GIVE ME DIGNITY OR GIVE ME EMPLOYMENT! This weekend's New York Times had a fascinating piece on the growing number of middle-aged men who are jobless by choice. It's always hard to discern if the anecdotes and quotes chosen for these articles accurately reflect the trends, but assuming they do, it's worrying stuff. The basic outline is that many workers from blue or gray collar jobs who lost their positions in layoffs and bankruptcies are finding it nearly impossible to find subsequent positions offering the same level of dignity and challenge. So a unionized steel workers whose seniority had finally brought him an acceptable level of intellectual engagement and occupational satisfaction is unable to accept a tumble down the occupational ladder into a job that his skill set, rather than his accumulated experience, actually qualifies him for. That's the basic tension here: You can take a man's job, but what if he refuses to subsequently sacrifice his dignity?
�To be honest, I�m kind of looking for the home run,� said Christopher Priga, who is 54 and has not had steady work since he lost a job with a six-figure income as an electrical engineer at Xerox in 2002. �There�s no point in hitting for base hits,� he explained. �I�ve been down the road where I did all the things I was supposed to do, and the end result of that is nil.�
So Priga, rather than take a job at lower pay and less responsibility, is borrowing against his home, living off his savings. The stratagem seemed common amongst the men in the article -- a worrying trend because second mortgages, though offering a nice cash infusion in the near term, eventually do need to be paid back. And if these men aren't finding better positions, they're going to face bankruptcy.
To some degree, this is a result of women entering the workforce. Two-income households have more room for one income to disappear. For that reason, you've seen this trend advancing internationally, with long-term unemployment among men rapidly increasing in both Europe and Japan. But in America, about 60 percent of these men live alone -- the lack of pressure to provide for a family makes the choice to eschew income much easier
But on another level, this is related to the decline of unions, the breakdown of the manufacturing sector, and the shift to a service economy. Where once blue collar jobs offered the sort of benefits and salaries that allowed for a sense of dignity and purpose, a greeter at Wal-Mart is low-skill labor that refuses to masquerade as anything else. That, of course, was the primary use of unions: to force employers to treat even lowly employees as valued labor deserving of respect and all that goes with it. But in a stagnating market where most of the blue collar growth lies in non-unionized sectors, many men simply can't bear to follow their lost job by letting go of the dignity it afforded them. Backing that far up that late in life is a tough pill to swallow, and for many, a retreat into reading, yard work, and savings is, for now, a more attractive option. It is also, however, a more economically dangerous one.
So read the piece. And try to do so without judgment -- these men are making terrible financial decisions in order to forestall worse personal admissions. If the left still possessed a labor consciousness, we wouldn't rest until the service economy offered the dignity and compensation to ensure that the scores of workers who will migrate to its industries in the coming years could do so without grievous psychic damage.