Public Comment

Structural Unemployment

By Phil McArdle
Thursday February 25, 2010 - 09:07:00 AM

The current recession is having a cruel impact on American workers. Experts say it is unrealistic to hope the “structural unemployment” rate will drop below 10 percent in the near future; some think it may go higher. This is akin to saying unemployment is an insoluble problem. It means that our rich, technologically advanced economy cannot provide jobs for 10 percent of the population, and that the hopes and aspirations of millions will be put on hold indefinitely, blighted or destroyed. 

We are in this fix for a lot of reasons. The politics of the billionaires (“the malefactors of great wealth,” as FDR called them) have a lot to do with it, of course, and they should be taxed until their eyeballs bulge with apoplectic rage. 

But the computer revolution is also a contributor. In many industries automation has done away with limits on production, almost divorcing it from individual effort. This is one of the reasons we have a steadily diminishing number of jobs. Back in the dark ages, when computer science was still called cybernetics, an automated factory in England staffed by two workers produced enough light bulbs to meet England’s needs for a year. Previously, hundred of workers were needed to achieve such a result. That was considered progress. It wasn’t clear then that the need for fewer workers would eventually cause an overall excess labor supply. Now, when automobile plants (to use but one example) can be fully automated, we know. 

As things are, we have a permanent oversupply of labor. We will have to recognize that the problem of our age is not the alienation of the individual from work but the need to provide work for people who have been made “superfluous” by technology. 

To solve the problem of “structural unemployment” and prevent the suffering it causes, I believe we need a real full employment policy, with all the changes that implies. Complicated reforms will be needed to implement it. 

One essential reform is to change the structure of the work week. This is one of unemployment’s less visible causes because we take the work week for granted and don’t see it. But it is real: if the work week were shorter, the economy would have to provide more jobs to maintain productivity at current levels. 

The 40-hour week is a custom. It is not immutable. Once upon a time—and not so long ago—most men, women and children worked fifteen hours a day Monday through Friday, with a half day off on Saturday. We can decide to make the thirty or thirty-two hour work week a norm. 

Such a reform would require safeguards for the workers. Salaries would have to be protected so that employees continue to be paid living wages. Overtime would have to be eliminated as a normal operating procedure. When more work is needed, more workers should be hired. All the conventional benefits—seniority, health care, retirement, etc.—should be paid to part-time workers. This would apply to everyone from part-time supermarket clerks to nurses on grants and graduate students acting as teaching assistants. 

Another reform would be to make government the normal employer of last resort, no matter where the economy is in the boom-or-bust cycle, which is intrinsic to capitalism. This should be as conventional and completely accepted as Social Security. There is always useful, creative work to be done outside the private sector. About this, we can still learn from the WPA. Workers in government service, for whom there was no employment in private industry, created such lasting local civic ornaments as the Oakland Rose Garden, the Berkeley Rose Garden and the Woodminster Amphitheater. This work did not appear to be commercially profitable, but it produced results of priceless social value. 

A third reform would be to lower the retirement age, pegging it at twenty years of work or fifty or fifty-five years, whichever came first. This would automatically make work available for young people and lengthen the lives of older people. The current proposals from the right to raise the retirement age are profoundly reactionary and wrong-headed. 

These reforms would probably be enough to save capitalism as we know it. After all, lots of people who have been made redundant by the technological revolution used to be consumers. We should never forget Henry Ford’s answer to accusations that he spoiled his workers by paying them too much: “I pay salaries that enable my workers to buy my products.” No one can be a consumer who is not first a worker. But, more than that, no one can be a fully mature human being who has not done useful work. 

We need to teach politicians what full employment really means and how important it is. One way to bring this to their attention is by translating it into political terms—electing those who support it and defeating those who oppose it. 



Phil McArdle is currently working on a book about Sidney Howard, the American playwright and screen writer.