Preface: Like most essays in this group, this one was initially written long before the 2020 pandemic and lockdown. In addition to the public health aspect, that crisis resulted in tens of millions of workers losing their jobs, at least temporarily, over a period of several weeks. These opinions also appeared online prior to the election of Donald Trump, who presented himself as a champion of the working class, but whose administration has shown greater inclination to lavish favors upon the wealthy and well-connected.
This essay will be updated when the Covid-19 pandemic begins to ease, to reflect its impact upon workers, both medically and economically. Meanwhile, we are among those who predict that in the months and years ahead, work is going to look a lot different.
All too often, Toil Is Trouble. On both a personal level and in global scale, the reality of work barely resembles what we learned about in school - if anything about labor was taught at all, that is, in the early grades.
Layoffs by the thousands dot the TV news reports almost nightly. Corporate cutbacks are everyday occurrences. Small businesses, too, have felt the pinch of economic fright, holding back on hiring and seeking helpful ways to slash costs. Even when cutbacks aren't economically urgent, companies are reducing labor costs anyway, just in case the expected recovery is slower than hoped.
As a result, even according to the conservative estimates issued by the federal government, job losses are likely to continue - and worsen - into the foreseeable future. Even if unemployment stays below the 10 percent figure that arrived late in 2009, without rising further, it spells greater uncertainty and fear. As most experts believe, too, the actual unemployment figure - factoring in people who would be willing and able to work, but are currently uncounted by the Department of Labor - is far higher.
Thoroughly experienced workers search feverishly and fruitlessly for jobs. Often as not, they soon find themselves lowering their sights in response to each rejection or non-response. Young people with diplomas - even advanced degrees - are unsought and unwanted. Folks nearing retirement age are increasingly likely to be shoved out the door at age 60 or even earlier, often losing at least part of their anticipated benefits from a lifetime of work. For many, if not most, pensions were already a relic of the distant past.
Jobs continue to go overseas, where salaries are lower. A lot lower, tempting corporate functionaries who keep a careful eye on the bottom line. Unions are even more powerless than before, their leaders aware that struggles for wage hikes and improved conditions fall flat when so many Americans have no job at all, and no prospects worth mentioning.
Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong. Yet, it's nothing new. Even before the financial crisis that began in late 2008 and continued through 2009, remedies devised to shore up the labor market had been largely puny and inconsequential. Few came even close to addressing the real issues. All too often, attempts to improve worklives are largely Band-Aids, applied gingerly to a system that's hemorrhaging heavily.
Those issues, as it happens, aren't complicated at all. But because they threaten the status quo, and defy conventional wisdom about the worthiness of work, experts and observers alike typically fail to see the forest as they focus on single trees - or shrubs - one after another.
If America and the industrialized western world are going to succeed - or even survive - into mid-century, we simply must recognize how dramatically the world of work and employment has changed over the past half-century. Today's dilemma is nothing like the situation in the 1950s or '60s, when jobs were plentiful, companies were likely to keep their promises, and career goals made sense. Those days are long gone, and won't be returning.
Workers on career paths, or hoping in vain to climb aboard, are only part of the picture. Almost invariably overlooked are people who fail to find work even in good times:
Those who don't fit into conventional work patterns, and who - despite available "training" programs - never will become traditional wage-earners.
Workers who detest - or at least dislike - their jobs, but stick it out indefinitely due to the need for income and, especially, fear of losing health-care benefits.
Untold numbers who might not hate their jobs, but (if they can admit it to themselves) would much rather be doing something else; or quite possibly, engaged in nothing currently defined as "work." They, too, are working for money but little else.
What we need is a totally new way of looking at work and all that's involved in seeking, obtaining, and holding employment. We also must reconsider, logically and without prejudice, the plight of those who reside outside the mainstream, and will never be drawn in voluntarily. Once developed, this awareness has to be followed by big adjustments, not episodes of tinkering.
During the teens, the burgeoning "gig econom," led by organizations such as Uber, was thought to be a valuable, if only partial, soluton. For many, it is: specifically, those who aren't addicted to a steady income and prefer the flexibility of working outside the traditional system, paid for what's achieved rather than issued a weekly, or monthly, fixed wage.
In the months preceding emergence of the virus, a number of studies revealed the fast-growing gig-work system, whereby independent contractors take the place of conventional employees, typically forgoing benefits in exchange for the real or perceived perk of occupational freedom, has a troubling set of its own pitfalls.
The purpose of the essays in Toil & Trouble is straightforward: to analyze what's happened, explain what's wrong (in our view), and most important, point out how the world of work could be, to the ultimate benefit of all. As much as possible, we hope to provide a stimulus to fresh thinking, stretching beyond ordinary boundaries and opinions as to who belongs where, who should be working, and who would be better off idle.
A tall order, true. But after more than three decades of writing about cars, we're ready to take on a subject that's ultimately far more vital to the future of American life and culture. We hope you find some food for serious thought - and more important, action - within these forthcoming essays and commentaries about toil.
Much of what appears in this space wil soon be published in book form, under the title Work Hurts: Reflections on a wasted life.