Labor Market's Threat to Our Identity


August 12, 1993|By RICHARD REEVES

KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI — Kansas City, Missouri.--More often than not, Americans meeting each other for the first time begin conversation by saying, ''What do you do?''

It means, of course, what is your job, your work, your title, your identity? What do you answer if you have no work? How do you live without work?

I don't mean that only as an economic question. For Americans, it is a psychological question, even a spiritual question. In a nation that sees itself as the embodiment of the work ethic, are there ethics at all for those without work?

Flying here from MacArthur Airport on Long Island to make a speech at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, I sat behind three men in white shirts and ties whose ages ranged from their late 30s to mid-40s. As they talked, it was obvious that they worked for Grumman Corp., and were passing back and forth data on updating Grumman's F-14 Tomcat fighter.

TTC But the F-14 is out of production, and I wondered whether these guys will have a job five years from now. I would not be surprised if Grumman itself were gone by then. It's basically a defense company helping fight wars that are over.

At the university, people talked about other companies, particularly about IBM and Procter & Gamble. I suspect that Midwesterners will remember the summer of 1993 for three things: the great flood, IBM's continuing announcements of losing money and eliminating jobs, and Procter & Gamble's announcement that it is making more money than ever but must eliminate jobs to make sure it keeps making more.

''If they're making money and they still keep laying off people, then we're finished,'' said a woman at a university luncheon.

Maybe we are. Or, at least, the world we have known has changed forever. The progression is linear and logical. There was a time when men and women, like other animals, had to spend all their effort and most of their time working to survive, hunting or harvesting, weaving and building against the cold or the heat.

Eventually, it took less and less effort to survive. Once we were all essentially farmers. Now few of us are, and they are too many for the work to be done. Food is cheap and plentiful, and farmers in the developed world, a small percentage of overall population, are subsidized by governments for old time's sake.

Now we are often faced with decisions about whether to subsidize redundant people who make clothing or steel or television sets, all things that can be made cheaper by people in nations farther down the ladder of human ''progress.''

So, what was once a nation of farmers is now post-industrial. Thinkers in Washington, principally Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, are still taking about ''the new workplace'' or the ''high productivity workplace of the future'' and the need for educated workers.

But how many educated workers can we absorb for 40 hours a week for 45 years? Not enough, I'm afraid. The demand I see in modern America is for uneducated workers, willing but unskilled workers, a demand being filled by immigrants, both legal and illegal.

I thought for a time that the United States could maintain its middle-class standard of living by selling ''process'' -- marketing the way we do things. But I was wrong. ''Process'' quickly became something stamped on a computer chip.

Politically and economically, the problems of Americans without real, steady, secure jobs are part of the reason the nation is now going through a debate on health care.

Since at least World War II, health care in the United States was tied to the workplace, but because there is no security in the workplace anymore, families have to thrash about to protect themselves.

The reality of Americans without work is a far more fundamental crisis than questions of public policy in Washington. How do we answer the question of who we are if we cannot say what we do?

9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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