Saturday, January 9, 2010


by Richard Crews
Over the past couple of decades there have been enormous changes in the ways we live our lives. All of us--you and me--have come to spend our time, our emotional and mental resources, and our physical energies very differently from the ways we once did (think about it). To a certain extent this is personal and local--age, patterns of health, and social and physical environments shift within us and around us. But to a certain extent these enormous changes are also systemic and cultural; from the pervasiveness, diversity, and power of computers to the political, environmental, and economic vectors of change, it is not just each of us as an individual but all of us as members of various levels of human society who have found ourselves walking in a storm--who experience the world, year by year, as a very different place.

Among other things, this involves our work--the activities by which we contribute to the life experiences of others and (although these may be severely dissociated from the contributions we make) the remuneration or value we receive from the world around us. Not too many decades ago a person had a life-long career (that went along with a life-long home and family). Nowadays it is too obvious for sociologists to bother to note that the average person changes patterns of work activity, of vocation (of "career") several times in the course of a "normal" adult life.

This can be disruptive. As one work activity follows another--whether they mercifully overlap or are separated by margins of unemployment--they often involve different interests, different skill sets, different social patterns, even different locations. In short, they cause us, as individuals, to redefine who we are and what we are doing in the world--what purpose and value we have; how others see us and how we see ourselves.

Although each individual has a personal responsibility (and desire) to manage work-activity transitions as comfortably as possible, the broader community (read "government") has a responsibility too. Social safety nets such as universal health care and unemployment insurance are important; adult-education incentives and retraining opportunities can (and, I believe, should) be built into the tax code and government-grants systems.

True, government can become overly protective and paternalistic and undermine the very social fabric it is trying to strengthen. But this is commonly the design of the system and failure to recognize and support the need for work transitions. The French system, for example, of artificial job security (once hired, it is very hard to fire someone in France) is counterproductive--it inhibits both business flexibility and necessary (in the modern world) worker mobility. Another example: socialized (that is, government) management of business and industry undermines entrepreneurial innovation and initiative, the economic backbone of democracy, and tends to unleash graft, corruption, and mismanagement. But deregulation can be overdone too--as the present Great Recession demonstrates; it tends to unleash (and conceal) antisocial, private greed.

Work transitions (including periods of unemployment) are an inescapable part of modern life. And the government--albeit carefully, thoughtfully--can strengthen and reinforce this aspect of the new social fabric so that it stretches and accommodates change without tearing.