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Our Decimated Labor Force

12:00 AM, Jun 14, 2014 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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So we have a situation in which teenagers can’t or won’t find work, while workers—men and women—in the prime of their working years are dropping out of the work force. The reasons for the latter phenomenon are varied. Generous and extended benefits might not have turned the couch into the equivalent of Adam’s garden, but it surely narrowed the gap between income from work and income from benefits, with a consequent reduction in the incentive to remain in the work force. Still, millions of Americans haven’t suddenly become work-shy: there is a shortage of available jobs, especially for the unskilled. Property developers and oil-and-gas drillers complain that they can’t find skilled workers, and Silicon Valley tech companies whine that they need more visas to import skilled workers, which they naturally prefer to incurring the cost of training American workers. But some eleven million workers do not have a high school degree, and the unemployment rate for that group is almost 50 percent higher than the national average and triple the rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Alas, surveys show that unemployed workers spend a mere 1 percent of their time job hunting, 5 percent on their further education, but 12 percent watching television and 15 percent on other leisure activities.

Only the oldies seem willing and able to remain in harness, perhaps because the physical component of labor has been reduced by modern technology, perhaps because for many replacing the life-long habit of work with leisure is unattractive, perhaps because the recent financial recession has whittled the value of pensions while the zero-interest monetary policy of the Federal Reserve Board has reduced the income-flow from lifelong thrift.  

In the end, says Diana Furchtgott-Roth, formerly chief economist at the Department of Labor and now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the way to increase jobs and reverse the decline in the labor force participation rate is to grow the economy. Such growth would have other benign effects wrote Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, “Only growth, through tight labor markets, rising wages, and the material improvement of all, can lessen class envy and class conflict, moderate sentiments of resentment, and deprive the liberal aristocracy of political ammunition.” And give those evicted from Paradise the chance, as my father put it, “to make a living,” which includes far more than merely earning money. 

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