I am traversing the present, rocky economic shoals, picking my way gingerly with my toes along what I hope is the bottom. If so, it is a bottom that, at the moment, is veiled from sight, covered by a raging torrent. It occurs to me, as I trip along, that this particular flood may be less about debt bubbles, bailing out the financial industries and re-capitalizing the old line manufacturing firms and more about the ways in which technology is changing everything in our society.
This notion came to me from a variety of sources not the least of which are the profiles of the scruffy lot comprising my fellow writers contributing to Like the Dew. Many of the contributors have spent decades working as professional journalists, offending the public and outraging civil society. Others of us come from more socially acceptable backgrounds, like prostitution, lobbying, used car sales, price fixing and such.
It is clear that a majority of the contributors have felt, to one degree or another, the effect of changes to the structure of publishing wrought by all those damn internets. They must have done so, as the entire panoply of publishing has been wrenchingly changed. Further, while everybody concerned has an opinion about it, I don’t think anybody really knows how the new publishing landscape will come to look when some rough, future equilibrium is achieved.
Nobody even remotely related to the publishing world is unaware of this sea change. However, though less widely acknowledged, there is also the fact that no business or profession, indeed, no social institution of any kind, is escaping a similar metamorphosis. The effects on the various businesses and professions we collectively pursue will be unique in some respects and strikingly similar in others.
One similarity is the fact that many of the old, hierarchical organization models will no longer work. This is likely to prove as true for manufacturing, for service work and so forth as it already has for publishing. Should that be so, soon more and more professions will find themselves facing the same dislocation from an institutional employer as journalists, editors, production operators and every other class of publishing employee have already experienced. Conversely, many professions that have, traditionally, been plied by sole practitioners and small associations may find themselves required, out of economic necessity, to become salaried workers of huge institutional employment entities.
I suspect the classes of employee/professionals that have to join these larger organizations will be rather a small percentage of the full spectrum of occupations. I suspect the vast majority of us will work together in ad hoc assemblages of colleagues as demanded by the specific work product required. If I am correct, as the stain of the changes being wrought spreads further and further into the economic fabric, more and more of us will become independent contractors in fact, if not in name.
As institutional organizational models wane and independent contractors wax, this will bring enormous pressure to bear upon society and the political context in which we all live. Five examples:
1) Those of us who had several different “careers,” not just jobs, will become less the exception and more the rule. This multi career phenomenon has already forced rapid changes in the delivery of higher education as more and more of us require periodic, if not constant, retraining. Already, the traditional post secondary/higher education model, requiring the student to remove him or herself from the mainstream of society and repair into academe is becoming less the norm. Students of all ages are finding they can no longer afford the time and expense of following that path. More and more non traditional students make up the post secondary and graduate populations and, increasingly, they are doing so in non traditional colleges.
2) Already our society is embroiled in a debate over how to provide health care, especially to those who have none or have grossly inadequate care. As recently as two or three decades ago, this debate seemed much less urgent. It seemed so because there were considerably fewer of us without adequate health care. Now there are so many more and, if current trends continue, within ten, maybe as few as five, years the majority of Americans will have no health care.
3) Recently, the trend over the past several decades to wean Americans from defined benefits retirement plans and on to defined contributions retirement plans has also turned ugly. Recently, those of us who dutifully made our contributions have seen the value of those, along with the future security they promised, dramatically diminished. Indeed, we have had to watch that rapid evaporation of our assets while our elected representatives appropriated unprecedented, massive transfers of public funds into private companies and individual bonuses to the very persons most responsible for our new impoverishment.
4) At the same time, we have seen the gradual junkification of the great elevator, as public schools and public universities succumb to the demand for lower and lower taxes. This failure to protect access to education is inordinately destructive to our younger citizens and to all our future hopes, dreams and aspirations as a nation, a people.
5) Traditional family structure is also breaking down. Fewer and fewer of us live in traditional nuclear families. More and more of us live as either isolated individuals or members of non traditional, blended families. Some of this familial restructuring is directly due to the economic dislocations occurring but more of it is due to the indirect effect of changes in work that have made old sexual labor divisions unimportant and/or unworkable. This restructuring of the family requires a major reevaluation of how we raise and nurture children, among other issues.
All this change is related. All this change reflects the way in which society is changing and the old “business” models responsible for delivering an egalitarian society are breaking down.
In its totality, this environment is not merely the rocky river bed described at the beginning of this article. To the slippery footing over the unseen sharp objects we must traverse is now added an earthquake. The land itself is moving as rapidly as the water and with far less directional certainty.
The people of this nation need some level of basic social structure. If we are losing our traditional sources of that social structure by a perfect storm of shrinking institutional employers, shrinking government social safety net and the breakdown of traditional family structures, what are we to use for a substitute? There needs to be a national discussion on this subject.
I believe that such a discussion is possible but I am unaware of it taking place. Worse, when I cast my mind back to the Congressional hearings on the auto bailout, I am discouraged. At that time, the appropriate congressional committees had before them the leaders of our four biggest industrial companies, present, along with the leader of one of the greatest labor unions in the world, to discuss the future of American industry in general and automobile manufacture in particular. Given that pivotable moment in time, what did our elected leaders do? The individual Congressmen and women seized the occasion to grandstand on the issue of private jets. That mental image haunts me still.
Certainly, it was impolitic and dumb of the corporate big wigs to fly on private jets to the meeting. And, there may well be a reason for Congress to debate in detail the social worthiness of private jets. But, using that forum to score cheap, even stupid, political points, when there was a crying need to understand and illuminate the much larger issue of industrial policy, remains a disturbing loss. To fail to use that forum to explore the business models required to be competitive in the coming years and how the various social functions serving citizens should be allocated among companies, unions and government was inexcusable.
The Congressmen and women scoring those empty points at the expense of those executives blew it. Saddest of all, those paragons of frugality did not even know the damage they did by ignoring the main potential of the hearings. We need our elected and appointed officials to solve the right problem. They can not do that if they are disinterested in what that problem actually is.
A serious discussion about what entities will provide the services and support that constitute the cement that holds any society together is desperately needed in this country. If big companies and big unions are not to be trusted to offer social services like health insurance and pensions anymore, if government is no longer a stable source to fund education, if at the state and local level there is no longer certainty in a government paycheck, if stable families are no longer to be counted upon for child rearing and education, and if any number of other such paradigm shifts in social structure, then somebody needs to be thinking about what replaces all that. Are we simply going to tweak Bismarck’s social service system? Are we going to continue to expect, and perhaps, force, the private sector to offer these services? Are we going to attempt a society that ignores the need for these services and depend upon it to find, unassisted, an equilibrium somewhere out in the future? Are our schools going to be asked to raise, as well as educate, our young?
These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves. We need these answers far more than we need to know how much some banker gets paid for whatever it is bankers do. Certainly, we need these answers more than we need to know what mode of transport some fat cat used to get to a Congressional hearing. We, as a society, have not even articulated the important questions and have, naturally, made no attempt to answer them.
At the end of the collective automobile rescue hearings our grandstanding Representatives and Senators were proud of themselves. They thought they did good. In reality, all they did, and all they continue to do, is sit in the boat, going with the flow, as it heads down and across the slippery, sharp shoals, headed over the falls.