You don't want a job

The August jobs report gives us some depressing new numbers to chew over.  The workforce shrank again, hitting another historic low.  Job creation fell far below expectations, and far below the level needed to keep up with population growth.  Wage growth continued its anemic limp through the “recovery.”  Recent data from the Federal Reserve paint the “income inequality” gap as worse than ever, as the rich quite literally get richer while the poor get poorer: all of the income growth from the past three years was concentrated in the top 10 percent.  According to a study from the Center for Immigration Studies, all net job growth since 2000 has gone to immigrants, legal and illegal, as the number of native-born Americans in the workforce relentlessly declined.

What we’re doing right now is not working.  Economists are using microscopes to detect some hopeful sign of a sustained recovery, but what we really need is explosive growth.  Current policies are producing a huge new class of “unemployables” – people who just can’t find work at all, remaining unemployed on a more-or-less permanent basis while a smaller group of more employable people bounces between the available jobs.  The unemployables are vanishing into bottomless welfare programs and endless “disability” payments.  Their job skills have atrophied, and their resumes don’t look good with employment gaps measured in years.  Young people, particularly young minorities, are having a hard time getting into the job market, setting themselves up for lifelong disappointment and bitterness.  Regional disparities in job creation are creating blighted communities with little hope of attracting healthy investment.

Those are signs not just of bad economic news, but of societal rot.  We’re slipping across some lines that will be very difficult to come back from, unless we can initiate not some feeble, sporadic recovery, but a full-blown economic boom.

Talk of “job creation” is misleading, because the American people really don’t want “jobs.”  They want careers.

A “job” is something limited and finite.  It’s a broad term that covers everything from day labor to surgical residency.  In particular, Americans have been tricked into accepting the creation of both full and part-time work as “job growth.”  100,000 full-time jobs are converted into 250,000 part-time and temporary positions, and the media celebrates it as “job growth.”

If we’re willing to accept this transformation into Part-Time America, the business community will oblige us.  Part-time work gives managers flexibility.  Employees have fewer expectations.  The cost of benefits is lower.  Individual employees become more disposable.  Employment is always a risky proposition for the employer – he’s got little more than a resume and an interview to go on, and he’s making a significant investment in both money and the time needed to train a new hire, not to mention the potential damage to his business from employees that go spectacularly wrong.  Those risks are somewhat mitigated with the lower expectations and reduced cost of part-time work.  Full-time can be reserved for those employees who earn it, accelerating that trend toward a smaller group of highly employable people getting all the good jobs.

Raising the minimum wage can accelerate the shift to a part-time workforce.  When the cost of labor increases, it becomes more important than ever to hire cautiously, and aggressively weed out employees whose work is not worth the higher mandatory price that must be paid.

A healthy employment relationship should be long-term, with the possibility of growth.  The goal is not merely to earn more pay and benefits, although that’s obviously a benefit.  The goal of a career is more properly expressed as increasing the value of your capital.  Employees are capitalists.  Their labor is their capital.  Increasing the value of that labor is desirable.  The longer you work for the same employer, the more valuable your labor obviously becomes to him, assuming you do a good job.  But long-term employment also increases the general value of your human capital, just as the rise of the “unemployables” demonstrates how long-term unemployment diminishes it.  Years of experience with a proven track record of loyalty and good recommendations count for a lot.

I worry that people don’t understand this as well as they used to.  Careers are something that must be sought and built.  They’re not gifts that can be redistributed by government planners.  They’re not an “entitlement” you “deserve” just because you’re breathing.  They’re not even something that follows automatically from being hired.  It takes positive effort and a constructive state of mind to build a job into a career.  Most employers are very pleased to find employees with such an attitude, and will take steps to nourish it.  Some of the jobs our political elites sneer at have career potential, for those who take them seriously enough.  And even if a certain entry-level job doesn’t blossom into a career, a good track record of performance can open doors elsewhere that will.

Too many of us have become resentful toward employers, convinced they’re looking to exploit us.  Work becomes an unpleasant duty to discharge in exchange for a little money, rather than the building block for a career.  The positive attitude necessary for career nourishment is looked upon as demeaning, subservient boot-licking.  Political rhetoric that paints even private-sector jobs as gifts the government distributes earns those jobs the same contempt shown for most public property.  It is often said that people take care of what they own.  It follows that people who view their labor as valuable capital they own will take better care of it.

It’s easy enough to say that you wish to be treated as the owner of your own labor.  After all, you’re not a serf or a slave, right?  Owning your time is a basic measurement of human dignity.  Voluntarily selling some of your time is the honorable route to prosperity.  That’s all easy enough to appreciate, but then you must take the next step and understand that the system under which capital is privately owned is called capitalism, and you can’t mix it with some other dead-end political ideology that grants its benefits to some, but withholds them from others.  You want the real stuff, capitalism all the way from bottom to top… from bright-eyed young men and women looking for their first job, to the executives and stockholders of the companies that will hire them.  A world of vibrant commerce, with the greatest possible volume of voluntary transactions, provides the environment in which your capital will be most valuable and desired.  Voluntary commerce is the practical expression of freedom, which is also not a “gift” meant to be distributed by wise overlords as they see fit.

Of course, it’s harder to see labor as such marvelous property when you’re trapped in a dead-end job where you feel under-appreciated and under-paid.  News flash: at least 80 percent of the human race believes it is underpaid, and that cohort includes both hard-working people struggling to get by… and people who don’t work at all, but still feel their welfare benefits should be more generous.  Ambition is a nearly universal human passion.  It must be given constructive outlets, or it builds up within us and grows toxic.

Those constructive outlets will not be found in a permanently depressed economy of lowered expectations, where any month with even a tiny bit of net job growth is celebrated.  Raise your standards, America, and reserve the celebrations for the boom you are still capable of, the boom you deserve… the boom you need.  You don’t want a job.  You want a career.  That means you want an economy where it makes sense for employers to offer a shot at careers, and employees have the tools to build them.  Such an economy cannot be commanded into existence, by anyone, anywhere, ever.