The Demise of the Steady Job

FRANZ SCHURMANN

January 29, 1992|By FRANZ SCHURMANN

BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA. — Future historians may someday write that 1992 was the year in which a regular job ceased being the major source of income for Americans. Yet they may also write that this change forced the revitalization of families in America.

Since the mid-1970s the lives of most Americans have been affected by what is abstractly called a major restructuring of the economy. But for many people that just means economic depression.

In the latter half of 1991, recession hit the country, inflating the jobless rate. But the coinciding of recession and depression has made people finally aware that the hallowed regular job -- one that promises continuity and benefits -- is now long gone.

In depressions dynamic new economies arise alongside decaying older ones. But in this election year President Bush's protestations about a shining new economic future have to contend with people's sense that the future is costing them not just a job but the hope that someday they can nail down a regular job.

Over the last two decades the American economy has changed from being production-driven to being trade-driven. The old mass-production factories are vanishing. The U.S. economy has become part of a fast-growing, trade-driven world economy, and exports are its top growth sector. Working life increasingly means shifting from job to job. The number of temporary workers is soaring. Tiny businesses clogging city streets or suburban shopping malls are where the jobs are. Nowadays manufacturing occurs in small plants with ever-changing work forces scattered over thousands of industrial parks.

In the 1970s manufacturing industries automated, followed in the 1980s by financial institutions. Now automation is spreading throughout the rest of the service sector. With women as well as men working, the 100 million-plus jobs the country needs to survive are increasingly going to be catch-as-catch-can.

The labor left hankers after the good old days of America's mighty manufacturing industry where unions spawned the idea of regular jobs for their members. But few others believe that history's clock can be made to run backward.

As always the market is ruthless. It will hire ''the best man for the job,'' but when his usefulness is over, it will cast him off like a squeezed lemon. But for centuries trade-driven markets have been held together by intricate webs of personal relations. Even in the U.S., most jobs are found through personal connections and not by abstractly matching labor supply and demand.

Until modern economists came up with their vast abstractions, most people simply assumed that every economy was a social structure and vice versa. The simplest economy was always the farm, where the chief work force since ancient times was the family.

The people who most successfully fit into the new job situation are the immigrants -- shrewd enough to maintain whatever social structures they have, they grab whatever job they can or make up some hustle to trap cash. Wages are low but they know how to pool them into often impressive buying and staying power.

A century ago, during the 1870s and '80s, the U.S. went through its first great depression. The financial panic of 1873 unleashed waves of misery on Americans.

But immigrants poured in and they became the work force that produced American consumer capitalism which began to flourish at the beginning of the 20th century.

Those immigrants came with solid social structures: large cohesive families, churches, synagogues and even socialist ''labor temples'' that held them together, and a lot of individual drive. But when the next great depression hit in the 1930s, sparked by the financial panic of 1929, the descendants of those immigrants wanted social security and regular jobs. They got them when the New Deal gave government a lot of control over the economy.

Top-down socialism at local, national or global levels is no longer in history's cards. What is are new social structures being built from the bottom up all over the world in which jobs, outside the social unit, work within them, and trapping cash catch-as-catch-can will be the way most people survive in a trade-driven global economy.

Franz Schurmann teaches history and sociology at the University of California. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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