The approach of another Labor Day finds Americans more seriously concerned about the subject of work and workers than in many years. Although the current economic recovery has reduced the official unemployment rate from 10.8 percent to 9.5 percent, there is no sense of smugness about the future on the part of anyone who understands what we face.
Whether it was television correspondent Edwin Newman in an impressive NBC News documentary last week, journalist Robert Kuttner in a powerful and disturbing Harper's magazine article in July, economist Barry Bluestone in a raptly followed talk at the National Conference of State Legislatures early in August, or the AFL-CIO executive council in an August report on "The Future of Work" --my impression is that almost wherever I turn, this topic of work and workers is finally receiving the attention it deserves.
All of them are saying America and its workers face two major challenges in the decade ahead. Even if the recovery continues, we can expect a higher level of unemployment-- a shortage of 4 million to 6 million jobs-- than we have endured since the Great Depression. Equally troubling, the technological changes taking place in the economy, par- ticularly the spread of computers, robots and microprocessing, are compounding, not easing, the severe loss of the high-pay skilled and semi-skilled production and lower- level management jobs that now provide the bulk of the middle-class incomes in America. 6 The first point is generally understood, though neither party's politicians like to dwell on it. Partly for demographic reasons, partly because of shifts in the domestic and global economy, each of the five recession-recovery cycles in the past 13 years has left us with a higher base of unemployment than the one before.
Democrats like to blame all the current jobless miseries on Reaganomics; Republicans like to pretend that the Reagan recovery will make it all disappear. The truth is that there has been a secular trend to ever-higher levels of unemployment under governments of both parties. That trend is likely to continue through the decade, unless far more sweeping policy changes are made than anything attempted so far.
Less well understood until recently are the forces that are operating to split the labor market into two unequal halves: providing more challenging, more rewarding jobs for a few highly trained and highly skilled people, and less fulfilling, lower-paying jobs for the large majority of workers.
That prospect has been camouflaged by all the talk about "high-tech," and the implication that "high-tech" translates directly into high-pay, high-interest work. It does not, almost all the authorities agree. There are not that many new "high-tech" jobs likely: perhaps 600,000 in the remainder of the decade, according to the AFL-CIO's estimate. Many of those represent low-skilled repetition assembly jobs, the kind that are being transferred to low-wage foreign countries.
Meanwhile, the categories of jobs that the experts see as the fastest growing in this decade include janitors, clerks-secretaries, food- service workers, hospital attendants and the like--all traditionally low-pay, dead-end occupations. This suggests a rich man/poor woman economy, because many of the new jobs are likely to be filled by women, who will, according to the AFL-CIO study, provide two of every three additions to the work force for the remainder of this decade.
The political and social tensions that can be generated by this two-track pattern are bad enough. But they are compounded by the loss of income and middle-class status of the middle-aged males, who are being displaced by the decline of jobs in such traditionally high-paying industries as steel, autos and machine tools.
The trends are real, but the outcome is not predetermined. Kuttner argues that unionism itself can be part of the solution: that organizing the unorganized in the growing clerical and service categories can push up wages to preserve the number of needed middle-class jobs.
But given the current weakness of the unions, the availability of surplus workers and a large stream of immigrants, and the option of moving jobs overseas, organizing the unorganized cannot be anything but difficult. Chances are that the solution will have to involve more basic changes in the length of the workweek, the gradations between part-time and full-time jobs, and the distinction between management and labor functions.
Almost certainly, it will require revision of our concept of the relationship between education and work. A part of workers' pay in the future will probably be time-credits for further education, as a stepping-stone to better jobs.
All that one can say as we approach this Labor Day is that the country has at last begun to think about these needs. And not a day too soon.