Help wanted: new mindsets for fighting unemployment

Employment & Income,Inclusive Economy26 Mar 2014John W. Budd

New mindsets are needed that recognize the deep importance of work and therefore the true depth of the jobs crisis.

On a global scale, there continues to be a three-pronged jobs crisis. According to the ILO, more than 200 million people are unemployed worldwide. Young people and residents of developing countries continue to be confronted with particularly high rates of unemployment. Of those who are able to work, many are underemployed. In the UK labour force, the underemployed would like to work over 40 million hours more than they do. And there is a crisis of bad employment. Millions of US workers are stuck in low-paying, routine service-sector jobs with odd, inflexible schedules and no paid leave.

That these problems are persistent — and in many cases, worsening — shows that current policies to combat unemployment, underemployment, and bad employment are not working. But new policies are unlikely to emerge without new mindsets. Too often, work is seen primarily as a source of income. We need to recognize work’s deep importance, not only for material well-being, but also for psychological well-being, social cohesion, and democratic participation. Work doesn’t simply make widgets, it allows us to care for families and build communities. So the three-pronged jobs crisis is not simply an economic problem. Rather, we need a new urgency that comes from recognizing the deeper problems.

Indeed, Bob Herbert, a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and former op-ed columnist for The New York Times, has argued that we should fight the jobs crisis as we would a war. In general, war metaphors are probably best avoided, but in this case there might be useful parallels. Many countries have spent large sums fighting wars on terror and on drugs. Why? Because terrorism and drugs can disrupt our ways of life. These disruptions can take many forms, and might include lower economic consumption, reduced home ownership, declining property values, pressures on marriages, difficulties attaining higher levels of education, reduced geographic and economic mobility, lack of respect for government, weakened institutions, and increased social conflict. Sound familiar? These are also consequences of unemployment, underemployment, and bad employment in many nations.

So a new mindset of fighting the jobs crisis as we would a war is a provocative thought. What would this mean? Wars are fought through shared sacrifice. Wars are fought by embracing a common cause across the political spectrum. Wars are fought by respecting democratic institutions of government and other institutions such as labor unions. Wars are fought by allowing the government to lead, and by expecting the private sector to join in rather than sitting on the sidelines.

If we tackled unemployment, underemployment, and bad employment with this same ethos of shared sacrifice, embracing of a common cause, and partnership between governmental, for-profit, and non-profit organizations, new policies would be more likely to emerge. Specific policies would likely vary from country to country, but for starters, governments could use their agencies to create jobs rather than shed them. Investments in physical infrastructure, early childhood education, and other social goods could be increased. Anti-discrimination efforts to protect the long-term unemployed and other vulnerable groups could be strengthened. Businesses could stop enriching their leaders through stock buybacks and other financial transactions, and instead put their cash to work hiring and developing workers. A wide array of labor standards to improve job quality could be devised. And so on.

But to be successful, this requires adopting new mindsets that recognize the deep importance of work and therefore the true depth of the jobs crisis across nearly every country, not just for individuals but for society more generally. Wouldn’t this be a great way to attack the jobs crisis? No pun intended.