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November 4th, 2009
08:42 PM ET

Our changing relationship with work

Editor's Note: This article continues our series excerpted from AC360°'s contributor David Gewirtz's upcoming book, How To Save Jobs, which will be available in December. Over the next few months, we'll be excerpting the first section of the book, which answers the question, "How did we get here?". Last time, we looked at riots, massacres and the transactional nature of work This time, we'll look at our changing relationship with work. To learn more about the book, you should follow David on Twitter @DavidGewirtz.

David Gewirtz | BIO
AC360° Contributor
Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Publishing

Our relation with work has changed as time passed. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, more and more people lived in cities and areas removed from the land. Individuals became more reliant on buying food and goods rather than growing their own.

America transformed from a tradesman-based economy to one based on the economies of scale factories and industry could produce. The shoemaker, for example, who'd spent years honing his craft and would take weeks to make a pair of shoes, couldn't compete with the industrial age shoe manufacturers that could crank out virtually identical shoes of equal (and sometimes better) quality in mere minutes, and at a fraction of the cost.

For a newly industrialized America, the Great Depression was a one-two punch. Farmers, who were normally relatively self-sufficient, were put out of work due to a man-made occurrence known as the Dust Bowl. But because of the worldwide economic downturn, there also weren't jobs in the cities. Farmers couldn't move to the city to find work, and city dwellers couldn't move to the non-arable open land.

Both of these problems (the economic downturn and the bad land) were man-made. Every school child has been taught about the 1929 stock market crash and the massive bank failures that led to the economic disaster that followed.

But few of us are aware of what caused America's worst man-made disaster.

Because farmers kept deep-plowing in the same land over and over again, without any plan for crop rotation, the land's ability to create grasslands and generate soil-retaining root structures was all but depleted. When a drought hit the Great Plains in the 1930s, soil that should have been able to withstand a drought and prairie winds had nothing to keep it in place. By the end of the crisis, more than half a million people were homeless and more than 2.5 million moved out of the prairie states.

For millions of desperate people looking for the very few jobs still hiring, the power balance was all in the employer's favor. Desperate workers left home and their families, traveling anywhere there were even rumors of open jobs available.

Interestingly, because homes were smaller and people didn't live as long, most displaced families didn't have the option, no matter how undesirable, to move "back home" to Mommy and Daddy. In many cases, neither Mommy nor Daddy was still alive, or their homes were much too small to handle additional residents, or they had been displaced as well.

Of course, there's a disturbing parallel between the Great Depression/Dust Bowl era and what we're living through now, in 21st century America. We've got a devastating downturn in the economy and the potential of global warming, a climatological condition that most scientists believe is caused by us industrially flatulent humans - a condition that many respected scientists fear could become a devastating, world-wide natural disaster. It's something to think about.

World War II changed the calculus of employment demand. A large percentage of the nation's male population was deployed overseas and there was a huge demand for weapons and war material. So many jobs were open and in desperate need of workers, that America's women entered the workforce en masse.

After World War II ended, many American G.I.'s returned to the workforce, but women also remained, working in factories and offices throughout the country. The Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944 (what most people know as the G.I. Bill) initiated a profound change in the American workforce. The G.I. Bill provided for college or trade skill education, a year of unemployment, and low-interest loans for buying a home or starting a business.

Many Americans think the reason the 1950s were boom times was because of all the money spent on the war, fueling industry and jobs. But there is some strong evidence that the real reason the 1950s took off so strongly was because of the "stimulus" provided by a wildly generous (and effective) G.I. Bill.

It was during this post-war period, with many newly former servicemen flush with low-interest loans to buy homes, that our modern-day suburbia was borne. More and more people wanted and had the means - courtesy of Uncle Sam - to buy homes. This meant that more and more houses (and supporting infrastructure) needed to be built. This gave rise to solid employment numbers during a period that would have otherwise experienced an employment crisis due to all those returning servicemen.

And then, there were the Baby Boomers. The Baby Boom was named for its best-known product: lots and lots of babies. The boom times after World War II, coupled with many couples reuniting, and, well, coupling, resulted in a boom in baby birth.

Time would pass and by the 1970s, most of those babies were in the job market. Of course, many of them hit the workforce during the late 1970s gasoline shortage and by the mid-1980s, most Boomers were well into their employment years. But with occasional economic recessions, intense consumer demand, and a whole lot of people competing for a finite pool jobs, getting and keeping a job required serious commitment from employees.

For the Boomers of the 1980s, the power balance had moved back toward the employer.

Next came our current generations of workers, GenXers and beyond. For a while, these kids had it good. Business was booming, there weren't enough employees to go around, and many Americans started to think about things like "work-life balance," and working from home.

For at least a portion of the 1990s, the power balance was no longer with the employer, but the employee. The Internet also became a force, email, instant-messaging, Twitter, Facebook, and social networks all changed the nature of work. I'll be talking a lot more about the Internet in later chapters.

And then came the economic crisis of late 2008 and 2009. More than 65,000 jobs were lost on one Monday in January, 2009, alone. By April, 2009 unemployment was at a 25-year high. The U.S. lost 663,000 jobs in March 2009, 651,000 jobs in February, and 741,000 jobs in January. By mid-April, more than 5.1 million jobs had simply disappeared.

Job losses were so extreme that venture capitalist Fred Davis, who has funded many of Silicon Valley's most successful start-ups, declared that 22 years of job creation were wiped out in one day. General Motors, once the scion of American business, closed all of its plants for nine weeks in the summer of 2009, declared bankruptcy, and became a ward of the state.

While there are now many more people looking for jobs than hiring, the power balance has not returned to the employers. Instead, employers (including their most senior managers) are all simply struggling to hold onto their companies - and even top executives are wondering whether they'll be employed tomorrow.

But don't lose all hope. Jobs can be saved and jobs can be created. That's what this book is all about. But that's later in the book. In the next chapter, I'll show you what we Americans are competing against. If you were losing sleep before, wait until you read this next chapter.

Follow David on Twitter at http://www.Twitter.com/DavidGewirtz.

Editor’s note: David Gewirtz is Editor-in-Chief, ZATZ Magazines, including OutlookPower Magazine. He is a leading Presidential scholar specializing in White House email. He is a member of FBI InfraGard, the Cyberterrorism Advisor for the International Association for Counterterrorism & Security Professionals, a columnist for The Journal of Counterterrorism and Homeland Security, and has been a guest commentator for the Nieman Watchdog of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. He is a faculty member at the University of California, Berkeley extension, a recipient of the Sigma Xi Research Award in Engineering and was a candidate for the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in Letters.


Filed under: David Gewirtz • Economy • Job Market • Opinion
soundoff (6 Responses)
  1. David Gewirtz

    Hi Rebecca, good question and one I'll not only answer here, but in the chapter itself. I'll publish all the sources used on the book's Web site, but the particular citation you're requesting is:

    The Historical Development of Veterans' Benefits in the United States: A Report on Veterans' Benefits in the United States by the President's Commission on Veterans' Pensions, 84th Congress, May 9, 1956

    It's quite the stimulating read.

    - David

    November 4, 2009 at 4:15 pm |
  2. meenas17

    Shoe maker disappeared,. Factories came in.
    Employment plenty. Prosperity great.
    Work from Home tilted the balance.
    Employer powerless . Employee powerful.
    Recession sets. Jobs swept.
    No money . No sleep.

    U.S. in a snapshot

    November 4, 2009 at 11:11 am |
  3. Lori

    There is a link between emissions from some human activities and chemicals which contribute to climate change. Scientists currently believe that we have accelerated climate change. Scientists do not believe that climate change is caused by us. It is not true that we are responsible for climate change. There is a lot is proof that these changes have occurred over time over billions of years.

    Most people will be working in future jobs created by industries which have not even been invented yet. The great thing about America is that we are free to be creative and to not only think outside of the box but to live outside of it as well. You will see many great leaps in technology and science that will transform us. Keep your chin up. Necessity is the mother of invention.

    November 4, 2009 at 10:54 am |
  4. SLM

    Sad to say, but many of the kids these days just don't want to work. They want to start at the top or not at all. Parents are to blame for this new generation, way too much coddling and spoiling.

    November 4, 2009 at 10:37 am |
  5. miriam zapata

    "if you were losing sleep before...", thanks David, i shall now go jump off a bridge. Sounds like a good book.

    November 4, 2009 at 9:59 am |
  6. Rebecca, Louisville, KY

    Not to nitpick, but could I please get a citation of sources for your claims about the G.I. bill? Not disputing the claim, but I'd like some evidence.

    November 4, 2009 at 9:45 am |