While paying for groceries in Pine Mountain, Ga., recently, I heard another customer say, "It's hard times right now. Hard times."
I turned to see a young man, perhaps in his early 30s, dressed in soiled blue jeans and a cotton shirt, telltale signs his work is physical and dirty. It was the end of his workday.
Now, jump from Georgia to a downtown craft market in Cape Town, South Africa. I am talking with a young artist-vendor who says, "It is difficult right now. If I sell one or two paintings per day it is a good day." His small folk art paintings sell for US$30. He emigrated from Zambia hoping for a better life here. If he sells at this pace for a year, his income will be equivalent to US$10,000, in a city with living costs equivalent to those of a typical U.S. city.
Now let's move to Harare, Zimbabwe, where Kubatana, a nonprofit organization, is attempting to offer interactive telephone services to low-income Africans. Brenda Burrelle explains Freedom Fone is for people who can't afford broadband and those who can't read.
UNICEF and Freedom Fone are creating a two-minute audio drama series to educate women workers about how to deal with unwanted sexual advances by supervisors. However, each cell phone segment will cost 43 U.S. cents airtime. For a Zimbabwean worker earning US$30 per month, it's too costly. (In township lingo in Cape Town, the cell phone is known as "bleed me dry.")
Three anecdotes do not prove a trend, but when considered alongside several recently released studies of global economic conditions, they illustrate the growing gap between the rich and poor, the need for meaningful work, and the need for economic and labor policies that favor job creation. This need is global, and it's spiritual.
The Widening Gap Between Rich and Poor
The rich are getting richer, faster than ever, according to a report by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini, summarized in The Guardian. High Net Worth Individuals (HNWI), defined as those with more than $1 million in free cash, have enjoyed a 10 percent increase in their wealth in recent years. They now control $42.7 trillion.
As governments around the world implemented austerity measures and politicians in the United States called for tax breaks for the wealthy to stimulate the economy, the wealth of HNWI surpassed the peak reached in 2007 at $40.7 trillion.
At the same time, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of poor in the United States grew by 2.6 million in the last year, creating the highest poverty level (15.1 percent) since 1993. Worse, the poverty rate for 18- to 24-year-olds is at its highest level since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared "war on poverty" in 1964.
The issue isn't that wealth or the wealthy are evil. It's that economic policies that favor wealth creation but do not also favor job creation and economic justice produce evil results -- results that, in the long run, are harmful to all.
The Need for Meaningful Work
I heard an Irish woman recently say if her wages and purchasing power got worse, she would be working for free. Young people in Spain are going to the streets to protest unfair employment policies in a distressed economy. Portugal is experiencing out-migration of skilled young adults to former colonies such as Angola and Brazil because they can't find meaningful work in their home country. Much of the Arab Spring has been about educated young adults frustrated at the lack of meaningful work and by unresponsive, corrupt, authoritarian governments.
In a special report on the future of jobs, The Economist (Sept. 10th-16th, 2011) says the number of officially unemployed stands at 205 million people worldwide. This is 19 percent of the global workforce, many of them young, educated adults in countries with a "youth bulge" in their populations.
A Gallup survey cited by The Economist says 12 percent of the global workforce is underemployed, and the International Labor Organization claims 1.53 billion people in 2009 were in "vulnerable employment" working for themselves or in underpaid family jobs.
In each nation, policies differ, but one thing is clear: in a complex, interconnected world, the simplistic rhetoric of trickle-down economics needs to be retired. No matter where this economic ideology is employed, it creates unacceptable gaps between the rich and poor. It creates injustice, hardship and concentration of wealth that fosters social instability. It creates winners and losers. It does not create jobs.
Creating a Better Future
In a more positive vein, there is an opportunity for those concerned with economic justice to advocate for policies that will encourage innovation, immigration reform and job creation, writes The Economist. Those concerned about education must continue to press for reform and support quality universal education.
And we must all consider the changing structure of work in the global economy. The nature of work itself is changing. The need for new skills comes at a faster pace. We are less likely to find long-term employment in a single company and more likely to have "serial careers." We will utilize online education more than ever. And we'll have to be even more responsible for marketing ourselves. Some employment experts say we're moving toward fluid, flexible work as individual contractors.
In "The Shift: The Future of Work is Already Here," Lynda Gratton of the London Business School says we will need to build a "posse" of 15 people to whom we can turn when work life gets difficult. These are people we can trust and work with effectively in the new workplace.
Gratton says we will need to stay mentally fresh by following a "big-ideas crowd," stay in touch with talented, open-minded people, and spend time in thought-provoking conferences.
We also need "regenerative communities" to maintain emotional balance, including time with family and friends in the real world apart from the world of work, people with whom we can laugh, share stories and relax.
A Concern for People of Faith
As we enter the emerging work world, we are reminded that self-esteem is embedded in the work we do. When it's meaningful, we experience fulfillment and self-esteem. At root, this is the spiritual side of work. I believe faith is about how we understand our place in the world in relationship to God and to each other. Work is, or should be, a concern to religious believers because it so intimately connected with human dignity and justice.
When work is reduced to job skills and economic indicators, we lose this perspective, and we also lose sight of the values embedded in work that affect our well-being and contribute to justice for all. As I've traveled the past few weeks, I've heard a common theme worldwide, a cry really, for meaningful work and justice. From Pine Mountain, to Harare, to Cape Town and beyond, the people of the world yearn for fulfilling work and economic justice.
The 2011 Global Involvement Survey offers insights into Americans' behavior and attitudes related to global citizenship, pride in America, interest in world news, and views on U.S involvement in international issues.