Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Kurt Vonnegut - And Us - On Lives Without Work

The novel was published in 1948, two years after ENIAC, the first programmable digital computer, was created.  The blurb on the cover of the edition I have was written no later than 1971, when computers were still room-sized, and refers to a "totally automated society of the future."  I discovered this book, found it remarkably pertinent, and used it as a source in Work's New Age,  The novel, Vonnegut's first, is Player Piano.  I believe it is still in print.

In Player Piano, Vonnegut dealt with the human side of people not needing to work.  He postulated a future where, because of technology, very few people's production was needed.  His imaginary city, Ilium, was split into three sections - one with the machines that had replaced labor in general, one with the few people needed to control them, and one, Homestead, where the massive majority of people lived.  Homesteaders were typically nominally employed either by the army, which had no weapons, or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, which nominally performed construction projects but in reality required little of its workers.  These former workers and their descendants spent much of their time in bars, playing games, and watching sports, and were totally sustained by the state.  The plot that arose in this dystopia involved people on the Homestead side, helped by some of the engineers, rebelling against the machines, destroying many of them nationwide, to create the need for jobs that would give their lives meaning.  The rebellion is unsuccesful.

This is the problem we face in Work's New Age.  What will people do as they discover their efforts are neither needed nor even wanted?  Community involvement, which seemed weak in Homestead, could provide purpose for many, but would that be enough?  Many can find major life directions in their own projects - building, writing, excellence in games, political volunteering, and a variety of others.  Yet there will be a large number who may seem to those in power to be superfluous.  Will they be maintained, as sort of wildlife, as in Player Piano?   Or will they end up in a scenario that formed the basis of the first Terminator movie, in which the machines and maybe their handlers decide the most effective course for the world involves murdering billions of people? 

These are serious questions.  Perhaps it is premature for us to be asking them, but with the problem - not enough people needed to work any more, and the number growing daily - clear to some and becoming clearer to others - it is not.  Will the United States become a collection of heavily armed enclaves, or a mass of deadly inactivity and disincentive?  We have the power to choose, and we - not to mention the likes of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney - need to start discussing and assessing the choices we will make.  The sooner we do that, the better we will become.     

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Can We Finally Shrink Our Working Hours?

An article in the latest issue of The Atlantic has been getting a lot of attention lately.  It is "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," by Princeton professor and recent State Department director Anne-Marie Slaughter. 

I liked it more than expected.  I had anticipated a diatribe on how women are being cheated by having a lower average income and lower representation in the highest-ranking positions, while being impeded in raising children, while getting little help at home by choosing only men with similar or higher income as life partners (see my letter to the New York Times from ten years ago - http://nytimes.com/2002/04/12/opinion/L12DOWD.html , fourth letter down), and hanging on to the idea that men and women have identical brain arrangements and behavioral and cognitive tendencies - in other words, to blame men for women not being both protected and given not only equal rights but preferential treatment.  I found no such thing.  I saw nothing anti-male at all. 

Slaughter's thesis could be condensed into two points.  First, as it now stands women are never going to reach the statistical achievement levels of men, since they want to be (and to a great extent NEED to be) much more involved with their children, a situation which cannot be completely solved by having a helpful husband.  Second, the solution is for employers to stop requiring large numbers of extra hours, allow more flexible work arrangements, and honestly encourage people, of both sexes, to spend more time with their families.  She also mentioned that "the pursuit of happiness" has become something many hardworking people have found they have lost, and said that men now in their twenties, even at the highest career levels, want more extra time in their lives.

In Work's New Age I gave only one small section to the idea of shorter work hours as a jobs-crisis solution, the main problem with that being employer-based health care, which as a huge per-worker expense encourages job providers to get the most out of each individual employee, thereby paying less for four people working 60 hours per week than for six people putting in 40.  Since then I have felt more strongly about it. 

The case for shorter hours in Why Women Still Can't Have It All works well for men as well.  I speak from experience, when for 15 years of my corporate career I had a sideline business, which consumed 20 to 25 weekly hours on top of my full-time management obligations.  I succeeded, largely because I controlled the times of day (or, usually, night) I worked on the business, and kept it entirely away from my regular job.  Still, I did not directly control the amount of time it took - many a day included a rough 8 or 9 hours in the office, after which I came home to 5 or 6 hours of business work that could not wait.  With many coworkers conspicuously putting in 60 or 65 hours on their main jobs alone, I had no choice but to learn a tremendous amount about efficiency, which became a subject of my professional speeches years later.  Overall, I maintained high performance reviews and an excellent reputation.  One of my bosses told me that he didn't worry about my working usually only 7 to 4, since I got more done in 40 hours than others did in 20 more.  Not all people in similar situations, though, whether limited by children, business efforts, Shabbat or other religious restrictions, or other extensive side projects and obligations, would be allowed to get through as successfully.  When my corporate career wound down I had no feeling that the number of hours I worked was a significant factor, but for many others, especially in billable-hours settings, it would be. 

Can we reduce the amount of time those working spend on the job?  This once-stock future prediction, and subject of the trite-and-true observation that nobody on his deathbed ever wished he'd spent more time in the office, may come to pass someday.  I recommend it, and hope you do too.  As Slaughter also said, "we will properly focus on how we can help all Americans have healthy, happy, productive lives, valuing the people they love as much as the success they seek."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Employers Can't Blame the Workforce

A remarkable number of observers have seen a "skills gap," in which the workers companies want are not available, not appropriately trained, and not suitable for filling their job openings.  As a result, many people have cited the number of unfilled jobs and said that we might not have such a problem with unemployment if only more people were qualified for the openings that often go begging for months or even years at a time.


There are always unfilled jobs.  There are always areas in which someone with the right credentials could get hired, even in the worst of times.  Yet nothing unusual is happening now... on the job applicants' side, that is. 

First, even if every advertised job in America today were filled with someone officially unemployed, the rate would still be about 7% - with no advertised positions at all.  Now that we have the idea of any gap causing our current problem, let's talk about what's happening when people apply for these positions.

Work's New Age Principle #6 holds that job ads no longer mean job hiring.  Standards have changed dramatically over the past ten years.  Almost anyone who looked for work both back then and more recently will remember how required qualifications have increased.  Ads that once had one paragraph, or five to ten bullet points, of required skills or experience now show two or three times that many.  Journalist Megan McArdle wrote in 2010 that "programmer jobs that once demanded anyone with a pulse and a C++ manual now require that you also have at least three years of experience designing websites for a fast food multinational, speak fluent Tajik, and be proficient in hacky sack."  Those seeking employment will see the same ads running month after month, will compare notes with others out of work in the same field, and find that they are not the only qualified ones who applied for these still-advertised position a long time before. 


The chief reason, during the Great Recession, was that business was often so poor that employers could afford to keep positions unfilled.  Since then, though, other causes have surfaced.  In yesterday's Room For Debate column in the New York Times, Peter Cappelli, a Wharton human resources professor, named other reasons, some of which I had published in Work's New Age and some not.  Cappelli said ( http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/07/09/does-a-skills-gap-contribute-to-unemployment/if-theres-a-skills-gap-blame-it-on-the-employer ) that hirers mostly wanted those working at similar jobs elsewhere, and that often they were simply not offering enough money, that not being able to "find the car I want at the price I want to pay does not constitute a car shortage."  He also mentioned "unreasonable" hiring standards, saying that many existing employees could not meet them for their current jobs (more precisely, they would not have been signed on before they got their exact experience by working there).  He then hits the Work's New Age issue of sharply reduced willingness to train people, saying that companies needed to look at the cost of leaving a position unfilled, and that if they couldn't even estimate that, they were "probably paying more attention to purchasing office supplies" than to human resources matters.  Finally, Cappelli correctly calls expecting schools to produce the workers they want without communication about it "a basic supply chain failure," and challenges employers thus:  "If you get through this test and still think there is nothing you can do to address your hiring problems, I’m happy to come out with some work force experts and a newspaper reporter to see if you are right."

I sympathize with employers who get a steady stream of workers lacking basic literacy and work habits, but not with those who expect good people to need neither competitive compensation nor specific training.  If employers loosened their standards, and went back to thinking of their workers more as "human resources" and less as "personnel," they would probably be more profitable in the long run.  And while the jobs crisis would not be greatly improved, more, maybe many more, people would be back to work.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

All Quiet on the Jobs Front... For Now

We haven't heard a lot about jobs lately.

The big news last week was about Obamacare, what the Supreme Court decided, what it means, which side really won, what will happen with the states and their money, and so on.  Some excellent insights on this decision, which was as the Supreme Court is supposed to work, limited to constitutionality. 

The follow-up, though, is looking weak.  Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney made a surprisingly tone-deaf statement that the Court was wrong, that the health reform laws were still unconstitutional.  Even if he is right, he did nothing to appeal to voters in the center, and may even annoy people on the right, since the likes of conservative columnist and commentator Charles Krauthammer have said, in effect, it's over, let's move on.  Krauthammer is correct - with Obamacare decided, right or wrong, we have other things to discuss - starting with jobs.

This Friday the June employment report will be out.  If it shows any kind of improvement over May's, the Obama administration will be talking about the "recovery."  If not, it will be on the defensive and Romney will talk about its failure.  You reading this blog need to know two things.  First, the country needs about 133,000 net new jobs just to break even with population increase, so anything under that is no cause for celebration.  Second, there are still 32 million Americans who want to work full time and are not, a huge hole we need to dig ourselves out of.  Given both of those things, any enthusiasm will need to be very preliminary - and there will probably be grounds for none at all anyway.

As for the candidates, we need comprehensive jobs policies.  We then need people to analyze the proposals and come up with questions.  We need answers to those questions.  We need discussion on what the two sides might trade to reach a settlement.  Then we need to challenge our senators and congressional representatives to implement something.  If they won't act, we need to THROW THE BUMS OUT.

The press will not be silent on the jobs crisis for long.  We are still seeing stories about individual people who are dealing, in different ways, with not being wanted for work.  As the number of such people continues to increase, which it will indefinitely, broader stories will come out.  The issue needs serious attention as much as ever.