As the financial crisis of 2008 edged into 2009 and beyond, the job market looked bleaker than it had been in decades - possibly since the Great Depression of the 1930s. College graduates couldn't find jobs. Neither could factory workers, office toilers, folks with professional degrees and licenses, or even thoroughly-experienced skilled workers.
How can this be? Why can't the richest nation in the world (a status that might not last much longer) keep all of its people employed?
Despite the seeming inability of economists, political leaders, business analysts and sundry experts to come up with believable reasons, much less solutions, the answer is actually quite simple: There aren't enough worthwhile jobs for everyone. As the system currently functions, there aren't even enough marginal jobs for every person who wants one, or needs one. For rewarding jobs that pay a living wage, forget it.
This isn't a new phenomenon. Far from it. The seeds of this disastrous course have germinated for years, as the logistics of work changed, while the system that provides workers failed to keep pace. As a result, the number of people who'd like to be working but can find nothing continues to escalate. The financial debacle has merely added fuel to a fire that was already well-stoked.
Saying there aren't enough jobs definitely does not mean there aren't enough tasks to be done. In fact, the nation's infrastructure, the public's health and social welfare, are approaching crisis status. Help is needed, not tomorrow or next year, but immediately. Yet, the system is unable to organize all those activities into a logical and cohesive structure - one that takes into account the tangible abilities, valuable experience, useful intentions, and true desires of the people who might be able to accomplish those tasks.
Clearly, an entirely new approach is needed, to reevaluate what constitutes work, and how undone tasks might be appropriated fairly and usefully. Don't expect movement in that direction anytime soon, though. Despite its deficiencies, the current relationship of employers and employees is so tautly established, so firmly entrenched, that it would probably take a disaster to loosen its grip.
Then again, the national and global financial calamity that started in 2008 just might evolve into the disaster that triggers real change.
Until that happens, and we can start to look at work with fresh insights, tangible steps could be taken to make a difference in the short-term. Step One should be obvious, yet has failed to establish a worthy foothold. In a world where computers can help organize all sorts of trivial information and coordinate so many aspects of daily life, why aren't they being used intensively to match people with needed tasks?
Thus far, little more than baby steps have been taken. Sure, the Internet has made it possible for people to apply to dozens, hundreds, thousands of potential employers in an instant. But it hasn't altered the basic principles of evaluating and hiring. Full-scale computerization could send people onto truly compatible careeer paths, with considerably less fuss than the usual hit-or-miss methods. It could correlate people who have specific skills, knowledge, desires, and interests with organizations that have equally specific needs.
Even more important, intensive usage of the Internet, including imaginative expansion of the social networks, could make it possible to provide work to people who need money right now - not tomorrow, not at the end of the pay period, but today. Especially in difficult economic times, plenty of people with tangible skills and experience are out there, in dire need of some earnings. Many lost their jobs months, even years, ago. They may have given up looking for a replacement position. But their needs haven't shrunk at all; if anything, they've increased.
Look around, and you see how manhy jobs are now being done - at least partly - using computers. Does everyone engaged in such tasks have to be present in a physical office, showing up each morning at 9:00 and leaving at 5:00? Of course not. Countless duties could be performed by high-tech temporary labor - by people with skills, who are currently out of the traditional job market, whether by choice or chance.
Apologists for the sysgtem might respond that plenty of workers are now doing their jobs from home, at least part of the time. True enough; but that's just a tiny beginning, compared to what's feasible. Those wo do them are still hired (and fired) in the time-honored manner, paid in the long-established way, and scrutinized carefully by their supervisors, whether physically present or not. What should matter is the end result: either it's correctly done or it's not. Instead, tradional work patterns continue to emphasize the milieu of work, more than the successful achievement of it.
Whenever a project can be broken up into separate tasks, each of those could conceivably be assigned to a person who has no career plans, who threatens no one's job security or longevity, who wants nothing more than to complete the task at hand and be paid for it - right away, not at some future date.
What's the biggest obstacle? Beyond the obvious logistical issues to laying out work assignments in such a way, the big barrier is bosses. They want to exercise their cherished right to stand over each and every worker. This couldn't happen if work tasks were spread out.
As an example, Task A might be done in-house, in the usual way, by a career worker. Task B could be accomplished at home, by a stay-at-home mom or dad who needs the money and wishes to exercise formerly-learned skills. Task C might be in the hands of a student, working at an Internet cafe, eager to put in a few hours of even tedious computer work, in order to be rewarded with some much-needed cash. Task D could be done by a fellow who lost his job months ago, is down to nothihng, but willing and eager to sit at a computer - perhaps in a public library or other institution -- in order to earn money to survive another day.
Of course, there's one additional obstacle: the Internal Revenue Service. Even though the amounts involved would be small, tax agents aren't likely to overlook the possibility that some of these quickie workers might not pay the appropriate income tax for their earnings.
Note: The complete story of New Ways To Look at Work will be posted soon. The text above is intended as a sample.