March 12, 2020
Market Drops Hit Those Who Don’t Invest
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
How fitting that I would see the play “Sweat” on Feb. 28 – a Friday night at the end of a week in which the stock market dropped 12 percent and the specter of recession reared its ugly head.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” – I saw the Boston revival – is about the havoc the boom-bust economy and falling financial markets wreak on working people’s employment security and their personal lives. In fact, the timeline of the play is bracketed by 2000, when the stock market crashed, and 2008, when it crashed again.
At the beginning of each scene, a voice-over broadcasts the day’s bad financial news. The stock market never crosses the lips of the characters in the play, which is set in a local bar that is the social center of the working class town of Reading, Pennsylvania. Their chief concern is the fate of their jobs at the steel tubing plant. But the unspoken stock market is an invisible character shaping their plight.
Playwright Lynn Nottage got her inspiration for “Sweat” during visits to Reading over 2½ years. Two female characters and each of their sons work at the plant – very typical of a factory town. The bartender used to work there until he injured his leg. An immigrant who is a busboy at the bar briefly gets a shot at the American dream as a scab worker when the company locks the union out of the plant. There is tension between the immigrant and the long-time residents, and between the assembly line workers and the one worker who is promoted to management. But in the end, all of their lives are tragically upended by the plant closing.
Factories began shutting down in the 1980s, in part because U.S. manufacturers learned they could hire workers at much lower wages overseas. But manufacturing’s long-term decline was perpetuated by the 2001 recession, which was triggered by a market drop, and a second recession that began with the 2008 market collapse.
Which brings us to 2020. …Learn More
December 17, 2019
Older Workers Ride Out Computer Age
The computer revolution, unleashed in the 1970s, has not stopped. Minicomputers replaced mainframes, and IBM introduced its personal computer. Then came the Internet, laptops, robots, iPhones, and increasingly intelligent software that can drive cars and discern music preferences.
Continual technological change has reshaped and regenerated the economy several times over, creating new types of jobs unimaginable a few years earlier. But the past four decades have also been tumultuous for the workers who were either replaced by machines or couldn’t keep up with the evolving demands of their jobs.
This is a pressing issue for the older workers who would benefit from working longer to improve their retirement finances. An erosion in their physical stamina or mental agility conceivably makes them more vulnerable to losing out to progress. And it can be difficult for people who have invested years in a job to train for and find new employment.
But a new study of labor force trends by the Center for Retirement Research finds this has not been the case. The computer age has had about the same impact on workers over age 55 as it has had on the labor force overall.
Two factors have proved essential to whether people – whatever their age – have had job security in this period of change: whether the work is routine and whether it requires a college education.
Since the 1970s, job options have narrowed for many workers who did not attend college, because computers have been especially good at rapidly and tirelessly performing the routine tasks this group’s work often entails. Examples are the computerized financial transactions that replaced back-office workers who entered the data manually and the robots inserted into assembly lines. The more routine a worker’s job, the more vulnerable he is to being replaced by a machine.
The upshot is that this segment of the labor force is shrinking: roughly a third of U.S. workers hold routine jobs currently, down from more than half in 1979. Nevertheless, the magnitude of this decline has been roughly the same for workers over 50 as for the labor force overall, according to the study, which was conducted for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
In contrast, computerization has not affected the demand for non-routine work that is physical in nature, such as construction and food preparation. These jobs typically do not require a college education either, but it has been virtually impossible to program computers to do non-repetitive work. “The rules governing our innate abilities are a mystery,” and this has protected jobs that emphasize uniquely human abilities, the researchers said.Learn More
December 3, 2019
Workers, Machines and Constant Change
Anyone who drives on the nation’s toll roads has used a job-eliminating device: electronic tollgates.
Unemployment due to new technologies – and workers’ resistance to them – are as old as the industrial revolution. In the early 1900s, glassblowers were replaced by mechanized bottle makers. Today, autoworkers are no longer necessary to bolt car parts to carriages – robots do it with speed and precision. Toll takers are the latest disappearing breed.
Workers who lose their jobs to progress face painful transitions, and pessimists throughout history have warned about technologies increasingly rendering human effort obsolete. Indeed, jobs can seem to vanish overnight after an entire industry or occupation adopts a laborsaving machine, presenting displaced individuals with difficult choices. They must either invest in a new skill or move into a low-skill, lower-paying job.
But in the long arc of history, technology is continually creating new jobs to replace the old ones.
“The cycle of job destruction and creation has produced a labor force where, over the long run, workers have generally found jobs – albeit jobs that largely did not exist 100 years ago,” concludes the Center for Retirement Research in the first of three reports on technology’s impact on older workers for the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium.
The changing nature of work encourages new forms of growth by expanding the economic pie. For example, about a third of U.S. workers used to be on the farm before being largely replaced by agricultural machinery like combines and threshers, the report said. But during and after World War II, new technologies adopted by industry supplied manufacturing and office jobs to the farmers who had migrated to the cities to work. Wages rose and the economy grew rapidly during this period of unprecedented abundance.
Another way that technology helps the economy is by making goods cheaper to produce and buy, freeing up demand for other products. For example, Americans spend 15 percent of their budgets on food – less than half of what they spent in 1900 before farms became fully mechanized. More money for cell phones. …Learn More
July 2, 2019
When Your Health, Job Demands Clash
Home health aides, nurses, teacher assistants and servers do a lot of lifting or standing for long periods, which takes a toll on their bodies.
For a middle-aged waitress, it might be a bad knee. For a baby boomer caring for an elderly person, it might be the strain of lifting a patient out of a chair.
In a new study, researchers calculated the percentage of workers who cite health-related obstacles to performing their jobs for nearly 200 occupations. A ranking of these percentages proved a fairly reliable indicator of what one would expect workers to do. Workers in the occupations with the largest share of people having difficulty performing their jobs were more likely to quit work and file for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).
The chart below shows the occupations with the highest percentages of health-related obstacles. For example, some of the most hazardous jobs are welders and brazers, who assemble equipment made of aluminum. …Learn More
January 22, 2019
A Taste of How the 1 Percent Lives
The dramatic increase in U.S. inequality is due almost entirely to the expanding fortunes of the
1 percent. They have tripled their share of the nation’s total wealth to 21 percent since the 1970s.
Such extreme concentrations of wealth are of growing concern to economists and even one Wall Street firm. They argue that it hurts the economy for everyone.
The public’s reaction couldn’t be more different. Their preferred solution to barely coping financially is to become rich themselves. Two out of three Americans told Gallup they aspire to being rich and say that the super-wealthy are good for the country. Democrats and Republicans are equally enamored of the rich.
What it means to be in the top 1 percent is, for most of us, an abstraction since the wealthy largely keep to their own. But the crew of the Double Sunshine tour boat are happy to show tourists the lifestyles of Florida’s rich and famous during daily tours of the dolphins and multimillion-dollar mansions on Naples Bay.
During my Christmastime tour of the bay, the crew pointed out one property where the new owner had demolished a $49 million house to build a new one. “Tear-downs are on a tear,” says The Naples Daily News, which closely follows the real estate transactions of celebrities and chief executives.
In property after property, royal palms sway over lawns that tumble into the bay. Every house has a yacht or an empty boat slip with a full crew awaiting the owner’s return, said Greg Dyer, the tour boat company’s assistant operations director. One homeowner pays nearly $600,000 a year in property taxes. No wonder Naples has such great bike paths. …Learn More