These days I’ve become aware of people discussing the need for healing and resiliency to an extent I just don’t remember from the past. This Saturday I came across an OpEd in The New York Times discussing the ubiquity of trauma and the importance of being able to face it so you can heal from the experience.
“Death,” Dr. Mark Epstein claimed, “(and its cousins: old age, illness, accidents, separation and loss) hangs over all of us.” True, “trauma is an ineradicable aspect of life,” but our experiences of crises — how likely, what kinds and how quickly we’re able to recover from them — are shaped by the world we live in.
As Americans, we’re culturally primed to think about what we or our family should do or what we could have done differently, but this way of thinking obscures 40 years of societal changes that dramatically changed the risks we face and the resources we have available to weather them.
During the 1960s, many workers could expect to retire from the same company where they first started. While working, they could take paid vacations, paid sick days and get access to free, or almost free, medical care. Their access to health insurance was secured by their employer but subsidized by the federal government through tax abatements.
Many fathers, although not all, could afford to support a stay-at-home wife or a wife who organized part-time work hours so she could still attend to the needs of her children, husband and older relatives for care. These arrangements represented a post-World War II societal consensus about the proper responsibilities of the government, employers and individuals for providing the support working families need.
During the late 1970s this ostensible agreement started breaking down as employers sought to cut production costs by paying fewer taxes and by reducing their obligations to employees. These latter changes included cutting benefits and replacing permanent workers through outsourcing and hiring temporary workers who weren’t eligible for benefits.
Production workers without college degrees were the first to have to find new ways to support their families under these arrangements. Low-skilled mothers started working more hours to support their families, but the new service work available to them was often part-time or temporary and didn’t include benefits, including paid sick leave.
Over the last 10 years, these contingent employment practices have spread to other areas. It’s not uncommon, for instance, to find medical or legal professionals hired on short-term contracts through specialized temporary agencies.
If these new contract arrangements are necessary for companies to remain competitive in today’s economy, Americans need to develop new public programs to support workers and their families as they weather the new risks produced by these changes. The nation and its employers still need healthy, productive workers.
If companies are going to continue to offload the costs for health care and paid leave, we need new public programs, like the Affordable Care Act, which will help citizens to retain their access to health care for themselves and their families, as they move from job to job.
Victoria Mayer is assistant professor of sociology at Colby College in Waterville. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.