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VIEWPOINTS : JOBS IN AMERICA : Future Could Bring on Utopia--or Nightmare

May 17, 1987|MICHAEL HARRINGTON | Michael Harrington is the co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America. His most recent book is "The Next Left," published by Holt

Let me describe a mere two futures for work in America. There are really many more futures than that. What will happen in 10 years depends in some measure on what we do between now and then. So I will simply take two polar cases and leave it to the reader to imagine all the possibilities that lie in between.

First, what happens if current trends continue? That future is bleak.

The United States will then be a society of much greater inequality and pervasive insecurity. A majority of the children now in school will be leading adult lives with living standards much lower than those of their parents.

But there will be a well-off elite, perhaps as large as a fifth of the labor force, the prime beneficiaries of the information economy. However, even that privileged stratum will become more and more uneasy. In recent years, there have been increasing layoffs of white-collar and middle-management people.

As the generations of computers succeed one another, much executive work can be taken over by machines. Still, there will be some winners, and they are precisely the women and men who have done well under the Reagan Administration.

The middle class, defined in very broad terms to include well-paid workers, moderately successful professionals and the lower levels of management, will "slide" down more and more, and the American dream will sink below its horizon. Those most at risk will be the ones who lose their jobs when they are 45 or 50. They will prematurely find themselves in that limbo defined in a union song: "Too Old to Work and Too Young to Die."

And the poor will persist, and even increase in number, in the midst of the most technologically advanced society in human history. Why? A study by Barry Bluestone and Bennett Harrison for the Joint Economic Committee of Congress last year documented that most of the new jobs generated since 1979 have been low-paying, yielding $7,000 a year or less,well below the $8,738 poverty line for a family of three in 1986.

Ironically, the main victims of this trend come from the traditionally advantaged category of white men. They have suffered a huge net loss in "good" jobs.

That Bluestone-Harrison analysis has been challenged by Janet Norwood, the U.S. commissioner of labor statistics, but I am convinced that she has lost the debate.

That is, the "natural" tendency of the American economy as it now operates is to destroy relatively well-paid smokestack jobs, as well as middle-management posts, and to proliferate low-paid, unorganized service employment. Ultimately, this low-wage trend will lead, in one way or another, to an economic crisis. Here and now, it already points toward a depressed occupational future for this country.

So it is that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the top-growing job category between now and 1995 is building superintendent. That single occupation will account for more of the labor force growth than all of the computer-related openings taken together.

And the other future? It assumes that Washington, perhaps beginning in 1989, will take dramatic steps to block the "natural" trend I have just described. What will America look like under those assumptions?

There will be a 32-hour week at 40 hours of pay (which will be the result of higher wages in a full-employment economy and lower taxes in a progressive tax system). There will be even more imaginative innovations, such as extending the notion of seven years of work and one year of vacation--the "sabbatical" now enjoyed by professors--to more and more occupations.

There will be no minimum wage. Instead, the government will offer jobs at wages above the poverty line to anyone who wants them, employing those who take them in the useful work of rebuilding the infrastructure of the society: the roads, bridges and transportation systems. People will be working on creating a series of efficient, high-speed regional rail systems that will pay for themselves by offering good and comfortable service.

As a consequence of these measures, no private employer will be able to pay less than the public sector and the labor market will, in effect, enforce a minimum wage on its own.

We will be rebuilding our smokestack industries in the most modern ways, understanding that steel, auto and machine tools are even more important than corporate takeovers and boutiques.

This will be done through generous tax subsidies to corporations that create jobs as well as through that expanded public sector. As a result of successful arms negotiations, more and more resources will be devoted to the means of life.

In particular, the United States will have discovered that a commitment to the economic development of the Third World, undertaken by both capitalist and communist nations, is not only moral but creates jobs here.

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