for the elderly, people in wheelchairs or with other disabilities to use…but surely it can’t be inherently wrong to simply cut down on the number of check-out staff where the need for them has passed? A bit like how ATMs and internet banking has replaced friendly bank teller?

    I suppose I can answer my own question with the reflections you’ve posted above – it’s ok as long as new jobs are being created, which isn’t happening. And here we are, back at the start of the circle. On your point about university graduates being out of work I think we need to stop viewing universities as the ‘golden path’ to employment and more like institutions for learning. Sure, being able to get a job should be a desirable outcome of university, (and for the record I do think univerisities have a bit to answer for in the way they trumpet that all graduates will be better placed to jobhunt with a degree because in reality this isn’t necessarily so), but there’s an awful lot of people feeling cheated by the system because they can’t secure meaningful employment after graduation. I also think as long as universities continue to suffer from funding, they have to take more cash from students – and if that’s going to be the status quo then governments and universities need to stop promising students they will land their ‘dream job’ if they just pay tens of thousands of dollars to them first.

    Perhaps a way through both these dilemmas is, as you say, a mindshift. Maybe the finish-point of high school isn’t the best time to go to university, perhaps it should be more flexible? Learn a trade, get work experience, then go get a degree – maybe then more young people would get the valuable work experience they need to get that first ‘real’ job and not feel so cheated when they doing entry-level work (if that!) in their first years post-graduation.

    But back to the supermarket. One more thing to mention – plastic bags. What’s wrong with a bit of ‘tough love’ on the canvas bag front? I say eliminate plastic bags, it’s the only way people will learn. Force them to bring their canvas bag or purchase a new one – it’s a bit school-teacher I know, but sometimes teachers have a good point!

    1. I love your point gingerninja about no longer viewing universities as the ‘golden path’. Wealth comes from how we work together, and really education should be about intrinsic values instead of a stupid business model. I read the other day that the educational system these days is like a new take on the old Soviet joke – “They pretend to teach us. We pretend to learn.”

      I guess the difference between the automated supermarket check-outs and an ATM is that you still have to scan the items. It’s cheaper for the supermarket because the consumer does the labour for free. Whereas an ATM makes the process genuinely faster.

      I like the direct action path on plastic bags – if they don’t have them we won’t use them.

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