As jobs become meaningless, society unravels

*This article originally appeared in the London Free Press, March 8th 2019:

Is there any real solution to London’s ongoing job crisis? It’s a question we’ve been asking for more than a decade, like many other Canadian cities. And the longer we wait for answers, the more data becomes available reminding us just how serious the situation is becoming.

One thing we’re getting better at, however, is learning just how much has been lost around the meaning of work in the midst of all this global change. And along the way we’re increasingly beginning to question how it all came about in a time of great wealth, here and around the world.

It used to be that good employment was possible because we were members of communities, businesses, governments, civil society and citizens looked out for one another. Work wasn’t only how we paid the family bills, but how we underwrote our institutions: hospitals, schools, sports venues, emergency services, local government and a host of other amenities that greased the wheels of our everyday collective life together.

The economic dislocation beginning in the 1980s and 1990s began the slow, inevitable process of not only wearing down our communities, but splintering them as well. We began losing key parts of our cohesiveness as a mid-sized city, but the greatest loss of all was jobs, the meaningful, well-paying kind. As the transformation of society continues, the decline of that meaningful work has left in its wake increased poverty, a number of crises, including the lack of affordable housing, and the loss of worth.

In the 1970s, the average worker remained at a business for 24 years. Today, that number is between four to five years. London quickly became job poor in an era where wealth in Canada mushroomed. Something didn’t seem right. We had questions about where all the wealth went, only to be told this was the future and we had better get used to it.

This seemingly irreversible process is emptying the cupboards of social capital and meaning in many of our cities. Our questions continue to grow like, “how can London move into a prosperous future when half of its workforce (48 per cent) is in vulnerable or precarious employment?” That’s a serious statistic, one we are told will continue to climb, leaving those still able to find work with minimum wages and no benefits.

It was once the case that in most of our community life, wealth was equated with work, the symmetry between the two inviolate. This endowed employment with a sense of meaning and status within the community that reflected its importance. But, with increasing amounts of wealth now being generated without labour at all, work itself is seen as more incidental than essential. A generation ago, we believed wealth would increase in dramatic terms and that jobs would be available for everyone. It’s now clear we miscalculated and that wealth and work are no longer indivisible.

This is our modern reality. Yet it does have a direct impact on the quality of life in our city. We once hoped for a vibrant community, driven by equity and progress. What we are getting instead is significant unemployment or underemployment, a growing reality that drags down our other vaunted efforts to lift London to great heights. Where citizens once looked at their retirement years as a time for volunteering, and of worth and pleasure derived from a lifetime of work, they now seem more like years of diminishing returns.

What we are getting in all of this is “surplus” people, individuals rendered less important through automation, downsizing, new technologies and business efficiencies. What is to become of such populations, their families, their communities, when meaningful and rewarding work becomes out of reach?

Political theorist Judith Shklar used to maintain that work is more crucial to democracy and community than almost anything else. She might have been correct, since the lack of good employment coincides with the loss of trust, with schisms in civil society, and with the erosion of our public life. Things feel less and less sustainable.

What is the answer to our predicament? It’s likely there are many, but things must begin with the acknowledgement that employment rates are no longer accurate measures of our community health or wealth. The real story is far more complex.

Glen Pearson is co-director of the London Food Bank and a former Liberal MP for the riding of London North Centre.