July 20, 2015
Professor explores long-term unemployment in 'unfair economy'
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In a new book, Virginia Commonwealth University professor Victor Chen, Ph.D., provides a vivid and moving look at the experiences of autoworkers in the United States and Canada to explore the impact of long-term unemployment.
"Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy" (University of California Press), which was released this month, tells the story of how autoworkers have found themselves struggling in a changed economy that is marked by greater inequality and risk.
Chen, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, recently discussed his new book.
How would you summarize the central argument of “Cut Loose”?
“Cut Loose” is about long-term unemployment and how it has changed in recent years. The book draws from my interviews and observations of unemployed autoworkers in America and Canada. It’s important to remember that the auto industry helped build a strong middle class in this country in the time after World War II. Autoworkers had good-paying jobs. They were represented by powerful unions. They symbolized a distinct way of looking at success: an all-for-one, one-for-all attitude that said, “Let’s lift up everyone at the same time.” And that was a prevalent viewpoint back then. For example, the American public used to overwhelmingly approve of unions. That's not the case anymore.
Today, it’s more of a go-it-alone mentality, even among the workers I got to know. It’s about, “I get an education, I work hard and get the skills I need, and then I become successful.” It’s not about, “I join a union and see everyone’s wages and quality of life go up.” And for the unemployed, this individualistic perspective worsens their feelings of self-blame. You see this especially among my American workers. As their unemployment drags on, they start to feel regret for the bad decisions they made — decisions that had to do with not getting more education, not preparing for changes in the economy. They feel like losers, frankly, in a society that values winning at all costs.
What was it about the story of autoworkers that you felt helped explain what is happening in the U.S. economy?
Autoworkers are kind of like the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future bundled into one. Everyone knows the story about what happened in this country in the 1980s: factories closed, workers got laid off, communities fell apart. Free trade, automation, and policy choices did in the American factory worker. Well, now the rest of us are experiencing this reality. The highly educated are better off, but even they aren’t immune to having their work sent overseas or automated. Today, hospitals send radiology scans to doctors in India to analyze. Lawyers have their document review handled by computer programs. There are more temp workers, independent contractors — and, in academia, adjunct professors. Unions and other collective approaches to improving the circumstances of ordinary workers have dwindled away. So, in a way, the shut-down factory is a symbol for what white-collar workers like you and me are facing today, decades after the first waves of downsizing began.
Free trade, automation, and policy choices did in the American factory worker. Well, now the rest of us are experiencing this reality.
On the flip side, even workers like the ones I interviewed are having to be savvier about getting new jobs. They have to mimic what white-collar workers have had to do for a while now. They have to search for jobs online rather than calling people. They have to have a snazzy resume even to get in the door. In the booming service sector in particular, they have to be relentlessly cheerful and enthusiastic and a team player. To get a good job today, you need education, you need smarts and creativity, you need to be flexible about when and where and how you work, and so on.
So the situation of my unemployed autoworkers helps us to explain the past, present and future of our economy. They represent a distant past of equality and solidarity. They speak to us about what is happening today, as white-collar jobs get outsourced and offshored. And they suggest what the future will bring, as the number of good jobs disappears and as competition ramps up for everyone.
The subtitle of the book is “Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy.” Can you give an example or two of the unfairness you see in the U.S. economy?
The economy has changed in ways that favor the wealthy. Incomes for the middle class and working class have barely grown, even though the average American worker is much more productive. The typical family makes less than it did in 1999. Meanwhile, life is getting more and more golden for those at the top. Income inequality is at unprecedented levels. Wealth inequality is almost back to the extreme levels we had during the 1920s — it’s like we’re living in the time of “The Great Gatsby” again. That’s partly because things like education and skill matter more in a global economy, but it’s also because the wealthy game the system.
First, they stamp out competition. Professionals block people from joining their professions so that they can keep their own salaries high. Wall Street changes the ways its income is taxed and kills efforts to regulate the risky ways it makes money. Second, the children of these elite workers have a leg up in the race. So much of the success you have in your schooling and your career depends on social class, and the cultural sophistication and connections that come with class. Meanwhile, the middle class and working class no longer have the strong labor unions or strong social movements that championed them in past generations. Today, just 11 percent of the workforce are members of unions. It used to be a third.
Even though many people think today’s economy is more or less a meritocracy — “I rise based on how much education I get and how much work I put in” — the reality is what I call a stunted meritocracy: a ruthless meritocracy for those below, but something entirely different for those at top.
“Cut Loose” is something of a call to action. What do you propose should be done, from a policy or political perspective?
I have three suggestions. First, policies do matter. In Canada, universal health care and generous job retraining programs make it much easier to cope with long-term unemployment, which is psychologically wounding and destructive to relationships with spouses and children. Support for working families, especially single parents with children, goes a long way to help the kinds of households hit hardest by unemployment. Canada also has more in the way of rules of the road for corporations — for instance, laws requiring companies to provide severance pay. In all these ways, America could improve its policies and do right by workers who have devoted years to an economy that no longer seems to be working for them.
At the same time, there are limits to policy. For one thing, policies that are good on paper aren’t necessarily implemented so well. There are budget shortfalls. There are sluggish and inefficient bureaucracies. Government needs to be smarter about how it provides help. The Canadians have one particularly good model for doing this. At their government-funded “action centers,” the staff are former workers at a company that is experiencing layoffs. Those peer helpers are often better able to reach and assist their co-workers than strangers at a government agency. There’s a personal stake and a personal bond.
But, more broadly, I don’t think we can focus on changing policies alone. There needs to be a change in the overall culture as well — a culture that stands in the way of any forceful and sustainable attempt to improve the situation for workers and the long-term unemployed. In America, we judge relentlessly. It’s a whole culture of constant performance reviews. From the time you start school to far into your career, everything you do is measured and evaluated.
I think this is fundamentally unhealthy for our society and it contributes to this self-blame that is so harmful to the long-term unemployed. The way they look at it, they didn’t live up to the standard. I’m not religious, but in talking about cultural change I take inspiration in the Christian notion of grace: that everyone is saved by God’s grace, not just the deserving. What I suggest is that we promote an attitude of acceptance and nonjudgment. There’s enough wealth to go around for everyone to have a decent quality of life, even if we have a reasonable amount of inequality. But the fact that we think some people don’t deserve that quality of life stands in the way of providing for everyone. To change that culture, we need a social movement along the lines of previous broad-based movements — during the Civil Rights Era and Progressive Era, for instance — that can help society move beyond overly self-centered ideas about success and fairness.
What sort of research went into this project?
The book is based on interviews and observation I did in Detroit, Michigan, and in Windsor, Ontario [Canada], during 2009 and 2010 — the tail end of the Great Recession and its immediate aftermath. I wanted to compare how people experienced long-term unemployment in the United States and Canada. And I wanted to compare apples to apples: I looked at similar kinds of workers, who worked for the same companies in the same industry, as well as similar kinds of households, which were working-class in terms of their education but middle-class in terms of their incomes. The idea was to focus intently on the policies and cultures on either side of the border, and examine in a scientifically rigorous way how and why they made a difference.
How did you become interested in this topic?
Unemployment has been a lifelong interest of mine. Some of my most vivid memories from childhood are of my father being out of work.
Unemployment has been a lifelong interest of mine. Some of my most vivid memories from childhood are of my father being out of work. He was a civil engineer who worked on building nuclear power plants. After the Three Mile Island disaster, that industry died out. My father was eventually laid off, and he really struggled to find another job. It didn’t help that he was an immigrant from Taiwan who didn’t speak English well. For years he worked as a janitor and livery cab driver because he couldn’t find something in his area of training. His inability to find another good job had a deep effect on me and the rest of my family.
I personally went through a bout of unemployment, too. I lost my first job after college — it was a temporary position and I got passed over for a permanent position. It was a tough experience to go through. I remember being in great pain from a back injury and yet not having the health insurance to pay for all of the treatment. My family helped pulled me out of that predicament, but I know many other people don’t have those sorts of advantages. When I became an academic, I wanted to better understand what unemployed workers of all kinds were going through. I wanted to go beyond the statistics and really get to know their lived experiences, and hopefully do something to help them.
What will you be working on next?
I’m working with Jesse Goldstein, another sociology faculty member, on a study of entrepreneurship at VCU and the Greater Richmond area. As I discuss in my current book, students and professionals nowadays are dealing with a tougher job market, and a college degree is no longer a guarantee you’ll get a good-paying job at a large corporation. Well, starting your own business seems like one way to adapt to that economic reality, and that’s the subject of my next book. VCU is doing a lot to promote entrepreneurial learning, and the city itself is booming and full of startups and entrepreneurial energy. It’s a good time to study how and why the economy is moving in this direction, and what it means for students here and workers everywhere.
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