Sunday, July 05, 2009

Q: What happens when work goes away?

A: Society goes insane

No doubt about it, the bubble's blown and payment is due. Without a moment's thought I can come up with three friends that are out of work.

It seems as if every Saturday the number of people trying to resell old clothes, VHS players and tattered furniture along that stretch of block on Venice Blvd, just west of Sawtelle is getting bigger. The sellers are people that used to work in kitchens, haul lumber at job sites, trim trees and do light assembly in local plants. The work that they did was provided by an economy that was based on funny money. And that money is long gone and it ain't never coming back; neither are those jobs.

So this where we ended up. It's like some scene out of Metropolis where the cream of society dress in white and live far up high in the clouds. The laborers dress in black and everyday march into the bowels of the earth in a eerie lockstep to man the gears of industry. Sort of like working on the line in what used to be GM. Only now they march in lockstep to the unemployment line, food stamp office or, if INS status is wanting, the nearest border.

The sad fact is that, for a variety of reasons, more and more people will be unable to participate as wage earners in the modern economy. We've moved way beyond the value of labor being the brawn of one's body. And, that taking advantage of entrepreneurial opportunities in most situations comes with a need for significant amounts of capital means that you can kiss goodbye the notion of starting an empire by selling oranges on the side of the road and reinvesting the profits. Fact is, the only viable side of the road to be had has 4 lanes in each direction with a name that starts with the letter "I", as in I95 and I80. Mickey D, Pizza Hut and Burger King tied those locations up a while ago.

Besides the important aspect of providing money to put food on the table, work organizes one's self and one's society. Ever since being ejected into the world, we've had agents that have organized our sense of self. When we were infants our parents held us and talked to us, even before we could figure out what they were saying. The subliminal message was,"You exist, you exist". We needed the ongoing message for our identity to emerge.

Then as we got older, regularity set in. Most of us had a specific meal time and bedtime. Then it was time to go to school. Our week became organized. School was soooo boring. But, as much as we hated it, the structuring of time further enhanced our sense of self and brought predictability to our world.

After school, we went to work. For some of us who were lucky enough, our life had meaning. But no matter what, just about all of us had structure. The notion of being without ego was kept far away. If we had no internal sense of existence, then that was easily provided by the alarm clock going off each morning.

But what about those of us that didn't have the parent telling us that we existed, the predictable meal and bed time and all the external structures that take a blob of undefined identity and evolve it into a mature human being? What's happens to these people?

Well, if the world won't on its own provide the structure required to differentiate, then these type of people force the world's hand. They injure themselves in public view. They'll get caught for a grand or petty crime that ends up having time structured for them: jail. In some cases they'll just join the military.

The human psyche needs structure.

Which brings us to work. Here's the deal. All the talking heads are saying that we are going to have significant unemployment for a long time, maybe forever. It takes a lot of smarts to participate in the modern economy. After a while the UPS packages will figure out how to deliver themselves and all the movie theaters will be in your house, even the 3D ones. We won't need drivers or ushers.

The birth rate might go down. But, without birth control in the water supply that's debatable. So there is a good possibility that we'll have a lot of people sitting around with no place to go, without need of an alarm clock. The external structures that reinforce ones sense of self will diminish. An ego without identity is an ego in panic.

Then as far fetched as it might sound, if the unemployment rate is high enough, for long enough, society just might go insane.