As the pundits and politicians revel in our “economic recovery,” the asterisk at the bottom of their statements continues to be that the return of jobs will follow a bit later in the economic rebuilding process. What they are failing to disclose, and what each of them knows to be the case, is that the basis of our industrial restructuring has removed, rather than suspended, millions of jobs.
Thanks in large part to efficiency building, aided by the closure of manufacturing groups and financial subsectors, we no longer need the 10 million-plus employees who are waiting to re-enter our work force. While this sound bite is one you are unlikely to hear in such a bland form, it is the economic reality, and as such is unlikely to find its way into a profit-seeking media stream. The looming question is what to do with millions of unemployed Americans in the coming decade, and as the financial underpinnings of our empire continue to fray under the pressure such a mass underutilization will exert.
So, what are the options? Do we restart the WPA, or focus on retraining for a “green economy”? The most important issue in any solution is honest consideration of the demographic of this contingent of the now “unemployable.”
This group almost entirely will be over 40 years of age, putting them up to a quarter-century from access to existing supportive structures such as Social Security and Medicare. This group also will be composed primarily of baby boomers, which will increase the pressure on an already dilapidated support structure for a medically challenged retirement age population. There will, in short, be a need to consider both medical issues and the need for basic financial support.
What role can 10 million unemployed middle-age members of our population play in a “new economy”? It might be simpler to think about what roles they can’t play. The reliance on an existing structure providing “greeter” jobs at Wal-Mart, and bagging jobs at Hannaford will not provide the economic base for this group.
The wealth of workplace experience in this cohort will cross both the manufacturing and financial services sectors, and it will have a very specific age component. Can those specific characteristics provide a clue or a plan for work force reintegration? One thing we know about our immediate future is that we will have the largest number of retirees in our nation’s history, and that this group will be living far longer than any in our history. The sheer size of this population should offer clues about a surge in service needs that could easily solve most of our unemployment challenges.
The health care and retirement service sectors certainly could use new component elements that are specific to both age-defined populations and age-defined workers. By creating a low-intensity training program to integrate a pre-existing age-specific cohort of the unemployed into supportive roles in these growth sectors we would be using an overabundant asset (the unemployed) to solve a soon to be severely understaffed employment sector (health care) all while serving our systemic needs.
Using the baby boom age dynamic as a tool for its own economic survival would be an elegant way to harness the entirety of our largest work force sector as a closed economic system. This system would support itself, and then pass through the economy together. While this closed system is operating as a microeconomy, the younger members of our work force can more readily home in on new educational tools that will support the next wave of economic growth sectors.
It might be time for the AARP to roll up its sleeves for an entirely new role as an overseer for the Gray Panther University system, from which our unemployed baby boomers finally can obtain that medical or nursing degree they considered back in the 1970s. To keep our economy viable, it’s “never too late.”
John Rockefeller is a nonprofit development consultant in Camden.