Posted by: Annabel Ascher | April 1, 2009

At breakfast this morning my significant other, Rob, mentioned that he had read that in Japan, over twenty percent of the workforce is temporary and live without benefits of any kind. That made me think of a Japanese term I found recently in The Power of Full Engagement, by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. The word is karoshi and it means death from over-work. Here in the United States, the attitude towards workers is generally just as callous these days, and though we don’t have a separate word for it, our work habits definitely are unhealthy enough to contribute to a lower quality of life and an earlier death. Medical science tells us that those who take regular vacations and have good work/life balance live longer healthier lives, but most Americans can’t afford the luxury in the corporate state that is America in the new millennium.
Of all of the many defects in the new turbo-capitalism, this willingness to treat workers as mere commodities is one of the most troubling. Humans evolved in tribes where each member old enough to work had a job and a purpose. The Stone Age economy lasted at least 100,000 years. The agricultural economy that followed lasted thousands of years. It is only in the new capitalist age that whole groups of productive adults fall victim to the concept of “structural unemployment”. This means that the system itself requires a certain percentage of willing workers to go without work. It also causes those who have jobs to accept bad working conditions, and to literally work themselves to death to keep those jobs.
This 5% of potential workers doesn’t seem like much when represented statistically, but in actual social terms it is a calamity for those actual people that are affected, and their families. Even if we didn’t need work to support ourselves, we need it to create structure and meaning in our lives. We have evolved to be working creatures. We need to be useful.
To add insult to injury, these people, once thrown upon the junk heap of life in a capitalist state, are treated like purposeful losers. And, in recent years, after the right wing assault on public welfare, they find themselves more and more falling into homelessness and abject poverty.
This flaw in the system has always been there but as unemployment rates climb far beyond the built-in level of about 5% and spiral towards levels consistent with an economic depression, people are starting to notice. The evening news recently featured a segment on homeless children. These are the former middle-class whose parents have lost their jobs, and then lost their homes. I wonder, when this crisis is solved, will the policy towards “structural unemployment” change as well?


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