Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why work?

You’d think that, at age 50, I’d be snapped up by one employer or another because I can read and write and handle any math that the workaday world might ever hold in store for me. But it turns out that, in the parlance of human resources, I’m “overqualified.” “We can’t pay you what you’re worth,” I’ve heard over and over again. Or, “Our budget for this position is way too small for someone of your qualifications.”

“Dad, can I have the car?”


“I said, can I have the car?”

“Yeh – uh – waitasecond – what for?”

“To go to McDonald’s.”

“Meeting some friends there?”


“Well, what then? We’ll be having dinner as soon as your mother gets home.”

“Dad, I’m taking a job there.”

“Arnie, you know I won’t support that kind of job.”

“Just until I can save up enough for a car down payment, Dad.”

“Why do you need a car? School’s only a half mile away.”

“Well, for one thing, I need it to get to work.”

“You need the job to pay for the car, and you need the car to get to the job. Probably eat your meals there, too. What a waste.”

“I don’t care what you think – are you going to give me the car?”

Why work? Some of us may laugh at the teenage reasoning that flipping burgers is worth it for the sake of car ownership. They’re working for chump change, right? And then there’s the irony that, for most of us (middle-aged income earners with dependents), car ownership, indeed, driving itself, has become just another burden, consisting – in addition to the monthly loan payments – of pumping gas every few days, paying the repair shop, waiting in traffic jams, paying for (having a teen on) the insurance coverage (having to pay his/her share might just get that teenager to rethink the matter of working under the Golden Arches), and – last but not least – the pleasure of driving around with giant pickup trucks seemingly attached to your rear bumper. (I turn my rear-view mirror down to point at the seat cushions so I don’t have to think about the idiots tailgating me.)

So why work? When it comes to fast food, just being behind the counter of one of those places is bad enough. (At this point, it’s only fair that I admit to a certain prejudice against being on either side of the counter.) And yet, fast food employment is estimated at nearly 400,000 “jobs” – not all of which are held by teenagers. Are the non-teenagers doing it because they have no choice?

Yes, that must be it. Out of 120 million people working in this country, there are bound to be a minority who are in dire straits and have no choice but to take what they can get from the Golden Arches, or from Wal-Mart, or any of the myriad of retailers offering jobs in malls, gas stations, movie theaters, etc. at or near the minimum wage.

Or do they have a choice? In a radio interview, a middle-aged alcoholic described his life in a tent in central Los Angeles. As a veteran, he was entitled to benefits – including a job-training program at a veterans’ residence with its own studio and money-making workshops – but no, he preferred his tent.

Why? Because he didn’t want to work, he wanted to drink. Food? No problem. He had his choice of local soup kitchens within walking distance. Three square meals a day and no questions asked. Clothes? Again, no problem. He picks ‘em out at the cast-off counters of local thrift stores and Goodwill collection centers. He doesn’t even bother with laundering, just throws the clothes out and goes and gets some more (in reverse order of that, of course). He certainly doesn’t need a car, or gasoline, or repairs, or insurance (of any kind).

You might object that this man may think he’s doing what he pleases, but in reality it’s his addiction to alcohol that’s calling the shots. If he were sober, he would want a job, a house, etc.

You may be right, so right, in fact, that this example should be thrown out – as the Big Book says, alcohol leaves one powerless. So this man is not doing what he truly wants to do.

But before we reject my case in point, perhaps we should ask ourselves about all those other people who’re working jobs and making house payments – and downing several ounces of alcohol several times a week. Are they doing what they want to do, or are they too, merely in the grip of the drug? How much of the work in our economy is being made palatable by self-dosing with alcohol?

So I’m going to return to the case of our man in the tent. He, in his drunkeness, may not be so different from a great swath of our population.

Besides being a veteran, our man used to be a teacher, until his taste for alcohol began to grow. Also, he was happily married, and, sure enough, had a house, before he ran off.

Now it gets even more interesting. After she finally found him, his wife tried to convince him to come back. Lo and behold, he argued his case so persuasively that she ended up joining him in the tent!

What have we to say about his wife’s decision? Even if we choose to attribute the man’s decision to the influence of alcohol, what about the woman’s decision? Of course, we do not have all the facts – not likely that we would, since this was only a radio interview – but at face value, hers would appear to be a free-will decision, wouldn’t it?

“Hmm…” some of you might be thinking at this point, “… food, clothing, shelter. Hey, this guy may have something. Waitaminute, there’s more to it than that – how does it usually go? Oh yeah, ‘food, clothing, shelter, utilities, transportation, communication, medical, dental …’ Aha! No health care! What would that guy do when he gets sick?”

Sorry, you forgot about Medicaid. With no assets whatsoever, our man and wife in the tent would definitely qualify.

So, you continue to the last items on your mental recitation of the necessities of life: travel and entertainment. “Aha! Gotcha this time. You said he’s an alkie, so how’s he going to pay for that?”

Yes, you’ve got me this time. In fact, he does have to work when he feels the need to drink. Fortunately, even this is provided for, right in his local neighborhood, in the form of several storefront day-job brokers. He puts in a few hours, gets paid cash, and, even though it’s minimum wage, there’s more than enough for booze (since that’s his only expense).

So, you’re right in the end. People work because they have to. But I’ve whittled you down pretty far, haven’t I? One day a week at, say eight dollars an hour for seven hours, even if my man only gets to keep eighty percent, that’s still enough for a couple cases of Two-Buck Chuck, isn’t it? (And again I ask, is he really working because he has no choice? Or is it because he wants to? We know he wants the booze, but what if he weren’t an alcoholic? Then he wouldn’t have to work, would he? His wife presumably doesn’t have to, does she? Gives new meaning to the term ‘stay-at-home wife.’)

So now it’s my turn with the questions. Why do most people work so much more than the man (and his wife) in the tent? We’ve already covered the retail sector and there doesn’t seem to be any answer there, so what about real manufacturing jobs? (As opposed to ones that the present Administration wishes to reclassify as such – “production” of hamburgers.)

In a 2003 magazine advertisement, Honda Motor Company portrayed a family-like grouping of the hirees at its new (nonunion) minivan plant in the (right-to-work) state of Alabama. The ad was intended to demonstrate that, thanks to Honda, these Alabamians – over a thousand of them – would be in high-wage jobs.

Sure enough, I thought to myself as I studied the faces of the freshly minted auto workers, their pay and benefits were going to be in a class above their fellow Alabamians at the surrounding Waffle Houses and Shoney’s. And their faces seemed to reflect, if not optimism, then at least satisfaction.

It also occurred to me to wonder, as I stared at the group portrait, just how much of the technology of minivan manufacture was being transferred to Alabama. Was the new plant, presumably designed to the state of the art in terms of automobile assembly operations, perhaps more like a McDonald’s than one might have thought? Production of minivans, production of hamburgers, both are assembly operations, are they not? Both lend themselves to the introduction of automating equipment and both are amenable to job analysis, are they not? And presumably, the design of the minivan would have nothing to do with Alabama, and, at least to begin with, little or none of the component sourcing would take place locally. How does the assembly of minivan “kits” differ from the assembly of hamburger ingredients? In both cases, wouldn’t virtually all of the decisions – design, choice of materials, even the assembly procedure – have been preordained from afar? (Perhaps the Administration is on to something with its reclassification plans.)

Come to think of it, how did assembly-line jobs ever come to be so highly regarded? Growing up in a high-income Detroit suburb and considering myself an intellectual with a life of the mind ahead of me, I reacted allergically to the summer tours of duty on the plant floor that my parents urged on me (my fair contribution to the cost of my education). After my first hour or so of lifting gas tanks into the “crimper,” I wanted to run screaming out the nearest door. The thought that I was standing among men who’d spent all their working years this way made my mind reel.

Still looking at the picture (a way of wasting time that I rationalize as valuable intellectual reflection), I recalled seeing a TV documentary on the history of the auto industry, in which I learned that, in the first years of mass production of the Model T, turnover in Henry Ford’s plants was astronomical – despite the famous dollar-a-day wage that was drawing labor to Detroit like a magnet. Apparently, Mr. Ford had to keep a constant stream moving into the Detroit area because of the constant stream moving out of his plants!

So there it was again, that same allergic reaction, except that it was almost a hundred years ago, on the first of the great assembly lines. People just couldn’t stand it – a day that consisted of nothing but acting like they were a small part in some giant machine, making the same motion, over and over again.

Of course, we have come far since the bad old days when you weren’t even allowed to leave the line to relieve yourself. Those fellows I joined in the summer of ’73 each took long vacations during my weeks with them. (That’s why I was hired for those weeks, right?) The really long-timers were talking about retiring – at 55. And taking a break had become a complicated institution that mandated a certain amount of the day, at certain intervals, away from the line.

But the reforms only make the work bearable; they do not make it appealing. And for many, it’s still not bearable. How else explain the row of drinking establishments positioned just across the street from the plant?

So it seems that Honda’s publicity, though widely accepted by public opinion and opinion makers, is less than the truth. The contrarian argument is more than just the opinion of a conceited college student who never did end up living the life of the mind. It’s taken from the annals of history itself and it’s writ large as life on the streets of our cities.

I hope I have helped you to see why I do not think that people choose (clamor for, form long lines to apply for) manufacturing jobs because they find the work appealing. I further hope that you can also see why I feel that people do have the option not to work – or at least not to work very much, nowhere near forty hours a week.

And now let us leave manufacturing behind and take a look at the professions. Let’s use a very broad definition encompassing engineers and scientists as well as the usual list of doctors, lawyers, teachers and the like. Are these people doing what they do because they want to? And if not, then why do they spend so much time at it?

I do not think that there will be any argument that professionals work long hours, so I will pass on to the matter of their pay. The first thing that strikes me is the very wide dispersion of pay levels. In any comparison of the professions, teachers would be at the bottom of the pay scale (joined there by social workers), engineers and scientists would be in the middle, and doctors and lawyers would be at the top.

There are many exceptions, of course. For example, the great motivational speakers of our day – people who can fill stadiums for their message of self-improvement and who are always churning out bestsellers – can legitimately be called the high fliers of the teaching profession. And engineers who have patented products and founded their own companies account for a substantial share of the Billionaires’ list. On the other hand, one of my wife’s best friends in college went to a prestigious law school, met her husband there, and the two of them opened a storefront practice as public defenders, making their home in the apartments on the second floor. (More about this choice, later on.)

But again, I do not think there will be any argument that, in terms of average compensation, the professions fall into a well-known pecking order and that the dispersion of pay is very great. Therefore, I would like to focus at first on schoolteachers – because the rest of the professions are paid more. Let us see what we can learn of the motivations of schoolteachers, because we should be able to adapt that learning to the other professions by factoring in the effect of higher pay.

Here in Maine, schoolteachers start out at $23,000 per year. If they have previous experience or an advanced degree, this number will be higher, but for a person entering the work force to fulfill their dreams of teaching – and yes, there are still many who cherish such dreams – that is the number in Maine. In other states the number can be much higher of course. Connecticut, for example, is about twice as high, but this is made up for by the fact that the cost of living in Connecticut – particularly the cost of housing – is more than twice as high as what it costs to live in Maine.

So Maine is a reasonable case in point for the teaching profession, but what do we make of it? Here’s one way to look at it. It’s more than the Golden Arches is paying but less than Honda is paying. Here’s another way to look at it. To support a family of four, in Maine, our newly-minted teacher is going to need another $7,000 or so. To support just him/herself as a single (but not a single who frequents any singles’ bars), the need is smaller, but it is still there, depending on how high the rent is and whether the new teacher dines on Maine lobsters or just tunafish. And here’s still another way to look at it. On $23,000 per year, our professional is going to qualify for low-income home energy assistance and several other support programs for the needy.

So why is the teacher working so hard? Let me stop at this point to deal with the contention that teachers do not in fact work hard because they have the summer and all those school breaks when they aren’t doing anything for their pay. I have heard it said that all those weeks off – about twelve weeks a year – if pro-rated over their pay would bring them back up to the level that would support a family of four. Therefore – so this argument goes – teachers are fairly paid; their pay simply reflects the number of weeks per year that they work.

Pardon me, but I am definitely a defender of how hard teachers work. And I am even going to contend that the nature of their work demands frequent periods of rest and repose. Teachers must recharge. Without their respites, there would be no way for them to design lesson and unit plans, grade 100 papers a day, keep classrooms full of adolescents focused on learning, and make an estimated 5,000 decisions a day (a figure from one of those job analyses – Honda is not alone in dissecting the workplace).

So teaching is unusual as a profession, and without frequent respites, teachers will burn out – just like Mr. Ford’s early hires. Yes, professionals of all stripes work long hours, and yes, it is only teachers who take the summer off, but those same job analyses have been conducted in all the professions, and though the decisions of CEOs are (seemingly) more momentous, they are required with far less frequency.

Surgeons come closest to teachers, perhaps. They work continuously, often without adequate sleep for weeks on end, and they have to make split-second decisions, and the stakes are, obviously, critical. And – they burn out. They are notorious for burning out, for having a career span as short as an NFL running back. Teachers, by contrast, can go on and on, rendering professional service in the classroom over a span of many decades.

Surgeons could definitely benefit from having the summer off. But in a profession that renders service to those who cannot wait out a summer vacation, respites for surgeons have always been out of the question (though given lip service).

And I will not make the case for reform of surgeons’ calendars. There is something that says to me: things may be as they should be. Yes, imposing respites on surgeons (would probably have to be legislated) might make a career as a surgeon more like that of a teacher in terms of longevity, but there is something about the life-or-death situation of the patient that makes it seem somehow appropriate that the surgeon is putting so much of him/herself into the work.

So we are back to the conclusion that people in all professions work hard and work long hours – even teachers. And so I ask again, given their pay, why do teachers work so hard?

The usual answer is, “Because they want to. Teachers love teaching. They take pride in bringing up students. It’s a labor of love.”

I suppose I am willing to concede this point and allow as that, for the most part, teachers teach because they want to. But have we truly answered the question of why they work at it so long and so hard? Do teachers love their profession so much that they cannot get enough of it? Do they love it to the exclusion of whatever other interests they may have?

And the answer that I am likely to get at this point (test yourself – were you thinking this as you read the preceding paragraph?), is that you do what you have to do. Teachers plan, teachers grade, teachers discipline, teachers keep all those balls in the air because that’s teaching. If you are going to be in the profession, you have to be willing to do the work.

But wait one minute – “willing to do the work?” Doesn’t that imply that one is only consenting to be a teacher? That’s a far cry from a labor of love.

Still, I am cheating a little. In any human endeavor, we strive to reach an objective. That objective is what we want; the striving is what we do because we want the result. And the striving is often far from pleasant. But we do it, because we understand that gratification will come later, when the goal is achieved.

So it’s not fair to say that teachers don’t really want to teach – that they are only “consenting” to do so – just because the job entails some things that are not fun. Teachers are willing to stay up late grading papers and when done, stay up later still to adapt lesson plans to the circumstances of each class because they understand that this is the necessary route to their own personal satisfaction in having imparted learning.

So again, it seems our question is answered. Teachers, in contrast to fast-food workers and assembly-line workers, work because they want to. They do it despite not being paid enough to support a family, and they do it despite the unpleasantries of the job. So we are done with that.

Or are we? You must be getting tired of encountering still another round of doubts from me, but I earnestly hope you will stay the course.

You will recall that our man in the tent was formerly a teacher. Why could he not still be a teacher?

“Because he’s an alcoholic,” you answer. But in that case, are there not, in all probability, quite a few other alcoholic teachers who are still in classrooms? In saying this, I assume you are aware of the currently accepted clinical definition of alcoholism, which encompasses many who are able to sustain their working hours but drink (more than two servings) daily.

Couldn’t our man-in-the-tent work as a substitute teacher? Wouldn’t that be just as effective as the “Labor-Ready” jobs in terms of funding his alcohol purchases?

I am assuming, of course, that the man’s drinking is, as is generally the case (for those who have not been interviewed by NPR), private. Once the drinking is made public, yes, then he could not teach. But it would be naïve to think that among the ranks of even our master teachers there are not a goodly number – a minority surely, but still, a goodly number – who drink excessively and are not able to stop.

Isn’t it conceivable that being a master teacher and living in a tent are not incompatible? Perhaps the man in the tent would have a lot to say to today’s students. Perhaps it would be good for them to hear his “alternative” story.

If you are willing to accept that it’s at least conceivable to live and work in this way, then we can proceed with this reasoning to reach what I think are some interesting conclusions about choosing to teach.

I have seen advertised many half-time jobs for teachers and have met people in the profession who cobble together jobs from two different schools. Is this an unusual case? I think not.

It’s entirely logical that school systems should have half-time slots. Most secondary schools divide the day into five periods (plus lunch, plus homeroom or its equivalent), but the five periods may be divided into as many as five different subjects, each handled by a different teacher. Since secondary school teachers are required to be masters of their subject (a requirement now enshrined in Federal law, thanks to “No Child Left Behind”), it’s entirely possible that there may be a job opening for as little as one period per day. Usually, in a large school, there are enough classes in any given subject to fill a teacher’s day, but not in many small schools. In the case of a small school or in other cases (such as a change in enrollment), it’s not unusual to create a half-time teaching job.

Perfect, for people who prefer life in a tent, right? The man in the tent clearly did not want to teach five classes a day – one a day might be about right for him. Similarly, two classes a day might be right for some other would-be teacher, three a day for another, and so on. The man in the tent is no longer in teaching; the profession has lost him. “Good riddance,” you might understandably be inclined to say, but I ask you to recall my earlier thought that a master teacher living in a tent is not an impossibility and that it’s likely some master teachers are in the grip of alcohol. If he could teach one hour a day, the profession might still have him. The full cycle may have just been too much for him.

And so it may be for many others, both within the teaching profession and without. They love to teach, but they are not so willing to devote every waking hour to it. Many writers might fall into this category. In fact, many in other professions, from engineers to military officers, probably would be attracted by part-time teaching opportunities.

One could even see schools adopting the practice of hiring by matching a teacher to a class, rather than a hiring process that seeks to identify the critical mass, in terms of five classes a day, to hire a full-time teacher.

Note also, at this point, what happens with the pay problem. Is the prospect of one day’s pay a week any problem for the man in tent? We have already seen that it’s more than enough for his almost nonexistent expenses. At the other end of the spectrum, what about those engineers I mentioned who might jump at the opportunity to teach part-time. Low pay should be no problem for them, right? They’re well enough paid by their position in the engineering profession, aren’t they?

In fact, isn’t it conceivable that there’s a whole range of people whose circumstances would fit with part-time teaching? They may not be living in tents, but they may have spouses who work full time, they may be semi-retired, or they may prefer an alternative lifestyle, short of tent life, that involves very little in the way of the usual expenses of an American household.

I feel that this last point is worth being elaborated to an extent. What might a ‘non-usual” American household look like?

It might involve living close enough to the work place not to need a car. It might involve a form of cooperative living arrangement, such as a group home. (Group homes are associated with arrangements for independent living for those with intellectual disabilities, but there are other variants. And what about independent retirement living communities? Finally, who is to say that teaching, or being of assistance in the classroom, is off limits to those with intellectual disabilities?)

Thinking more outside the box, a non-usual household might be one that doesn’t need fringe benefits, or at least not nearly the same fringes as full-time teachers. Health insurance, the most expensive fringe benefit, might be handled, in a non-usual household, as it is for the man in the tent: qualifying for Medicaid. After all, on half a teacher’s pay, one would certainly be within the Medicaid income limitations, and not owning a car and/or living in an apartment or a group/cooperative arrangement, there would be no assets to act as a disqualifier.

So we see that there are a variety of alternative living arrangements that might be compatible with part-time teaching. And one more thing, do you suppose that we might find candidates for alternative living arrangements among those presently counted in the fast-food / retail work force?

I think that the answer is, “Yes.” We are talking about trading sub-living wage work for a new way of living. Instead of trying to live the way a typical American household does (the American Dream?), take a page from the man in the tent’s book, and live differently. Don’t you suppose that there are a substantial number who might be willing drop the effort to keep up with the Joneses, because to them it has come to mean holding down two or three waitressing jobs or working overtime at Wal-Mart without being paid for it?

And among these candidates, isn’t it possible that there are some good teaching prospects? Surely you’ve read of people with college degrees who got merged out of jobs in their old profession and finding themselves “overqualified” in the eyes of human resources departments, are mothballed into the retail sector. Wouldn’t some of them make good teachers? Perhaps you’re acquainted with someone who fits this description. Do you think that he or she would be fulfilled as a teacher?

Tapping into this pool of potential part-time teachers could move within the realm of possibility under my (hypothesized) system of matching teachers and students, class by class. The door would open to many who are now slaving away in the retail sector – especially if they are willing to forego the accepted American pattern of consumption.

But what about those who would prefer to continue to make their living full-time in the teaching profession? Won’t their opportunities be cut down by widespread use of part-timers?

Yes, and no. First of all, we have, after some consideration, some reason to question or at least look very carefully at full-time teaching. We have established that doing so for the sake of what one believes to be a necessary living standard is an illusion. That leaves us with love of teaching as a reason for wanting to do as much of it as humanly possible, i.e., up to and including a full schedule of classes.

And there is nothing wrong with this; as has been noted, the respites built into the teaching profession (summer vacation, spring break, etc.) make it possible to pursue productive, rewarding teaching careers over a span of decades. The good news is that, by introducing more flexibility, resources are freed up that can be used to improve the compensation of teachers who are awarded full schedules. Part-time teachers will not draw benefits or will have fewer of them (especially health insurance). Some of this savings can be shared with deserving teachers. Deserving teachers, under a system of matching students and teachers, would be those who, based on the matching process, are matched to more students. In other words, they would be those who “match up” a full schedule. In effect, the teacher is in demand and so merits a higher “price” (a higher rate of pay).

Veteran teachers might still balk at my proposals on the basis that, higher pay or no, there would be fewer (full-time) jobs. This is true, but it would only happen gradually, as the new matching process draws more part-timers into the profession. There would be plenty of time for natural attrition of today’s full-time teachers to allow their numbers to decline without cutting class time out from under the schedules of existing full-time teachers. So, full-timers – fully “matched up” teachers” – would simply see their pay go up (at long last, given the shortfall vis-à-vis family support levels).

And so now where do we stand in our quest to explain why professionals work such long hours? We focused on teaching, the lowest-paid profession. We found that the work is a labor of love, but that it is, in the typical case of a full-time teacher, all consuming. Rather than simply throw up our hands and declare that yes, it’s consuming but that comes with the territory, we gave consideration to part-time teaching. We observed that there may be good sense in a policy of matching teachers and students class by class. Furthermore, we reasoned that the resulting one, two and three-class schedules might allow teachers who are being consumed by the job to derive greater satisfaction – provided they are willing to make new arrangements at home (become “nonusual” households). We also reasoned that many others, from diverse walks of life – also candidates for “nonusual” household status – might be drawn into the teaching profession, thereby enriching it.

Now let me return all the way to the beginning, to my original question, “Why work?” What sort of answer to this question have we evolved? Using the man in the tent – and perhaps more particularly his wife – as a starting point, we established that, for some people, there just isn’t any reason to work. Then we applied this conclusion to the great swath of our work force – something like twenty million jobs – in the retail sector. The implication is that a large number – perhaps the majority – of these jobs are not worth doing. From that point, we moved on to consider manufacturing jobs and found them to be not so attractive after all. Because it is such a stretch to term these jobs “not worth doing,” we delved into the decisions about spending made by the typical American household. We saw that there is an array of alternatives to the practices that have become accepted in this country, alternatives that go far beyond the man in the tent.

Finally, we turned to professional occupations. Focusing on teachers, we satisfied ourselves that, in the case of the professions, there is a love of the work. This would seem to make, “Why work?” a silly question, but then we looked closer at the hours of teachers and other professionals. We turned up good reasons to question the reasons why professionals such as teachers would want to work such inordinate hours. We came up with new recipes for teachers, to love their work by teaching class by class and by eschewing traditional living arrangements.

There is much more to do in pursuit of an answer. I have promised you an examination of the higher-paid professions. In the course of that examination, we’ll take a look at the lawyer couple that I alluded to earlier, and see what their experience tells us about the balance between love of profession and lifestyle choices. And then there are many other occupations that we haven’t covered at all, notably the artistic and artisanal pursuits.

But let us make note of a few ideas that are beginning to look like answers, perhaps even advice, at this point. To be perfectly straightforward, the answer to “Why work?” is, “Because you want to.”

That means: don’t do it if you don’t want to. And that basically “eliminates” all unskilled and similar jobs in the retail sector (and, for that matter, in the service sector – changing beds, maid service, etc.) Just don’t do those jobs – live like the man in the tent’s wife. (Given that millions of workers would consequently disappear from the ranks of both the labor force and from the ranks of consumers, the American economy would be faced with immense consequences were such a trend to become established. This will also be addressed in pages to come.)

For professionals, that means: do it if it’s what you love to do, but not for the sake of some lifestyle that you imagine you want. As we have seen in the case of teachers, the result holds the potential for revolutionizing the profession. There could be an influx of those willing to make new lifestyle / standard of living choices and reap the rewards of part-time practice of work that they love, and there could be higher pay for those who merit a full schedule. It’s also worth noting that, though we touched upon it only briefly, surgeons might want to continue right along in their workaholic ways – just so long as they aren’t doing it for the sake of a million-dollar house that they and their spouse just built or want to build. (Surgeons have the tougher job of introspection. Given that their scheduling practices and therefore their hours are likely to remain just as intense as has been customary, they are likely to continue to be generators of excess income. They must continually ask themselves – as many of them already do – whether they are continuing for love of the work or because of the money.) And, as we will see in forthcoming discussions pertaining to the other highly paid professions, most if not all of them are ripe for reform of the customary schedule of work.

I’ve previously made the observation that the emergence among the American populace of a widespread disinclination toward full-time work would have an enormous economic impact, and now I would like to explore that impact in a little more detail.

Would the impact be felt all at once? Surely not, for it would be expressed like all other changes in American life, as a trend. And yet, trends tend to operate too fast for institutions – including the business establishment. As a result, institutions are always finding themselves overtaken and possibly overwhelmed by new trends.

In the case of our man-in-the-tent, were he, perhaps in the aftermath of the (unlikely) publication of this article, to be joined by increasing numbers of the converted, all desirous of adopting the new, “urban tenting” lifestyle, then several impacts can be immediately pinpointed.

In the first few days, the soup kitchens would run out of food (as they are already barely able to meet demand). The next week, all the racks at the thrift stores would be picked clean (as, in emulation of our man, the new arrivals threw out their clothes rather than launder them).

The soup kitchens, as they already do, would put out the call for more food and more volunteers, backing up their appeals with statistics showing rapidly increasing demand.

But institutions move slowly, and meanwhile, people have to eat, so the new urban tenters would quickly resort to paying for their food. All of a sudden, the storefront job brokers would find themselves able to be very choosy in taking on day laborers.

And, no doubt, some of the new arrivals would turn around and go back where they came from. Would that spell the passing of the new trend? Perhaps, but what if they, or at least many of them, returned to their places of origin with the intention of coming as close to the man in the tent as possible?

There is some logic to this. Many of the new converts might be thinking, “Well, it’s obvious that central L.A. can’t handle a whole nation of ‘unusual households,’ but I don’t have to be in L.A. to turn over a new leaf.”

So we might see a pickup in tenting in more locales, perhaps even some that do not enjoy a warm climate year round. This might happen in conjunction with a pickup in part-time work. Surveys in the workplace might begin showing that the length of the work week had risen to the top as an issue.

The demand for tents would, of course, increase, but at the same time wouldn’t the demand for houses decrease? Were there ever to emerge such a trend as this, then residential real estate would not be a good choice for investing one’s life savings. (And yet, most of the population has already invested its life’s savings in that very thing.)

For those of you (a majority?) who are about to toss these pages in the dustbin, so absurd is the idea of any mass movement out of houses and into tents, please recall that, in an earlier paragraph, I presented several other alternative living arrangements (group homes, cooperative housing, etc.). Here is another alternative, that I will call “pooled” housing arrangements. Many times over the course of my working years, I have heard my friends lament how little free time they have, or that they’re working just to keep up with the bills and never getting ahead of the game. At times, in responding to them, I have gone so far as to suggest that, by selling our separate houses and pooling our resources, we could buy a vacation property in a scenic locale, one large enough to accommodate both families, and never have to work again. Is this so absurd?

Also remember my beginning question, “Why work?” and the conclusions we reached about jobs in a huge swath of our economy being not worth doing. With that as a motivator, and with an array of alternative living arrangements, does it begin to sound a bit less unnatural that certain quite substantial segments of our population might be willing to eschew the dream of the single-family home?

If it does, then to the extent it does, the market for such housing would be undermined, and, in light of the arrangements we have made for affording the purchase of a single-family house, and especially the institutions that have evolved to facilitate these purchases, the implications of such a sea-change are very great indeed.

I refer, of course, to the home-mortgage business. It is the single largest business in our economy, and it counts among its institutions virtually the whole banking system. A particular institutional focal point of the home-mortgage market are the two Federally-established (but now privatized) lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. These two institutions not only lend the money but guarantee its repayment. They presently enjoy the highest possible reputation, as measured by their top-notch credit ratings.

But a widespread movement away from single-family home ownership, forcing sellers to offer their houses at lower prices, would immediately throw into doubt the reputations of Fannie and Freddie. The process is simple mathematics: prices paid for houses would be moving down, but the debt associated with those houses would not. In the mortgage lending industry, this is known as the value-to-loan (or loan-to-value) ratio. Whichever way the ratio is expressed, the key element is that the loans be less – substantially less – than the value. As soon as loans move within ninety percent of value, the viability of the large lending institutions would be called into question, in the form of reduced credit ratings (probably accompanied by Congressional hearings).

The question is, would, or could, these institutions be able to react, to adjust, in response to a reduced housing preference among those employed (or formerly employed, as we are assuming that the first expression of preference is to cease employment that is not worthwhile) in such industries as retail, manual labor and (perhaps) manufacturing?

My conclusion: neither Fannie nor Freddie would be able to react in time. In fact, it would be difficult for them to react at all. They are essentially locked in, bound by the lending that they have already done. As loan-to-value moved closer to 100 percent, confidence in the two institutions, and more broadly in the solvency of the banking system, would erode faster and faster. That’s because the great fear is that, as soon as the value of their mortgage exceeds the value of their house, people will not bother to sell the house, they’ll just abandon it.

Under such a circumstance, Fannie and Freddie would soon exhaust their resources making other lenders whole for loans they’ve guaranteed. This would certainly trigger action by the Federal Government. Now that Fannie and Freddie are privatized, there is no real basis for Federal intervention, but you can depend on it, intervention would not be long in coming.

But even the U.S. Treasury would have a task on its hands of a whole new order, large enough to erode the credit standing of the government itself. How so? Nearly seventy percent of American households occupy their own homes, which account for between thirty and forty percent of their net worth. Note that term, net worth: it refers to what’s left after deducting the mortgage. Taking mortgages into account, in other words, looking at the full value of U.S. single-family housing, and you’re talking about a value of such magnitude as to rival 100 percent of the net worth of American households. How is even the U.S. government going to come up with enough to bail out Fannie and Freddie’s guarantees?

The answer is that the Treasury would have to borrow the money, probably from abroad. And it would have to do so on the basis of its newly diminished credit standing. And in doing so, it would be eroding its credit still further.

But it could be done. Indeed it probably would be done, as the alternative would be the almost complete collapse of our securities markets. (Mortgages, in the past thirty years, have become a commodity, packaged and sold – mostly by Fannie and Freddie – in large debt transactions, with the transactions, or bonds, subsequently traded in securities markets around the world, dwarfing most other types of securities.)

And the result might be a whole new world – or at least a whole new landscape for this country. In effect, the bailout would force the creation of a whole new government program, one that supported the wishes of millions of Americans to cease or at least avoid work that’s not worth doing. And yes, the new “program” would also be facilitating the widespread abandonment of the American Dream. (Or, at least the abandonment of the Dream in its very popular single-family home version.)

But the Dream never really goes away. It just changes. How might we describe this change? I would describe it as a dream of freedom. People would be opting to have their time be their own. As always, to realize a dream, they would be willing to make sacrifices. This dream would be for those who perceive that freedom from worthless work is worth more than having a home that is theirs (and their mortgagee’s).


Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

For a more mainstream -- and blessedly brief -- treatment of this subject, try the following New York Times opinion piece:

Working Hard at Nothing All Day by Corinned Maier, Sept. 5, 2005.


... and after that you can read her book:

Bonjour Laziness: Jumping Off the Corporate Ladder.

September 05, 2005 8:03 AM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

MORE fun-to-read grist for the mill on this subject:

The New York Times
June 4, 2005
Pomp and Circumspect

COMMENCEMENT speakers have long offered graduating seniors the same warm and gooey career advice: Do what you love.

And graduates have long responded the same way: They've listened carefully, nodded earnestly, and gone out and become accountants. No surprise. On every day except graduation day, young people are taught that their futures depend not on following their bliss, but on mastering dutiful (and less lovable) abilities like crunching numbers and following rules.

But this year is different. The students graduating this spring will operate in a labor market that increasingly confers an economic advantage on the activities that people do out of a sense of intrinsic satisfaction - designing cool things, telling stories and helping others. For the class of 2005, "Do what you love" is no longer a soft-hearted sentiment. It is also a hard-headed strategy.

What's going on?

Three powerful forces are converging to overturn the conventional logic of careers.

The first force is automation. Last century, machines replaced human muscle. This century, software is augmenting, if not replacing, the human brain's left hemisphere - the part that is linear, sequential and computer-like. Software can now do many tasks faster, cheaper and better than we can: processing claims, adding figures, searching data.

So accountants lose work to TurboTax. And lawyers lose work to legal Web sites that offer uncontested divorces for $249 and articles of incorporation for the price of a pizza. To cope, we'll have to rely on what's harder to replicate in the 1's and 0's of computer code - inventiveness, empathy and seeing the big picture - which also happen to be the components of satisfying work.

The second force involves jobs going overseas. As certain types of work (answering phone calls, writing basic computer code, analyzing financial statements) migrate to places like India, graduates will have to draw on abilities that are less routine. These abilities (creating new products, crafting narratives, caring for others) are more difficult to outsource. But once mastered, they're typically more engaging than simply following the steps on a spec sheet or plugging numbers into a spreadsheet.

Finally, there's prosperity. This year's graduates have always lived in a country whose standard of living - deep into the middle class - is breathtaking. While the United States still has a disgraceful level of poverty, most Americans, in material terms, are doing pretty well.

For instance, the United States has more cars and trucks than licensed drivers. American families own such a surfeit of consumer goods that they've turned self-storage into a $17 billion-a-year industry. In an overstocked marketplace, businesses can no longer crank out pallets of identical widgets. They must create customized, intriguing, even beautiful products, services and experiences. How do you do this? You need employees who possess not only technical ability but also a sense of curiosity, aesthetics and, yes, joyfulness.

In other words, to make it in the emerging economy, we will have to do things that software can't do faster and that overseas knowledge workers can't do more cheaply. In addition, what we produce must also satisfy the growing consumer demand for products and services infused with emotion, spirituality and artistry.

As the information age matures, eat-your-spinach skills are still necessary, but they are no longer sufficient. The abilities that matter more are turning out to be the abilities that are also fundamental sources of human gratification. And that's good news for many intrinsically motivated (but sometimes parentally discouraged) professions. Indeed, more Americans already work in art, entertainment and design than work as lawyers, accountants and auditors.

To be sure, this new labor market is not a land in which every person will be able to pursue a passion and instantly arrive at a fat paycheck. Still, we may finally be at the point where we can tell freshly minted graduates: Look, it's a rough world out there. There's only one way to survive. Do what you love.

Daniel H. Pink is the author of "A Whole New Mind: Moving From the Information Age to the Conceptual Age."

September 09, 2005 5:53 AM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

Men Not Working, and Not Wanting Just Any Job

August 01, 2006 11:59 AM  
Blogger Richard Wolfe said...

"A man who could not find steady work came up with a plan to make it through the next few years until he could collect Social Security..."


October 13, 2006 5:51 AM  

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