I’m just a lonely boy. Lonely and blue.
I’m all alone. With nothing to do.
Love songs are always like that. Love lost. Glorious suffering. We love them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’ve all been there and, mostly, we’ve all survived. Don’t worry, bro, you’ll find another.
But what if instead of love it is your job that you’ve lost? Nowadays it’s not so clear that another one is going to come along. Or if it does, it’s not likely to be as loving as the one that got away. There’s no more company man. You can’t just be loyal and put in your time and expect a pension and a gold watch. Those days, and those jobs in the manufacturing sector that built America in the twentieth century, are gone.
Public sector jobs have taken up some of the slack, but now they too are under pressure. Local, state and federal governments can’t afford all the workers they have hired. And they really can’t afford the pensions they have promised them. A tectonic shift is underway. When the plates come to rest again, many will look out over a landscape they no longer recognize. The places they used to work will be gone. The loyalties they had will mean nothing. It’s like waking up and finding a note of goodbye from your lover. Sure, you knew some of the old passion was gone, but you never expected to be alone.
I once read that we need three things to make us happy: someone to love; something to do; and something to look forward to. The last two are closely related, of course, at least on the downside: if you don’t have work, it’s hard to see what you have to look forward to.
Country songs are full of men moaning about how their lives are over because their babies have left them. They’ll drown their sorrows for a while, maybe take a long drive in their trucks, and someone else will come along to mend their broken hearts. That’s not happening on the jobs front, though. And it doesn’t look like it will for a while.
Even as stubbornly optimistic as I am about the economic future of America, it’s hard to see where the new jobs are going to come from. In manufacturing, we are aiming higher, trying to invent new, more highly skilled processes. Those aren’t going to result in Henry Ford’s mass production lines, not anytime soon anyway. In the public sector, we are cutting back, making do with less government. That may be a healthy thing in some ways---unless you are one of the government workers who loses your job.
It looks like we may be looking at a long period filled with a lot of lonely people with nothing to do. They are going to be depressed. Their health will suffer. Their home lives will suffer. Their children will suffer. My question is this: What does that mean for the rest of us?
One thing it means, of course, it that it will be harder for the overall economy to start growing robustly again. Two thirds of our economy derives from consumer spending, and those folks who are out of work aren’t spending. So we’re all going to have to adjust to that new reality, at least for a while.
But what about the personal cost to others? What is our collective responsibility for that? What a pal loses his girl, we might try to fix him up with someone. At least we can buy him a few beers while he looks for himself. You can live without a girlfriend or boyfriend longer than you can live without a job, though. A few beers isn’t going to solve the jobs problem.
Maybe there is nothing we can do. Maybe this is just one of those times of great change and dislocation, like when the country went from agrarian to industrial. But in the past, except for the depression, we have always been growing. There has always been the hope of upward mobility.
In the 1930’s, when the economic tragedy was at its worst, Roosevelt put the nation to work building roads and dams and parks. There were bread lines. There were soup kitchens. There were hobo jungles. It wasn’t pretty, but we seemed to care about one another. We seemed to want to help one another.
Perhaps because this period of job loss has not been as bad as it was in the depression, we seem not to have been jolted into that same broadly felt empathy. Or maybe we think the people who are suffering are mostly illegal aliens who should just go home. Or gay men who should just go fuck themselves.
Tough times can be when our national character shows its strength, but the political season seems to bring out the worst in us. We’re all feeling beat up by the long years of economic torpor, and we want to blame someone: the government, Wall Street, taxes, loss of moral character. There is blame enough to go around, but the truth is that there have always been business cycles. We have always gone on periodic credit binges. We have a bad hangover this time.
The people who are not to blame, however, are our neighbors who are out of work. They deserve our help in whatever way we can give it: private charity; public works projects; unemployment benefits; taking our old clothes to Goodwill. The one thing they don’t deserve is to be ignored while they wake up each morning with nothing to do.