Friday, August 29, 2014

How Can We Be "Found" in America? An Imaginary Conversation with Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni (this and everything below from “Lost in America,” The New York Times, August 25, 2014):  More and more I’m convinced that America right now isn’t a country dealing with a mere dip in its mood and might. It’s a country surrendering to a new identity and era, in which optimism is quaint and the frontier anything but endless.

James B. Huntington:  Yes, the country is in a new era.  It is called Work’s New Age, in which the number of jobs will never again match the number of people who want them.  Actually it’s been going on for a long time, but it’s become obvious only since the Great Recession.  Being unsure you, your loved ones, your friends, and even your countrymen can’t always support themselves, something which Americans knew and counted on since before George Washington was born, makes for persistent pessimism.  

FB:  There’s a feeling of helplessness that makes the political horizon, including the coming midterm elections, especially unpredictable. Conventional wisdom has seldom been so useless, because pessimism in this country isn’t usually this durable or profound.

JH:  Helpless is the word, especially when there isn’t a presidential candidate, or even a House or Senate one I am aware of, who is clearly and forthrightly addressing the jobs crisis.  A few passable employment reports are all it takes, it seems, to put any hints of this great transition on the major media’s back burner.

FB:  Americans are apprehensive about where they are and even more so about where they’re going. But they don’t see anything or anyone to lead them into the light. They’re sour on the president, on the Democratic Party and on Republicans most of all. They’re hungry for hope but don’t spot it on the menu. Where that tension leaves us is anybody’s guess.

JH:  We have a president who sometimes seems to be spread too thin, with too many top priorities, and sometimes seems to be disengaging from everything.  The Democrats have been going for the wrong issues:  gun control, climate change, massive and broad-brush immigration reform, and insinuations that a suburban cop who shot someone he claims was threatening his life embodies the collective thoughts of America’s 280 million non-blacks.  Republicans are continuing to act like the child on the toilet who refuses to do anything, and are deluding themselves that they are getting more and more mass appeal, when, which puts their money where their pixels are, says their chances of winning the presidency in 2016 are 17 to 10 against.  Congress’s approval rating might be lower than Hitler’s.  What on earth is to like?

FB:  Much of this was chillingly captured by a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from early August that got lost somewhat amid the recent deluge of awful news but deserved closer attention.  It included the jolting finding that 76 percent of Americans ages 18 and older weren’t confident that their children’s generation would fare better than their own. That’s a blunt repudiation of the very idea of America, of what the “land of opportunity” is supposed to be about. For most voters, the national narrative is no longer plausible.

JH:  That’s exactly what we’re going through now.  Billy Joel wrote in 1981 that people expected to do as well as their fathers, when before it had always been “better.”  Since then that has got worse, backed up by most people’s lives.  When I get a Milwaukee airport porter telling me in the 2000s, before the recession, that the 1970s were “the good times,” that means we aren’t moving forward, even if our phones are slicker and our computers faster.  I wasn’t kidding when I put in large letters on the back of Work’s New Age, three years ago, that “the core American idea has been destroyed.”      

FB:  The poll also showed that 71 percent thought that the country was on the wrong track. While that represents a spike, it also affirms a negative mind-set that’s been fixed for a scarily long time. As the Democratic strategist Doug Sosnik has repeatedly noted, more Americans have been saying “wrong track” than “right track” for at least a decade now, and something’s got to give.

JH:  Nobody can get to 71% without large numbers of both conservatives and liberals, so it’s safe to say that neither side is happy.  But what has to “give,” and when, and why?  The problem we have is that the status quo always seems to roll on. 

FB:  But to what or whom can Americans turn?  In the most recent of Sosnik’s periodic assessments of the electorate, published in Politico last month, he wrote: “It is difficult to overstate the depth of the anger and alienation that a majority of all Americans feel toward the federal government.” He cited a Gallup poll in late June that showed that Americans’ faith in each of the three branches had dropped to what he called “near record lows,” with only 30 percent expressing confidence in the Supreme Court, 29 percent in the presidency and 7 percent in Congress.

JH:  Again, these are bipartisan numbers.  The government is managing to be both too intrusive and too inactive.  If those 70%, 71%, and 93% (!) could agree on anything else, there’d be a revolution, but they don’t, so there won’t be.

FB:  The intensity of Americans’ disgust with Congress came through in another recent poll, by ABC News and The Washington Post. Typically, Americans lambaste the institution as a whole but make an exception for the politician representing their district. But in this poll, for the first time in the 25 years that ABC and The Post had been asking the question, a majority of respondents — 51 percent — said that they disapproved even of the job that their own House member was doing.

JH:  One reason is that representatives aren’t so bad with local issues, but stink on ice with the national ones.  So we get the local parks, land use laws, and balanced county budgets, while we can’t find jobs, are held back by byzantine business regulations, and bumble around in our relations with other countries.  Ted Kennedy, whatever you think of his politics, was about the best senator ever for his constituents – if you had a problem with government, on anything from poor trash collection to getting already-paid bills from the IRS, you called his office and they fixed it.  If it isn’t quite true that all politics is local, as Tip O’Neill used to say, Americans sure seem to believe it – and vote that way.   

FB:  So we can expect to see a huge turnover in Congress after the midterms, right?  That’s a rhetorical question, and a joke. Congress wasn’t in any great favor in 2012, and 90 percent of the House members and 91 percent of the senators who sought re-election won it. The tyranny of money, patronage, name recognition and gerrymandering in American politics guaranteed as much. Small wonder that 79 percent of Americans indicated dissatisfaction with the system in the Journal/NBC poll.

JH:  And those numbers are actually down!  Once was 98%, for House incumbents anyway.  It’s no surprise, then, that the URL is still unassigned.    

FB:  Conventional wisdom says that President Obama’s anemic approval ratings will haunt Democrats. But it doesn’t take into account how effectively some Republicans continue to sully their party’s image. It doesn’t factor in how broadly Americans’ disapproval spreads out.

JH:  We still have the two-party system, where if we don’t like the show on one TV channel we just switch to the other.  It’s not enough to say the Democrats will lose since they have done so badly, without considering what’s on the other station.   

FB:  Conventional wisdom says that better unemployment and job-creation numbers could save Democrats. But many Americans aren’t feeling those improvements. When asked in the Journal/NBC poll if the country was in a recession — which it’s not — 49 percent of respondents said yes, while 46 percent said no.

JH:  Absolutely correct.  We have not been in a recession since 2009.  It feels so much like one because of the permanent jobs crisis, and the 20 million more American jobs which could be quickly absorbed.  The worse news is that when we get a real recession, we will look back on 2010 to 2014 as good times – which they, in a relative sense, truly are. 

FB:  The new jobs don’t feel as sturdy as the old ones. It takes more hours to make the same money or support the same lifestyle. Students amass debt. Upward mobility increasingly seems a mirage, a myth.

JH:  We don’t need to “feel” that the positions now are weaker – the data is there.  One-third of new jobs since 2009 have been with temporary help agencies.  American student debt is now over $1 trillion and blew by total credit card debt last year.     

FB:  “People are mad at Democrats,” John Hickenlooper, the Democratic governor of Colorado, told me. “But they’re certainly not happy with Republicans. They’re mad at everything.” That’s coming from the leader of a state whose unemployment rate is down to 5.3 percent.

JH:  That’s just the point, and Colorado certainly has both, along with a shortage of about 200,000 jobs, lowish official unemployment or not. 

FB:  And it suggests that this isn’t just about the economy. It’s about fear. It’s about impotence. We can’t calm the world in the way we’d like to, can’t find common ground and peace at home, can’t pass needed laws, can’t build necessary infrastructure, can’t, can’t, can’t.

JH:  Not many public issues can evoke fear and impotence as much as being unsure if you can get another job if you lose your current one.  And as long as Democrats continue to pursue their most partisan issues, and Republicans refuse to go along with even inherently conservative Democratic proposals, large numbers of people will maintain those feelings.

FB:  In the Journal/NBC poll, 60 percent of Americans said that we were a nation in decline. How sad. Sadder still was this: Nowhere in the survey was there any indication that they saw a method or a messenger poised to arrest it.

JH:  That’s what politicians are supposed to do.  Authors, bloggers, and columnists can yack forever about what should be done, so there is no shortage of ideas, even neutral or centrist ones, but that is not enough.  It’s too optimistic to ask for much along those lines from the fall elections, but it’s not excessive to expect at least one 2016 major-party presidential candidate to advocate some real bipartisan action and changes, by throwing off extreme beholdenness to their political base.  In many ways, such as technological progress, life expectancy, and, yes, personal safety, America is not declining at all, just governmentally tied up in knots.  In the meantime, the jobs crisis, as long as it is not addressed in ways both parties can live with, will assure plenty of long-lasting malaise.       

Friday, August 22, 2014

How Careers Stack Up for the Next 20 Years

Last year, I published Choosing a Lasting Career, a book designed to fill the gap between those with occupational personality assessments, such as What Color Is Your Parachute?, and sources on the tactics of getting hired, such as Sweaty Palms.  My thesis was that in order to determine the best careers, we needed to consider not only personal factors such as how much time they would leave for our outside activities, but objective ones such as how resilient they would be in the face of such growing factors as replacement by robots and foreigners. 

The conclusions, at times, were stunning.  While published lists of the most desirable jobs emphasized those with strong current demand, I took a longer view.  In 2033, most recent graduates of college, not to mention high school, will have over 20 years remaining before they turn 65, so the long-term viability of the fields they choose will be critical.  Some careers, such as pharmacy, are doing well now, but, considering the trends toward globalization, automation, and efficiency, along with likely technological improvements and social developments, are almost certain to have vastly smaller demand.  On the other hand, health care aides, while generally low paid, promise to be around for a long time, and also have high rankings on other factors I considered.

In Choosing a Lasting Career, I rated 506 different jobs on seven different factors.  They were local boundness (the chance of a job needing to be done from the same immediate area in 2033), resistance to robotics improvements, resistance to computing and connectivity improvements, the prospects for it paying a good living wage, median pay level, overall quality of working conditions, and compatibility with family life and outside projects.  Assessments on the last four of these I documented and compared but left mostly at that, as they are personal matters.  One man may welcome working with his hands outdoors, while another would prefer to be in an air-conditioned office, and neither is objectively correct.  The first three factors, which are good or bad for everyone regardless of what they want from a job, were incorporated into ratings for each position of Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor. 

Using these evaluations, I assembled average scores for each of what the United States Department of Labor terms “occupation groups.”  On a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning all jobs in the occupation group were scored at Poor, and 5 indicating all were Excellent, the 25 groups came out as follows:


Those in the process of determining what career they want to have, or soon to get there, should be aware of several things in particular.

First, the categories of Community and Social Service and Healthcare, though far from consistently excellent, are the standouts for lasting through 2033.  Both benefit from needing to be done in person, with little prospect for replacement by robots or computer systems, along with aging and disadvantaged populations guaranteed to continue needing their efforts.  In Community and Social Service, one of ten specific jobs came out as Excellent (mental health counselors and marriage and family therapists), and ten of 48 in Healthcare achieved the same (audiologists; cardiovascular technologists and technicians and vascular technologists; EMTs and paramedics; home health and personal care aides; massage therapists; nursing aides, orderlies, and attendants; occupational therapists; occupational therapy assistants and aides;  physical therapist assistants and aides; and physician assistants).  By comparison, only eight of the 448 jobs in the other 23 groups achieved that ranking. 

Second, some generally humble fields will be around long after current ones are devastated.  People working in Building and Grounds Cleaning, Personal Care and Service, and Food Preparation and Serving may not be paid well (though, if they become managers or business owners, may well be), but they will be in solid demand for the next 19 years.  Those who think money less of a factor should consider something here.

Third, Computer and Information Technology, regardless of its current flourishing, is in big long-term trouble.  The main problem that will savage this field for Americans is that few people in this area need to be that.  Indians and Russians, especially, already often have the background and skills to succeed at these positions at far lower pay, and it only remains for companies to realize that before putting together entire teams of technicians, most paid less than average corporate secretaries, elsewhere. 

Fourth, while construction, extraction, and production are often considered together, and indeed two of them still are by the Department of Labor, they have completely different long-term prospects.  Jobs in production and extraction look poor long-term, especially because of the threat from robotics and other technology, but construction will flourish, especially in relatively good economic times.  There is a vast difference between the enduring employability of dry-wall specialists, who can count on many things being built that require their skills, and good, experienced manufacturers of almost anything.

Fifth, the same goes for jobs in the sciences, which are generally promising especially in private industry, and positions in mathematics, which suffer from the same problem as those in computer technology.  Math is the same all over the world, and Americans have no monopoly on education in it. 

Sixth, notice the low rankings for Office and Administrative Support, Production, and Military.  During the postwar years, these fields had close to half of American jobs.  Now, all three are in terrible shape.  Keep that in mind when wondering if demand for people in careers can actually go away.

Watch this blog for more posts about the prospects for future careers.  In the meantime, Choosing a Lasting Career is available, among other places, on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. 


Friday, August 15, 2014

The Internet: Another Book Later, What’s Happening With It Economically?

One more volume on the ultimate effects of online activity hit the metaphorical stands last month.

Astra Taylor, a documentary filmmaker, told us, in The People’s Platform:  Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age, why she thinks online attention and influence are illusory.  She reiterated, and in some cases expanded on, the problems pointed out by Jaron Lanier in last year’s Who Owns the Future?, especially that of millions of content producers paid nothing or next to nothing while a few tycoons get billions, mostly for running advertising along with it.  In those, and in her other Work’s New Age-related observations in the first chapter (to the point where she even mentioned one-way business efficiency as well as globalization and automation as a cause of declining employment), she was right. 

As a solution, Taylor favored, in effect, nationalization of Facebook, Google, and the like, and vastly greater government control of the Internet.  In that, she was wrong.  Unless you are on the far left of the political spectrum, you will agree that government is not well suited to controlling extremely fast-moving, inherently exceptionally entrepreneurial, enterprises.  Yet many of the points she makes on the way to that end are salient.        

So, from both books and beyond, what can we say about the economic effects of online resources?

First, since the Internet has become established, there have been more opportunities for artists, writers, and other content creators to get what looks like publicity, but fewer for them to make significant money.  While some online venues do pay something, it rarely approaches that from full-time work, even at the minimum wage.  Taylor provided one stunning example, of a musician needing to have over 47,000 plays by users of Spotify to match the profit once gathered from selling one long-playing record.  (At that rate, an album as financially successful as a platinum-seller in the age of vinyl would need to be listened to the equivalent of six times by every person in the world.)  One reason for such poor remuneration is the huge supply of content, with, for example, over one million blogs maintained and over one million books published each year by Americans alone.

Second, this volume of content providers means their increased publicity is indeed an illusion.  Their work may be in plain sight, but it is effectively hidden among a vast forest of others.

Third, while ever more people are working full-time at creative endeavors, far fewer of their de facto jobs are meaningfully paid.  In 1976, futurist Herman Kahn addressed the problem of the next phase of work, after extraction, manufacturing, and services, and concluded it would be “quaternary,” or people doing things for their own sake.  It seems this prediction has come true, without it being noticed, as so many authors, other writers, singers, musicians, video producers, painters, and so on are in effect doing just that.

Fourth, making creative products has never been so decentralized, yet revenue from them has never been so centralized.  Lanier wrote about one of the most watched You Tube contributors, with over one billion video views, earning about $200,000 per year.  That is certainly good money, but when considering she is in the best-paid five or so out of hundreds of millions, it isn’t impressive at all, and, after seeing that half of American physicians earn more, it becomes an indictment of the level of prosperity the digital economy is actually bringing.  As Lanier estimated that fewer than 1,000 musicians – a number dwarfed by those playing for symphony orchestras in many individual states – are earning what could be called a living by selling their work online, it is clear that there are not many on the Internet in the middle income range either.                      

Fifth, an ever-increasing number of people, having become aware of the economic facts above, are, instead, working toward careers assisting content providers.  In the writing world they are publicists, editors, book designers, “book shepherds,” and a plethora of other advisors.  As with content providers, though, there are just too many of them, so the vast majority gets nowhere or almost nowhere.

Sixth, the amount of online advertising on popular sites is increasing dramatically, not only year by year but month by month.  Compare the number of banner ads, pop-up messages, and now even auditory sales pitches you come in contact with on eBay, Facebook, and The Huffington Post, just to name three.  If users are reaching saturation, the sites’ managements have not shown that they know that, and most likely the amount of advertising, an issue Taylor also discussed, will double, triple, or quadruple within the next year or two. 

Seventh, and most disturbing, the great bulk of money most Americans have and earn is from pre-digital sources, namely from producing and selling tangible things in the past and present.  The online economy, for most users, is not only cashless but moneyless, with little of it changing hands.  Yet the work people put into their creative efforts is as real as ever.  So, the United States, ready or not, is already moving from paying service jobs to nonpaying quaternary ones.  How will we deal with that?          

Friday, August 8, 2014

Unusual Jobs – Opportunities Outside the Mainstream

Not all work is in a factory, an office, a retail store, or some other typical place.  There is a surprising number of jobs, doing tasks that must be completed by live people, that are often overlooked, as they are advertised poorly if at all, are at seasonal or irregular times, or are just plain seldom considered by those who want employment.  The book Odd Jobs:  How to Have Fun and Make Money in a Bad Economy, written by Abigail R. Gehring and issued by Skyhorse Publishing in 2012, is a compendium of such possibilities.  What are some of the most promising ones?

If you are in or near a city, and enjoy riding a bicycle in traffic, you could become a bike messenger.  They are still in demand in densely populated places – you will see many if you live in or visit New York City – and pay about $5 to $15 per delivery. 

With the aging population, there is a lot of demand for elderly care.  Many people need someone not necessarily medically trained to help them with cooking, bathing, going to the store, or just companionship.  It usually pays from $9 to $25 per hour.

As the highest paying work is concentrated into fewer and fewer people, the call for personal shoppers is up.  These people handle the process of buying things – going to stores (or searching online), choosing what is needed, and bringing it back.  This job can involve getting anything from flooring to preschooler’s birthday presents, and, with experience and reputation, can pay as much as $100 per hour. 

Renaissance fairs are common around the country, and are often very labor-intensive, with people needed to serve food, take tickets, run or supervise carnival rides, and so on.  Often these positions are overlooked, since they only run for a week or two, but can offer a lot of paid hours in a short time.  The same general idea applies to a variety of other outdoor events.

On the subject of long hours in short times, one of the best, if you are there or willing to travel there and are in fine physical condition, is being a deckhand in an Alaskan commercial fishing crew.  The seasons are short and pay remarkably high.  The smell of all that fish is offset by, often, lodging being provided.

Another opportunity often including a free room is resort receptionist.  Such jobs, if foreign, often pay less than the American minimum wage, but can come with perks such as being able to use the resort’s amenities, and even meals.  Other positions at relatively isolated vacation spots often include the same.     

If you love skiing, you could consider being a ski lift operator.  It pays, usually, $7 to $9 per hour, and gives you easy access to skiing yourself during off hours.  However, the largest disadvantages, as Gehring names them, are “cold,” “cold,” and “sometimes very cold.”

Another opportunity requiring temporary relocation is FEMA reservist.  Such people work for the government’s disaster relief agency and must be able to go to the site where they are needed on short notice.  There they may be paid anywhere from $9 to $35 per hour, depending on work specialty, and are usually put up in the best rooms available with money allowed for food as well.  The downside is that reservists are required to be on call, for at least parts of the year, and will not be paid if there is no work.

Although regular positions at elementary and high schools, with high entry requirements, are in great demand nationwide, there is an ongoing need for substitute teachers.  As with FEMA reservists, the calls may be on short notice.  It usually pays $50 to $75 per day, and requires some training from the local school district. 

The holiday season, now only a few months away, offers a variety of opportunities even more irregular than short-term cashiers or shelf-stockers.  Some are Christmas tree decorator, gift wrapper, and playing Santa or Mrs. Claus.  Temporary help agencies have some of them, and others are arranged through stores, malls, or through calling prospects. 

These are just a few of the less ordinary possibilities for bringing in money.  Odd Jobs has many more, including numerous business opportunities, and the book is an entertaining read, especially if you might consider a wide range of offbeat engagements.  Even with globalization, automation, and efficiency cutting the need for workers, there are still a lot of things that need to be done here by humans – and that won’t change for a while yet.

Friday, August 1, 2014

AJSN Over 20 Million on Seasonally Higher Unemployment, Little General Improvement

I said yesterday evening to my wife, the stock market expert in our household, that right then was a good time to buy, since the Dow had sewered yet it almost always liked the federal jobs report, and this one rated to be quite similar to those recent.  I don’t know yet about my stock market prediction, but the jobs report one succeeded. 

The best news this morning’s Employment Situation Summary had was the same as for months – the past six of them, in fact.  The number of seasonally adjusted net new jobs exceeded that needed for population growth as it has since and including February – this time it was plus 209,000.  The official unemployment rate, though, broke its four-month stretch of being lower or the same by edging up to 6.2%, unadjusted unemployment climbed from 6.3% to 6.5%, and the unadjusted number of people officially jobless was up over 400,000 to just over 10.3 million.

The American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, the measure of how many more United States jobs could be quickly filled if getting them were routinely easy, went over 20 million for the first time since February.  More than its gain was explained by the count of those recorded as unemployed, as those reporting they wanted work but did not search for it were off almost 100,000 and the number of people not wanting a job at all dropped 300,000.  In all, the AJSN increased 306,000, as follows:


The most important secondary measures of employment were mixed and unchanged.  A total of 3.2 million Americans were officially jobless for 27 weeks or more, up 100,000, and the number working part-time for economic reasons, meaning they wanted a full-time position but couldn’t find it, stayed at 7.5 million.  Civilian labor force participation rose from 62.8% to 62.9%, and the employment to population ratio held at 59.0%.

The AJSN’s improvement over the past year decreased significantly from that in June, but is still almost 1.5 million lower, with latent demand from those officially unemployed, down 1.6 million, being the main story.  The count of people in the armed forces, in institutions, and off the grid or otherwise lost to statistics, though, is now 2.8 million higher than it was in July 2013. 

So where are we now?  The United States job situation seems to be settling into a non-recession pattern, with good job gains combining with people slowly and irregularly leaving the labor force to produce deceptively strong improvements in the unemployment rate.  If the economy is truly healing, it is doing so sluggishly, and is as susceptible as ever to a downturn.  How long can it continue?  Indefinitely, perhaps.  Turtles can walk for a long time, even if they threaten to move, instead, at the pace of snails.