In Clinton's Brave New World, Jobs for the Nimble

WILLIAM NEIKIRK

December 23, 1992|By WILLIAM NEIKIRK

Washington. -- Perhaps one of the most important things about the economic teach-in down in Little Rock last week is the way in which the president-elect is redefining job security.

He said it often during the campaign. Times have changed so much that it will now be necessary for individuals to undergo lifetime training and education, to be prepared to change jobs and maybe careers several times over a lifetime.

The transitory nature of employment is something that now may seem obvious to millions who have experienced or witnessed the breathtaking number of layoffs and restructurings of recent bTC months.

But the full implications of it still have not been digested by the population, although politicians like Bill Clinton seem to understand them well. In his Little Rock ''therapy'' session designed to educate the American people, he began to explore the real meaning of the way the employment ''contract'' has been altered.

If there is no such thing as job security, then who will take up the slack, if indeed anyone or any institution can take up the slack? The obvious answer is government. More benefits associated with job security will move directly into the public sector.

The health-insurance debate provides a ready example. As costs have gone stratospheric, companies are cutting back on this important benefit, or laying off workers to reduce costs. But many people feel that they can't go without insurance protection against rising medical costs. When they are laid off, they are forced to pay enormous premiums from a shrunken budget to keep the insurance going.

So it is only natural that they should turn to government to provide some measure of security and fairness to an area over which they have no control. Health insurance is seen widely as a new federal guaranteed entitlement. There will be political hell to pay if the Clinton administration cannot deliver.

Pension benefits are in the same category. Although the law now provides for pension vesting and some portability as people move from job to job, employers have scaled back pension plans.

Pressure will build on Congress to add more security in this area, perhaps by expanding individual retirement accounts and taking sharp look at the entire pension law. Secretary of the Treasury-designate Lloyd Bentsen is especially sensitive to helping future retirees through more tax benefits.

The end of job security is something that was apparent to young people long ago. Much of the pessimism and cynicism of the current age feeds back to this realization. They rightly conclude that the economic system, including their educational institutions that are supposed to train them for the world of work, has let them down.

They are right, of course. The U.S. educational system long ago turned corrupt, interested more in its own security and self-preservation than in responding to the changing nature of work. In the economic war to remove America away from 19th-century institutions and practices, it will be the last bastion of resistance.

America's educational system seems to have no coherent idea of how to train workers for a lifetime. It will gladly open its doors and take the tuition money, but beyond this, it has ceded all responsibility. A few enlightened educators understand that programs and concepts have to be organized, and curricula adapted, but a truly effective plan is hard to find.

The demise of job security also is devastating to the notion of free markets. One need only look to the former Soviet Union to understand this. When the free market fails to deliver or promises a harsh future, faith in it diminishes rapidly. Many people understandably look for government intervention.

A legitimate question is whether American society can function peaceably and efficiently with job security on the wane. The in-and-out worker tends to be less altruistic, less community-oriented, more apt to put the blame on others.

In addition, U.S. institutions that depend on receiving the long-term income streams of Americans are being hurt. If one cannot be assured of a long-term employment arrangement because of rapid changes in the work force, one is less apt to take out mortgages and make expensive purchases, such as a car.

As we have seen in the current economic sluggishness, lack of financing feeds back negatively on many other jobs, such as construction and automobile assembly. At the very worst, diminished job security leads where one might expect: deflation. And if you have a bit of an equity stake in something, be it a home or a financial asset, deflation is not good.

It behooves the Clinton administration to take a careful look at programs and policies which, if they can't enhance job security, will at least help offset these devastating impacts on our country.

U.S. firms hoping to survive in the turbulent world ahead also should re-examine their employment practices. While they may succeed in reducing their work forces or slashing benefit costs, they may pay for it later in reduced sales and profits as companies emulate each other with layoffs.

In the long term, will such a new climate change the American people? That's the ultimate, provocative question. The U.S. work force has been too linked to organizations in the past and perhaps needs to become more innovative and entrepreneurial in its own right.

The Japanese became economic powerhouses by overcoming their own disadvantages; in fact, they turned them into advantages. Once again we would do well to copy the Japanese.

William Neikirk is a senior writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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