Reimagining Work in America

The corona pandemic is now ravaging a part of our economy that is (and has been) in social and economic peril. In the late 1960s, 95 percent of men in the prime working age (25-54) had regular work. In 2018 that percentage had fallen to 86 percent. More seriously, of the 14 percent still out of work, less than 20 percent were looking for work. The rest had given up.

Some observers connect this despair to the opioid crisis. About a million Americans are estimated to use heroin on a regular basis. The single best predictor of opioid use, suicides, alcohol-related deaths, etc. is NOT poverty, it is NOT location (West Virginia versus Maryland), and it is NOT inequality (anger at the “one percent”). It is, rather, the percentage of the local population that is without work (and the absence of hope about work). This is an affliction confined to white men and women without college degrees. Blacks and Latinos seem immune from this condition. Perhaps they are more accustomed to the absence of hope.

But overall, life expectancy in America has fallen three years in a row. This is unprecedented in a modern industrial nation. Only when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 have we seen a drop in life expectancy among industrialized countries.

Work is not just bringing home income. Work is a social activity that bestows prestige, selfregard, meaning, and the satisfaction of being a provider for others. Work is deeply psychological. And work is now a problem—and it was before the current crisis.

That is why I have been so hostile to the disrupters and giggers. They probably destroy as many jobs as they create. Uber and Lyft have devastated the taxi sector in NYC and produced hundreds of suicides among taxi drivers—while flooding the streets of Manhattan with up to 10,000 cars a day, cruising around waiting to be pinged (burning up gasoline in the process). Uber/Lyft have undermined urban bus systems (one of the few well-paid occupations open to minorities). Bus ridership in Madison is down. Guess which socio-economic class depends on busses? What
4 happens when busses disappear? Will the poor use Uber at $12.00 a ride? General Motors once had a bus division to manage the Los Angeles bus system—before undermining that system in order to sell more cars. Once mass transit is gone, it is hard to revive. And the well-off prefer other means of movement.

The world of work in America is now a precarious wasteland and a place of unbelievable stress, anxiety, and dread. This public health crisis will only make it worse.

Consider three graphs. The first shows what has happened to manufacturing employment–while manufacturing output has blossomed (think automation). The second graph shows work as a share of total population (related to my comments above). And the third graph shows total jobs in net new firms since 1993. These are net firms that survive on an annual basis. In this regard, 50 percent of new firms fail within five years. For restaurants, 60 percent of new restaurants fail within five years. The idea that new firms represent salvation for “working people” is a myth.

Most large employers are eliminating jobs as quickly as possible. Have you noticed iPads at Panera and other restaurants? We think it is to help us order more quickly. Panera sees it as a means to replace labor with machines (capital). What will become of clerks? Machines do not get sick. Machines do not ask for time off. Machines make no demands on management.

The changes that will now attend this crisis cannot be known. What is clear is that political anger among the “working poor” is sure to arise. And it will be those who have lost hope who will have the most reason to be angry.

Dr. Daniel Bromley can be contact at

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