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Unemployment

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09 May 2013

From the blog of Vinoth Ramachandra

My Danish brother-in-law has been unemployed for more than six months. The economic situation in Scandinavia, though complained about by locals, is not as grim as in southern Europe. Spain recently announced that more than one in four people were out of work. Youth unemployment in Italy runs at nearly fifty per cent. People all over the world are desperate for jobs. And those who have jobs are desperate to keep them, at whatever cost. Under the present regime of global capitalism, small businesses struggle to survive, and self-employment is limited in scope.

On the one hand we are told that we live in an era of unparalleled freedom of choice. On the other hand, there is a profound sense of resignation to fate.  Managers complain that their decisions are controlled by impersonal “market forces”. They are compelled to “downsize” or move their operations elsewhere, otherwise they lose out. When profits dip, workers are laid off. Nobody thinks of a proportionate pay cut across the board. Thus the paradox we see today of prosperous stock markets and struggling economies.

The values espoused by capitalism are not optional for people who wish to remain employed. Worldwide, few labourers can choose to work part-time or with flexible hours in the interest of being available to their families. We are forced on to a treadmill of consumption in a 24/7 economy. Unbridled capitalism demands that we prioritize work over family, greed over generosity, shareholders over employees and neighbours. Like Marxism, this is a fundamentalist religious faith.

Thus it is not new technology per se that puts people out of work. Rather, technology that goes hand-in-hand with a particular mindset. According to the latter human beings are expendable,  simply means towards the end of ever-increasing profit. The few who keep their jobs are highly paid but over-worked. The many who lose their jobs find that the social security network is simultaneously being dismantled. There also seems little opportunity for work outside regular employment.

A dysfunctional work environment where individuals are discounted also affects those who remain employed. A study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet showed that workers who kept their jobs during a major downsizing were twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, perhaps triggered by work stress.

The wise employer, unlike the neo-classical economic theorist, knows that people don’t work just for money. Work is an important aspect of human fulfilment. Our self-esteem is bound up with what we do. As long as they perceive their work to be interesting and useful, men and women  are usually willing to do it for less pay. Meaning is often more attractive than a bigger salary.

The best description I have come across of what forced unemployment does to sensitive men and women (of whatever age) is the following passage from the Chilean writer Isabel Allende’s novel Of Love and Shadows:

“His activities in the union were a stigma, in the eyes of the new authorities. First they watched him, then they hounded him; finally, they fired him. Without a job and without hope of finding another, he began to decline. Pale and wan, he shambled through nights of insomnia and days of humiliation. He had pounded at many doors, suffered long hours in waiting rooms, answered advertisements in newspapers and, at the end of the road, found crushing hopelessness. Without a job, he gradually lost his identity. He would have accepted any offer, however mean the pay, because he desperately needed to feel useful. As a man without employment, he was an outsider, anonymous, ignored by all because he was no longer productive, and that was the measure of a man in the world he lived in.

During recent months he had abandoned his dreams, renounced his goals, considered himself a pariah. His children could not understand his constant bad humour and unremittent melancholy: they looked for jobs washing cars, carrying shopping bags from the market, performing any task to bring home a little money. The day his youngest son put on the kitchen table the few coins he had earned walking rich men’s dogs, Javier cringed like a cornered animal. Since that moment, he never looked anyone in the eyes: he sank into total despair. He often lacked the will to dress and spent a large part of the day in bed. His hands trembled after he began to drink secretly, feeling even more guilty for draining much-needed money from his family. On Saturdays he made an effort to be clean and neat when he showed up at his parents’ home, in order not to distress his family further, but he couldn’t erase the desolation from his face.

His relations with his wife disintegrated; in such circumstances love grows weary. He needed consolation but, at the same time, reacted with fury at the slightest gleam of pity… Apathy enveloped him like a cloak, obliterating any notion of the present, sapping his strength, and stripping him of courage. He moved like a shadow. He ceased to feel he was a man as he watched his home collapsing about him and the light of love dying in his wife’s eyes. At some moment that his family was too close to perceive, his will snapped. He lost his desire to live, and decided to seek his death.”

This should be read by all politicians, business employers and armchair economists.