on working in America

Is making a living starting to kill you?

What do you think about your work life? Is it still working for you?

I keep wanting to blog about work, but work keeps getting in the way. And as it does, the headlines roll towards us, faster and faster. Out-of-work Occupiers. Cities, states, and countries going bankrupt. People getting screwed out of their pensions.

According to Herman Cain and his ilk, we’re not working hard enough.

I’ve been self-employed since 2002, which means I’m used to riding the work flow roller coaster (the ability to survive through work feasts and famines). I know what it’s like to hustle to make ends meet. Lately I’ve never been busier. Companies are so understaffed they’re turning to freelance workers like me to fill the gaps. I’m also maniacally persistent about getting gigs. The most successful freelancers are like sharks — you’ve got to keep hunting for your next assignment, otherwise you’re dead in the water.

I started to write this post a month or so before the birth of the Occupy movement, which is in the process of trying to crystallize a cohesive message. And now, the Occupiers are being disbanded, forcefully, by our government. Things are happening so quickly.

Electric Time Co., Medfield, Massachusetts (At Work - The Big Picture - Boston.com, Feb. 20, 2009. AP Photo, Elise Amendola)

Why are some of us totally overburdened with work while others, like many of the Occupiers, desperately look for it? Is it because they have the wrong skills? The wrong education? The wrong connections? A combination of all or none of these things? Are employers just giving up on hiring people full-time altogether? Since I try to limit my exposure to the soul-killing cubicle world as much as possible, I have a different perspective from most 9-to-5ers. I’ve seen this coming for years, and perhaps 2011 is the start of a cataclysmic shift in how we think about work and how we go about it.

As a freelancer, I’ve been particularly fascinated with the way the work world and the world of work has been redefining itself since I became self-employed. When I first started out, (at the start of the post-Internet bubble, post-9/11 economic slowdown) I told myself (and my family) that if things didn’t work out, I’d just go back to a full time job. A full time job was my cushion, my escape route, my Plan B. In my blog post Friends without benefits: the new reality of work, I examined how the full time option is dwindling, fast, for many of us—including those who are employed by one company 40+ hours a week. If that’s the case, what’s next for us white- and blue collar workers?

Those of us who consider themselves lucky to have full time jobs are stressed and stretched to the max; not to mention scared to lose our jobs. When I asked a friend at a bank to come stroll past the Occupy Boston site with me, he said he didn’t want to risk his employer finding out and firing him. People are clinging to their 9-to-5 jobs like a lifeline, even if that lifeline is starting to feel like a noose. Adding to this fear are two more uniquely American crises: housing and health care. These three separate yet interrelated factors help explain why fewer people can move up or on to new opportunities, or why young people can’t get a decent start.

Professor Frank Levy of MIT found that real wages for the average American male high school grads aged 35-44 declined in the years 2000-2005. His study showed that male college grads only saw a three percent increase, which doesn’t cover cost of living increases. Mind you, this is well before the Great Recession of 2008.

It looks like the non-ultra-wealthy among us (the 90-something percent) are screwed if the current economic roller coaster ride continues.

In my blog post Warren Buffett and the Pope, I wrote briefly about America’s staggering level of income inequality. The gap between rich and poor should matter to everyone, even the most wealthy. Why? Well, we all live here, for starters. No one wants their children or grandchildren to live in a run-down, dilapidated third-world country. Even the richest Americans have to leave their gated compounds sometime, and when they do, they drive on the same pot-holed roads and rickety bridges and fly out of the same creaky airports as the rest of us.

There is a trickle-down effect for the quality of Americans’ living standards: their mental and physical health, and their education, all of which impact a host of other things. As Professor Levy notes in his piece,

In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.7%.

And it’s also true that money begets more money over time, as the wealthy pass along their money through inheritance, something very few Americans ever receive—in fact, almost 92% receive nothing when a family member dies. As UC Santa Cruz Professor Bill Domhoff points out in his prescient 2010 piece, Who Rules America: Wealth, Income and Power, the rich have their backs covered, even after they go into the Great Beyond (most likely by First Class):

Actually, ultra-conservatives and their wealthy financial backers may not have to bother to eliminate what remains of inheritance taxes at the federal level. The rich already have a new way to avoid inheritance taxes forever — for generations and generations — thanks to bankers.

Thanks, guys. I’m wondering if there is a middle ground here somewhere. There doesn’t seem to be one politically, at least not at the moment. Which means our country is in serious trouble if we keep doing what we’re doing. We need be more flexible about work: how we hire and fire, and how we manage. We need to alleviate the growing inequality that’s stifling our economy, and that’s feeding the Occupiers and Tea Partiers on both ends of the political spectrum. Be prepared for more social unrest.