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May 16, 2010
David Warsh, Editor


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No Gold Watch

Another generation of US workers, at least significant numbers of them, are being forced into retirement sooner than expected and without ceremony, by the Bust. As Catherine Rampell noted in The New York Times last week, millions of people have been dismissed – file clerks, ticket agents, autoworkers and the like – who might otherwise have stopped working in more orderly fashion.

 “But because of the recession,” Rampell writes, “winter came early.”

 This has happened before, notably in the 1980-82 recession, when the steel and domestic manufacturing industries led the casualty list; and, after 1990, when banks and other financial institutions shed millions of jobs. This time clerical and administrative workers have borne the brunt – 1.7 million of them have lost their jobs since the recession began in the fourth quarter of 2007. These are people for whom there was no gold watch. Is there anything for them besides the informal respect and affection of their peers?

Workers being remembered for what they achieved is one sort of poultice.  Last week a group of sixty or so newsroom employees who were laid off last year by the Baltimore Sun announced that they were banding together on a website to record their stories about what had happened to their newspaper.

Another Baltimore story is one of my all-time favorite examples of this kind of reconstruction. The enormous Sparrow’s Point steel mill, located on a peninsula in Chesapeake Bay a few mile east of the city, was for some years in the mid-twentieth century the world’s largest integrated steel facility. When Bethlehem Steel began its collapse in the 1980s, Sun reporter Mark Reutter wrote a comprehensive history of the plant and documented the astounding role that entrenched and complacent corporate management played in its decline.

After Bethlehem defaulted on $3 billion of cumulative medical benefits owed to 95,000 retireees and went out of business, in 2003, Reutter updated it. Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might  is perceptive and deeply sympathetic story-telling. Steelworkers may have been consistently ill-used, but they have a dignified ongoing account of what happened to them.

It is important, too, that the broader reasons for job losses be understood. As the Times’ Rampell noted, most workers have been displaced by technological advances and international trade.

Out of curiosity, I took a look at Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. Terkel, a legendary Chicago radio interviewer and author, talked to more than 130 people of various occupations about their jobs, then edited and organized the results to produce a 600-page best-seller sufficiently beloved to have inspired a Broadway musical  and a graphic novel. The Chicago Historical Society agreed last week to put nearly 6,000 hours of his interviews online over the next two years.

Working appeared in 1974.  Terkel dwells at greater length on the dissatisfactions of work– the boredom and breakdowns and petty humiliations – than on its pleasures. He tends to value blue-collar jobs over office work.  He quotes Freud from Civilization and Its Discontents – “his work at least gives him a secure place in a portion of reality, in the human community” – but compares his own role as interviewer to that of a physician lancing a series of mostly painful boils. John Coleman, the Haverford College president who famously spent a leave semester taking a series of menial jobs in 1973, speculates about the pain of losing a job at age fifty.  Terkel ruminates about the pain that can come of having one..

Evidence of oligopoly – of the lack of competition – is everywhere in Working. In the 75 pages devoted to the automotive industry, there is no intimation to be found of the flood of competition that will begin to show up in the next few years in the form of better-made cars from Japan. Nor is there much of a hint of the computer revolution that will begin in a few years, displacing tens of millions. Typewriters, cash registers, phonograph records and skilled spot welders are everywhere.

The pace of change accelerated in the early 1980s when China began to enter world markets, followed by Brazil, Russia and India.  New competitors entered one industry after another in which the United States had been dominant or insulated altogether from competition by regulatory or technological barriers.

Globalization won’t go on forever. No tree grows to the sky.  The fast-growing economies that have joined the global economy since 1980 will top out eventually, at least temporarily, in a generation or two, just as did Japan. In the meantime, firms of all nations will become even more accustomed to competing internationally.  Their  employees will adjust accordingly. Terkel’s method was brilliant, but attitudes towards social causation and personal responsibly have changed greatly since he wrote.  We need a new Working for the twenty-first century.

And the victims of the Bust of 2008-10? They’ll do what the steelworkers and the bankers did as part of the cohorts of 1990-82 and 1980-82:  they’ll search extensively for new jobs, retrain, relocate or, if they are over fifty, confront the possibility that they will never work again in their accustomed field, perhaps not work at all. They’ll reduce consumption, explore the social safety net, titrate their savings, move to their second homes or sell them, take part-time jobs on spec, or simply capitulate to a life of leisure sooner and with less income than they expected, and cultivate their interests. 

This is an exaggerated version of a fate that, in varying degrees, awaits almost all retirees in Western Europe and North America in the next twenty years, as modest tax increases and benefit cuts become general.  We should view with sympathy those who are in the van. A somewhat reduced retirement, sooner or later, will happen to us all.

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