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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jan 5, 2011, 7:38 am

Don’t Count on Tomorrow: The New Credo for the Unemployed

BY Stephen Franklin

(Photo by ETHAN MILLER/Getty Images)

Long ago, on New York City's docks, Frankie drilled into me the American credo about climbing the ladder to a better life. “Kid, you gotta finish college,” he would say. “You gotta do better than this. All you need is to work harder and you can get there.”

Frankie, a massive fellow who had spent his life on the Manhattan docks, was my protector and career advisor. He would find a clean place to hide my college books in the mornings when I showed up. And when a fight broke out, he would warn me.

If you ever worked in a steel mill in Ohio, a lumber camp in Alabama, a diner in Maine, a cotton mill in North Carolina, or any blue-collar, back-breaking job anywhere and it was clear that you had a good chance to move on, you probably heard the same lecture about the American worker’s credo: "If you get knocked down, stand up and try again. Yeah, life’s is tough. So what. You have it in you. Set your goals high and you’ll wind up somewhere near where you want to be."

One of the many things we seem to have lost in the Great Economic Bust is a widespread belief among those down and out that they will ever get back up on their feet. This finding comes from a recent survey on the unemployed called “The Shattered Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope and Faith in their Futures" (PDF link).

It was produced by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

How deep is the disappointment of the unemployed?

Nearly 60 percent of the unemployed polled by the organization said that hard work and determination are no guarantee of success for most persons.

Ironically, a similar poll conducted at the same time by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Harvard University and the Washington Post found that 60 percent of people say that most persons who want to get ahead can make it if they’re willing to work hard.

It seems to me these different points of view of the road ahead for American worker offer a good reflection of the baffling disconnect shown by many Americans toward an economy of crippling and unprecedented dead-ends for millions of workers.

How do the unemployed, according to the survey, view their future?

  • Only one-third think they will recover financially.
  • Two-thirds think the economy is undergoing fundamental and lasting changes.
  • More than half think it will be harder for young people to afford college.
  • Nearly half say they will never feel as secure at work as they once did and they will have to take jobs paying below their skill levels.

Some of what the jobless tell us is the bitter taste of feeling cut off from the a paycheck, a job interview and the chitchat about an economy on the mend. But some of it also is quite realistic. What made this economic collapse so different was the disappearance of so many jobs, and the downward pressure on wages and benefits that crossed over into jobs where there is no justifiable reason for such reductions.

Indeed, among the unemployed tracked in the Rutgers study, only one out of four has found work in the 15 months since they were first polled. And nearly all of the newly employed were taking home less pay or wages.

Remember the economic collapse of the 1980s, when auto and steel workers fled their rust belt Midwest towns for jobs? Many found new jobs and many wandered home eventually. Remember the dot.com bust about a decade ago? Many of those folks floundered, but many also wound up back on their feet.

What’s different today is that the past is a painful memory for many workers whose industries have collapsed, whose skilled are no longer needed or who are more defenseless on the job to protect their livelihood than ever before.

They are like the dockworkers I knew decades ago, before machines took their jobs and the docks themselves vanished.

Stephen Franklin, former labor and workplace reporter for the Chicago Tribune, is ethnic news director for the Community Media Workshop in Chicago. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor's Heartland Losses and What They Mean for Working Americans (2002), and has reported throughout the United States and the Middle East. He can be reached via e-mail at freedomwrites@hotmail.com.

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